Milton Babbitt - writing music for our elite

Babbitt was famous for writing for a certain type of listener. He never claimed to write for everybody and this was his undoing - that everybody expected him to write music for them. But he said "Why should music? ... most of us are in universities in the States who are interested in complex music, but maybe we should just write for our elite, the way mathematicians send incomprehensible equations to each other, you know what's wrong with that?" and he has a point, absolutely.

So his reputation has been branded as an elitist. It's totally unfair and in this country [UK] he has been dismissed. In the States as I say, particularly in the university culture, he is held in very high regard in many places.

I hope he will have more of a reputation. I am not sure I really enthuse about his music. I find it fascinating but it is very much a music of structure and a structure that is difficult to hear unless you spend a long time getting to grips with it; it's like the most recondite music of Bach in a way. But [his time] may come, I think it will come actually much more.
Milton Babbit, who has died aged 94, reappraised by Jonathan Harvey who studied with him at Princeton. The extract is transcribed from my Chance Music interview with Jonathan Harvey. This can be heard on demand as a Future Radio audio stream and iTunes podcast, the discussion about Babbitt starts at 13' 40". Header photo shows Babbitt with Igor Stravinsky at a rehearsal for Threni. Milton Babbitt took the role of the Devil in a 2006 Tanglewood performance of L'histoire du soldat.

Text and related audio recording (c) On An Overgrown Path 2010. For technical reasons the Jonathan Harvey iTunes podcast does not load on Macs. Users of Macs who want a downloadable version rather than the streamed alternative should contact me. Photo credit is Columbia Records. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk Also on Facebook and Twitter.


ghooper said…
Anyone who believes that Babbitt is totally unapproachable should listen to the version of his Semi Simple Variations by The Bad Plus and watch the video at
Pliable said…
Naxos' Milton Babbitt CD Soli e Duettini is well worth investigating by those not familiar with his music -

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