Composer Paul Lansky writes at his Facebook page: “I’m sorry to report that Milton Babbitt died this morning at age 94. He was a great and important composer, and a dear friend, colleague and teacher.”

Whether as a pillar of strength, or a pillar to push in opposition to, Babbitt was one of the most dominant presences in American classical music these past 50 years. As news and appreciations pop up, we’ll try to give you links. Meantime, there’s this wonderfully human interview from just about 10 years ago, with NewMusicBox’s Frank J. Oteri.

27 thoughts on “Milton Babbitt, RIP”
  1. My great-grandmother, Rita (Diamond) Stern, told me a long time ago, we had relatives in England that were famous musicians and composers / conductors named Babit / Bobith / Babbitt. I am just wondering if Milton Babbitt is my relative. If anyone has any insights, please contact me!


    Steve Kay
    West Bloomfield, MI.

  2. His was a true gift of compositional genius. Milton’s pioneering work showed us it was possible to create highly fascinating music of captivating sound artistry, while at the same time exploring the potentials of musical applications of advanced mathematics and total-serial techniques. His unique output of both music and theoretical writings was widely influential to an entire generation of composers. Though his physical presence will be greatly missed, his music will always survive.

    Unlike many of you writing above, I never had the pleasure of meeting Milton personally (though I did perform a few of his piano works in concerts).
    However, I have long heard of his charming, witty, and friendly personality, confirmed in many of the remarks above – certainly an apt complement to the charm of the music that he gave to the world.

    Here is a delightful article – an obituary from the Guardian – written by one of my music professors from many years ago, who knew him personally:

  3. I was a composition student of Babbitt’s at Tanglewood in 1957 and once heard him refer, in casual conversation, to the “chromatically equal-tempered quantization of the frequency continuum,” whereupon I tuned out for a moment to translate. I finally figured out that he meant the “chromatic scale.” He was a brilliant and insightful teacher with a vocabulary all his own, and wide-ranging interests outside music. At our first lesson he asked me what I thought of the Modern Jazz Quartet, which shouldn’t have surprised me. I later was a postdoctoral Visiting Fellow at Princeton, and audited his lectures which were filled with incredible detail and personal reminiscences of major figures and events in music. Subsequent contacts at professional meetings were invariably stimulating and enriching. His charm and wit belied his image as a master of inscrutable arcana,
    and he will be greatly missed.

  4. How saddening to hear this! I first met Milton when I was nine years old, at my first BMI Awards ceremony. From that time through my studies with him later at Juilliard, I was so privileged to benefit from his uncanny wisdom, his warmth, his wit, his music. (And, incidentally, was also initially advised by him not to attend Juilliard, but to opt for Columbia instead!) I will also miss his presence – and amusing asides – at concerts. This is truly the end of an era …

  5. Thank you, Milton Babbitt, for your music, your wit, your wisdom, and your inspiration. Our love, esteem, and gratitude will always be with you. And your music will never leave us.

  6. A very sad day.

    I studied with him for a year at Juilliard. As a teacher, he was surprisingly laissez-faire. He didn’t make value-judgements or say “this is wrong” or “this is bad.” He wasn’t looking for converts, as most of his students were working in completely different styles. He would bury his head in your score and study it intensely, making astute observations. He would teach by innuendo and implication — you had to listen closely. His wit was legendary and provided a much-needed levity to the sometimes tense composers’ forums and juries.

  7. Not that this has anything to do with Uncle Miltie, but I just realized that I don’t want to cast Carter in any kind of bad light with my remark that the other faculty members not caring about my leaving J. Carter was on sabbatical in Rome that year.

  8. ->I will always remember my first meeting with Milton Babbitt (at my audition): “My dear boy, WHY EVER do you want to go to this school?!?!? someone with your talent should go to Eastman!”<-

    He said almost exactly the same to me at my audition… I went to "this school" anyway, and had four of the best years of my life. I'll be sad for a while, but I'm looking forward to the outpouring of music written in his honor.

  9. “Electronic Music: Babbitt: Ensembles for Synthesers,” intoned the narrator’s voice on my music appreciation cassette Freshman year of college. The zapping, ringing, and beeping of the serialist style tickled my brain. I’ve been a fan ever since. I might be one of a handful of Babbitt fans who doesn’t read music. I might not understand the theories behind the man’s music but does one have to be an astronomer to love gazing at the stars?

    Rest in peace, Milton Babbitt!

  10. Dear Harold,

    Please post the details about that performance!

    My most nerve racking performance ever was “sight-reading” as page turner in dress rehearsal & concert for Martin Goldray’s performance of “Reflections”. 4 staves of piano and 6 staves of tape per page!! And Marty was way too busy to nod!!!

    My most challenging performance ever was the premiere of Beaten Paths for solo marimba. Every note was a different dynamic!!

    One of my most enjoyable performances, and fondest recollection of Milton, was the premiere of the chamber work “Consortini”, written for the New Music Consort. Milton attended several rehearsals, and was his usual witty and charming self. I wish I remembered a quote, but I think I was too busy counting to think about much else! 🙂

  11. About 4 or 5 years ago, Milton handed me a piece he wrote at Princeton about 70 years ago entitled “Music for the Mass,” asking me to have it published. I was stunned. It is a FABULOUS piece. I submitted it to G. Schimer, which recently did publish it. They sent copies to him ON his 94th birthday in a carton stamped “HAPPY BIRTHDAY” all over it. He was beyond happy!

    Here is the funny part: A few month after he handed me the music, I decided to conduct a movement from the work. I dug it out, and found the Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus and Agnus Dei, but alas, no Credo. I sheepishly called him and told him, thinking I might have lost the only copy of it. He replied: “My boy, I don’t believe in Credos. I didn’t write one!”

    About a year ago, I decided to conduct the whole work on March 20, 2011. I will be thinking of him throughout the whole performance.

  12. I was fortunate to have had a brief meeting with Milton Babbitt during my freshman year at the University of Wisconsin. My main regret was that it was during my freshman year, when I wasn’t fully able to appreciate everything he had to offer. I was in contact with him very briefly in the 1990’s, and he was (as he had been during my Madison days) extraordinarily kind, even arranging for me to get a pre-publication score for one of his compositions. A true gentleman, artist, and scholar has left us.

  13. I know so many of us have been holding our breath for this.
    Now so many memories. Why should I remember this story he told, I’m sure, to many of us:
    “Whenever I fly on an airline I find myself sitting next to a stranger, of course.
    And we introduce ourselves. I always introduce myself as Arnold Schoenberg.
    I have yet to meet anyone who questions this or thinks it’s strange
    or even shows any indication this is a name they’ve heard before.”

    The last time I spoke with Milton was on New Years Eve.
    It’s just time for silence now.
    For a while.
    And then. Take up the fight again.

  14. I’m sorry to hear this news. Babbitt’s example inspires me to do the best I can do. I hope his music becomes better known in the years to come.

  15. I will always remember my first meeting with Milton Babbitt (at my audition): “My dear boy, WHY EVER do you want to go to this school?!?!? someone with your talent should go to Eastman!”

    A dear fine man, genius in thought and generous in spirit…a loss to us all.

  16. Another titan has left us. Although I never knew Babbitt personally, and my music is of a very different aesthetic, I have a profound respect for his work and mourn his passing. I now know what the topic for next semester’s Composition Seminar will be: a study and appreciation of Babbitt’s compositions and immense contributions to music. May his memory be eternal!

  17. Such sad news. Apropos of nothing, I’d sent MB a couple of undergraduate theory papers I’d written on segmental invariance back in the 1980’s, when he was emeritus at Princeton and probably would have preferred to talk baseball. I approached him at a concert a few months later and he was incredibly supportive of my efforts. We met several times afterwards, to discuss that dry stuff and look at my compositions. I still have a copy of the reference he wrote when I applied to grad. school.

    My musical career never amounted to much of anything, but have nothing but fond memories of running into him at concerts for next few years afterwards, and his cordial “My dear boy, how are you?” I’m listening to the 4th Quartet as I write this — trying to explain all this to my 10 year-old son. Of course, with Milton’s music, I’ve got a lot of explaining to do. Thank you, Mr. Babbitt.

  18. Sad news. He was genuinely the nicest person I met at Juilliard and both he and I being from Mississippi helped us bond. When I ran out of money and had to drop out, he was the only member of the composition department that seemed to give a shit. During a Master’s panel for the end of term, David Diamond attacked my conducting skills, in the most un-warranted fashion and would just not let up. Mr. Babbitt very calmly cleared his throat and then asked me in the most serious manner, “Jeff, having lived in Louisiana, what’s the secret to a good Jambalaya?” I almost cracked up from the relief of the situation and calmly replied, “It’s all about the Roux… it has to be burnt a bit.” David Diamond became red with rage and sat down furious.

  19. Also very saddened. Being from Jackson, Mississippi, surely have walked in his footsteps. Probably played in the same venues. Gladly his music remains with us.

  20. Very saddened to hear of Milton Babbitt’s passing. He was the first composer I ever met and the one who’s most fascinated me. I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity to interview him for a feature for Signal to Noise Magazine. We titled it, “He Cares if You Listen.”

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