Milton Babbitt, 1916-2011

Milton Babbitt has died, aged 94.

A huge figure in american music of the last fifty years, and a much-maligned and misunderstood figure and, by all accounts, a wonderfully warm and generous figure.

By sheer coincidence, I was today re-reading his article Who cares if you listen? (typically used by critics who haven’t read it as a stick to beat challenging music with), regretting not knowing his music better than I do, and wondering what he was writing now.

Time to rectify the lack of familiarity, at least.


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  1. You should get to know his work. Forget what you think you know about it; it is warm, witty, involving, and constantly surprising.

    Check out the solo piano music, the (first of two, I think) piano concerto, and the mixed chamber music. Some of the string quartets are also marvelous.

    • Thanks for the suggestions Evan. While I’ve never spent much time with his music (or his writings, for that matter), the bits and pieces I’ve heard and read have always exhibited a pretty sizeable discrepancy between the popularly reinforced image of his academicism and the actual SOUND of the music. (for instance, Norman Lebrecht’s ‘obituary’ describes him as the “godfather of American ascetic music”, who “was far more than his music let on”.) Very much looking forward to hearing more of it.

      • This is what happens.

        His music is not serious, forbidding, or scientifistic, or mathematical. It is possessed of a lightness and grace that you would never expect reading the discourse about it. (Not unlike the best Ferneyhough in that respect…)

  2. (The guitar music is also particularly lovely.)

  3. Wow, thanks for this. I haven’t thought of him in ages. I’m going to get my hands on the article you mentioned and read it.

    Good luck with the post a week challenge. I’m going to try and elevate the content of mine (it’s a mommy blog, probably not your cup of tea) to avoid, as you said, production for the sake of production (though, perhaps, sometimes that can have benefits of its own).

  4. Daryl Buckley

     /  January 30, 2011

    Yes, Evan is right. The guitar music is really good. In the mid-80’s I premiered one of those solo works in Melbourne much to the distaste of The Age critic!

    In the very early days of ELISION we were also in touch with MIlton Babbitt trying to secure a duo from him for guitar and mandolin. The commission fee was a crate of Coopers and a video of an Aussie rules grandfinal. I got in touch with Coopers at the time who were happy to help out. Not sure if the beer was ever delivered though as the duo did not eventuate. If it was I sure hope Milton enjoyed it.


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