It’s ironic that the composer Milton Babbitt, who died in a Princeton hospital yesterday at the age of 94, shared his surname with Sinclair Lewis’s archetypal emblem of American narrow-mindedness. For Milton Babbitt was everything George F. Babbitt was not.
Though a committed disciple of Arnold Schoenberg, whose recondite 12-tone method of composition he extended, Babbitt was a generous spirit who over six decades imbued American music with welcome whimsy and superlative craft.
He was as quintessentially American a composer as Aaron Copland or Samuel Barber, even if his music bore no resemblance to their more popular strains. Born in Philadelphia in 1916 and raised in Jackson, Mississippi, he attended the University of Pennsylvania, New York University and Princeton, where he earned one of that school’s first MFAs in music. (In 1992 it granted him a much belated Ph.D.)
Babbitt’s mathematical proclivities -- so evident in his compositions -- were inculcated early on by his actuary father. When Babbitt began teaching, at Princeton in 1942, his subject was mathematics, not music. That would soon change, and his career at Princeton, lasting from 1948 to 1984, assumed legendary proportions. From 1973 he also taught composition at the Juilliard School.
Like his teacher Roger Sessions, Babbitt upheld high standards as a composer. Unlike Sessions, a great symphonist, Babbitt often preferred working on a smaller canvas, writing comparatively little for orchestra -- though in January 2005 the Boston Symphony gave the premiere of “Concerti for Orchestra,” a work it had commissioned at the insistence of its conductor, James Levine.
Yet for the most part Babbitt devoted himself to chamber music and pieces for solo piano. Perhaps most interesting, from the late 1970s through the 1990s he wrote several scores for solo instruments not generally given the limelight.
In these works -- including “Around the Horn” (1993), “None But the Lonely Flute” (1991), “Play It Again, Sam” (for viola, 1989), “Homily” (for snare drum, 1987) and “Sheer Pluck” (for guitar, 1984) -- Babbitt merged serious music with a sense of fun, as his punning titles suggest.
That humor underscored rather than undercut Babbitt’s unwavering commitment to Schoenberg’s principles. In a way, Babbitt’s musical jests recall those of Shakespeare’s fools, for they, too, camouflage penetrating wisdom with humor.
Earlier, his essays on music had been as influential as his compositions. That changed as he aged and became more prolific.
“You can’t outdo Babbitt, you can only become a watered-down imitation,” Kyle Gann perceptively observed in his 2006 book “Music Downtown,” in which he judged Babbitt and the composer-conductor Pierre Boulez as influential in their own period as Palestrina and Bach had been in theirs.
Babbitt’s ability to write accessibly yet without condescension or compromise went back to his early years. After starting violin lessons as a child, he went on to study clarinet and saxophone and was an accomplished jazz performer and writer of popular songs by the time he finished high school.
Though neither jazz nor pop figured in his future, his enthusiasm for electronics did. Sensing the potential for rhythmic control that synthesized sound offered, from the early 1960s he embraced electronic instrumentation. His best-known work of this period, “Philomel,” for soprano and four-track tape, remains a milestone of postwar composition.
Writing in “The Penguin Companion to Classical Music” in 2004, the critic Paul Griffiths noted that in Babbitt’s music “nothing matters more than anything else, and everything matters,” adding that “his music not only honors its listeners but exemplifies U.S. democratic ideals.”
Precisely. Babbitt’s scores appeal to the musically sophisticated, who can comprehend their complicated structure and mathematical beauty. Yet this music also functions on a less exalted level, its wit and approachability striking a chord in any open-minded music lover. And that’s a chord that will continue to sound.
(David Mermelstein is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)