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Entries in 20th Century (1)

Monday
Jan312011

Modern Music Is Not What it Used to Be (No. 1 in a series)

Milton Babbitt died two weeks ago. While his name may be known to classical-music fans, his music likely is not. He epitomized mid-century Modernism in the US: Difficult, dense, cerebral, intimidating, unpleasant. His most famous work isn't even a piece of music, but an article published in High Fidelity, "Who Cares If You Listen?". Of course that provocative title is not Babbitt's but was given by one of the magazine's editors. Many writers will point out that this replacement is a more apt representation of the article's content than Babbitt's own "The Composer as Specialist."

The gist of Babbitt's article, that composers don't write for the general public but for a select group of individuals who are already attuned to what the composer is attempting to accomplish, is not new. Both Debussy and Schoenberg had expressed similar thoughts at the turn of the century, and Schubert's circle of friends shared a similar mindset. The difference with Babbitt though is that he was writing at a time and in an environment that emphasized and rewarded scientific rigorousness — the American university of the 1950s. Babbitt's article is an attempt to place his work on the same level as math, physics and other hard sciences. Given his earliest compositions were popular songs along the lines of Gershwin or Cole Porter, it is difficult to imagine such a drastic change in style as Babbitt underwent.

I think it likely that Babbitt developed and wrote in a total serialist style because that's what was expected of him (or at least what he thought was) as a university professor. Except for Elliott Carter, all the American composers associated with High Modernism worked in the Ivory Tower. Babbitt's article and compositions are an effort to defend or explain the presence of music composition faculty in the university by showing how similar it is to the hard sciences. When Babbitt first submitted his doctoral dissertation at Princeton, it was rejected in part because there was no doctoral-level degree in composition offered.  When all the money is going to the sciences, and you want some of that money, you have to present yourself as scientifically as possible, and this is what Babbitt did, for good or ill.

Unfortunately, his scientifically rigorous compositional style held a powerful sway over how composition was taught for roughly twenty years until George Rochberg's Third String Quartet made tonality available for serious composition again. The damage had already been done, though. The mass audience of the populist works from the 1930s and 40s had been lost, and American composers now found their audience, in the words of Spinal Tap's manager, becoming "more selective."

Although Babbitt himself maintained his personal style, he did not force his composition students to adopt it. His early interest in popular song never left him, and students who wished to follow that path, he encouraged. Teaching composition at Princeton from 1948 to 1984, his most widely recognized students are jazz guitarist Stanley Jordan and Broadway icon Stephen Sondheim.

- Mike