In Memoriam, Milton Babbitt
I remember the sense of shock that I felt upon hearing of Milton Babbitt’s death last Saturday. He was a very old man, and had been ill for a long time; so why should I have been shocked? Perhaps it is because of my memory of the last time that I saw him, about two years ago. He was frail and in obvious discomfort, but the astonishing vitality of his wit, imagination and intellect was undiminished. It is strange now to imagine that it is gone.
I studied with Milton for two years, which were also his last as a teacher. Yet at the end of this time, I was the same overawed young man I had been when I first walked into his office. I admired and liked him, and I think he liked me; but rarely did I ever feel that I had reached beneath that formidable layer of brilliance and erudition that he wore about himself. There is a certain kind of awe that precludes real intimacy.
I therefore write this with the acute awareness that there are many who are more qualified than I to commemorate Milton — witness, for example, David Rakowski’s touching appreciation of him here. For the present, I wish simply to offer a few of my recollections from the time that I spent studying with him, and to consider what these reflections might mean for our understanding of him as a composer and public figure. His reputation, after all, has been a contentious one, and I see no way to easily divorce my private memories of the man from a consideration of the complicated role that he has played in our intellectual history. In fact, it is in honoring Milton as an individual that we can best correct the distorted picture that has often been drawn of him.
I recall my first encounter with Milton, when, as a terrified young man applying to the master’s program at Juilliard, I had my interview with him. We spent much of our time in silence, interrupted only by the occasional chuckle as he peered intensely through the music that I had brought him. This was music that had very little resemblance to Babbitt’s own, and, because I was well-acquainted with various popular myths about the tyranny and dogmatism of the American serial school, I waited in fear for his verdict, which I imagined to be hanging over my head ominously. Only gradually did it dawn on me that he might be chuckling in approval, and that I might in fact have nothing to fear. The following autumn I moved to New York to study with him.
This interview was my first glimpse of Milton’s surprising openness and catholicity of taste, a feature to which all of those who knew him best would attest. I encountered another such instance during one of my lessons, as we looked over a thorny, dense piece of vocal music on which I was working. Milton wanted to make a point about the piece’s text-setting, so he walked slowly over to the piano, where he proceeded to play and sing, from memory, several songs by Jerome Kern and Cole Porter. He would occasionally leave off singing for a moment to extemporize, his hands never leaving the keyboard, upon the ways in which Porter would underline subtle ironies in the text with an unexpected harmonization or figuration.
This was the first time I became aware of Milton’s deep love for the popular music of his own youth, concerning which he had a more intimate knowledge than anyone else I have ever met. This side of his personality was one on which he particularly prided himself, as is evident from various interviews that he gave over the course of his life. One can easily see why; for there is no single fact about Babbitt that is more at odds with his public reputation as an ostentatious elitist.
In saying this, I by no means wish to deny that Milton was an elitist. He was — and he probably would have been the first to admit it. But his elitism was of an entirely different character than that which has been imputed to him. It was not made out of an ignorance of, or prejudice against, popular music; for Milton deeply loved much of this music. He was an elitist because he believed that there was something else still more valuable. This something else was more or less contiguous with what is generally called ‘classical music’, although Milton himself, with characteristic contrariness, abjured this term.
This belief, even more than his oft-derided positivism, was sufficient to make Milton a contentious figure during a time in which it has become increasingly fashionable to deny any distinction between ‘serious’ and ‘popular’ music. If Milton repeatedly came under attack, it was partly because he stubbornly persisted in holding that there was such a distinction.
Another memory of Milton: during a conversation one day, he reacted with a certain modest dismay to my expression of admiration for a well-known literary critic whose writings about music I particularly admired (as indeed I still do). The man, he said, was virtually tone-deaf, and was interested in music only because of its relation to the history of ideas. Milton recalled once being publicly interviewed by this critic, who was delivering a lecture about the text-setting and cultural significance of a Schumann lied, and who had asked him to demonstrate some of its musical intricacies. After they had both finished speaking, the song was played; then the critic turned to the audience and said, “and there you have the Schubert song.”
“But I am not much of a one for all the Walter Benjamins and the like,” Milton remarked dryly after telling me this story (and he went on to list several other cultural critics in whom he had little interest). “I am an unreconstructed rational empiricist myself.”
This conversation captured something of great significance about Milton, which was reflected in his tone of contemptuous irony when he spoke about the critic’s poor ear. What he found absurd, simply, was that someone could speak extensively about a Schumann song, analyze its text-setting, consider its historical significance — and yet be unable to hear the difference between Schumann and Schubert. One might argue that Milton’s judgment of the man was peremptory or severe. What is beyond doubt is that music for him was always a heard phenomenon, and that no abstract compositional idea or extra-musical program had meaning for him if it did not relate to the sensuous reality of the work itself. The derisive term Augenmusik (or “eye-music”) had no application either to his music or his aesthetics.
This is also why large portions of our lessons were spent in silence: Milton was never content to merely acquaint himself with a piece by plunking out its notes on the piano. Instead, he would sit for long periods, silently bent over the music that I had brought to him, until he had managed to hear all of it internally, down to the finest details of rhythm and instrumentation. Only after doing so would he begin to speak, and when he did so his observations betrayed an astonishing intimacy with the pages he had just pored over. Those who have attempted to “hear” a piece of music in this way — particularly a piece as intricate as those that Milton’s students often brought to him — can attest to the extraordinary concentration it takes. That Milton continued to summon such concentration, even at the age of 90, is a testament not only to his musical brilliance but to his formidable strength of will.
This is the same strength of will, coupled with his devotion to teaching and a certain stubborn pride, that kept him trudging unassisted from Princeton to Penn Station, and from Penn Station to Juilliard, every week. New Yorkers who have experienced the frightful ordeal of riding the number 1 train during rush hour will understand what it means that Milton continued to do so into his nineties. When he could no longer do so — when he injured himself in a fall — he chose at last to retire from teaching. He would not accept a chauffeur, though one was offered to him.
Let me return to our conversation about the literary critic, which was revealing for another reason. Milton’s closing words — “I am an unreconstructed rational empiricist myself” — were the only mention he ever made to me of his positivism. Milton attracted a great deal of animosity for his adherence to this philosophical position. Indeed, it is probably a testament to his influence that, in American musical life, the backlash against modernism, and against the modernists’ belief in a standard of musical judgment that transcends the merely contingent, has been framed so largely as a critique of logical positivism. The truth, however, is that neither the history of American postwar modernism, nor Milton’s individual legacy as a composer and teacher, can be credibly reduced to this issue.
This last would probably be self-evident to those of Milton’s students who, like me, barely ever heard him speak of his positivism. But it will probably come as a surprise to those of Babbitt’s critics who have combed through countless old issues of Perspectives of New Music, reading the intricate technical analyses and theoretical treatises contained therein. I would like to suggest that the view these critics hold of Babbitt has been deformed largely by one of the inevitable frailties of intellectuals, whereby each of us holds the particular medium within which we work to be more important than any other. To a carpenter, as the saying goes, there’s nothing like wood; and for musicologists and journalists, who make their living writing about music, nothing will ever be quite so important a gauge of Babbitt’s influence as what has been written by or about him. The highly technical language in which many of Babbitt’s writings were formulated, and which was for a time the dominant mode of expression in most theoretical discussions of contemporary music, might indeed lead one to the mistaken conclusion that his legacy consisted entirely of a positivist “scientism.” But this impression springs largely from the fact that talk about the music has overshadowed the music itself.
This distortion of perspective informs such historical studies as Taruskin’s Music in the Late Twentieth Century, and also many of the serious journalistic accounts of Babbitt that have been attempted. Thus Greg Sandow (who I know and like) writing in the Village Voice almost thirty years ago, expressed admiration and even love for Babbitt’s music, but opined that
I can’t help thinking that he’s sold himself short by trying both to extend the boundaries of his art and to remain academically respectable, and by acknowledging only the verifiable (and therefore trivial) aspects of his amazing work. If — like Joyce, Jackson Pollock, or John Cage — so passionate a man had chosen to define himself as an artist and not as an academic, what might he have achieved?
It is an interesting question, but also a peculiar one: for if Sandow, like myself and many others, does in fact love this music, what is it exactly that he thinks Babbitt has failed to achieve? One might argue that Milton’s principal achievement lies in his art, and that this achievement will stand irrespective of the way in which he chose to speak of it. A work of art is seldom reducible to the intellectual beliefs of the person who created it — a point on which Milton, who often invoked the New-Critical notion of the ‘intentional fallacy’, would be the first to insist.
Even if we do not feel that Babbitt’s achievement is reducible to his positivism, we may legitimately pursue the issue further, because it raises questions that many of us would probably find troubling. It is quite true, for example, that Milton rejected talk about beauty as specious, and focused on the technical, ‘verifiable’ features of his work. Must we then assume that he rejected the very idea of beauty? I do not think so — if only because I have been lucky enough to sit and discuss music with Milton, and to watch him listen to it. The intense, almost childlike pleasure that he took in the music he loved showed him to be as alive to beauty as any musician I have known. Beauty was as ingrained in his sensibility as it was in his music. And in the end, it is this music that will be his principal achievement — an achievement not analyzed or talked about but listened to, with, we may hope, ever greater love and comprehension.
Perhaps we might better understand Milton’s refusal to talk about beauty in a different light, as the defensive reaction of a proud artist who had too often heard critics vapidly dismiss his music as “not beautiful.” Furthermore, it might be noted that the refusal to talk about beauty does not necessarily entail a positivist position. Rather than holding, like Rudolf Carnap, that beauty is a meaningless concept, one might hold, like Wittgenstein, that it is simply a subject about which we must remain silent. This dictum marks the mystical boundary that Wittgenstein placed around his early philosophy of language. I do not mean by invoking it, though, to say that Milton was a mystic. What I am suggesting, rather, is that his approach to music lay at that point where the attitude of the bourgeois craftsman and that of the mystic coincide: all we can do is focus on the things that we can speak about, and let beauty take care of itself. This was, in essence, Milton’s approach: to focus on the only thing we can truly control, which is our craft, and to let the rest take care of itself. Such an approach does not mean that the rest does not exist, and it is this awareness that marks the boundary between an “academic,” pejoratively defined, and a creative figure such as Babbitt.
If this was Milton’s approach, it was also the approach of one of the composers he admired most, the self-consciously bourgeois Brahms — Brahms who rejected the Wagnerian rhetoric of sublimity and transfiguration, Brahms who kept a bust of Cherubini on his desk and slaved away at species counterpoint every morning. Milton is often compared with Schoenberg, but it was ultimately Brahms to whom he bore the closest resemblance. He shared with Brahms his proud, single-minded concern for his craft, his acute historical awareness, and his pessimism, which, like Brahms’s, only deepened with the passing years.
It is the example of Brahms that might best help us to place Milton in historical perspective. I am inclined to agree with Mario Davidovsky, who once remarked to me that those of Milton’s generation were, in their own peculiar way, the last Romantics. What Davidovsky meant, I believe, was that the high modernists of Babbitt’s generation were among the last to ascribe to art the unique, transcendental value with which Romanticism had invested it. That this value was often formulated in the terminology of scientific rationalism does not diminish the significance of this fact.
Milton’s refusal to speak about beauty was a paradoxical reflection of his tremendous regard for it. Whatever we might say against the high modernists’ approach to art, we cannot say that they failed to take it seriously. In this respect they form a telling contrast with those whose aesthetic views are now in ascendancy. If we are to hold, with a recent winner of the Pulitzer Prize in Music, that “beautiful music is music that you love” — if, in short, we are to believe that the idea of beauty is little more than a convenient tag for our own subjective or intersubjective reactions — then we will indeed have buried the Romantics’ faith in the transcendental value of art, which lies behind many of the most cherished monuments of western music. That the gravediggers of this faith are so often the very composers who advocate a return to the musical language of the Romantics merely adds a note of irony to the proceedings.
If, as in Hegel’s famous formulation, it is only at dusk that the owl of Minerva takes flight — if it is only at the end of a cultural or artistic epoch that it becomes susceptible to the understanding — then there is another, specialized way in which Milton’s life parallels that of Brahms. Both composers represent that point of history at which the owl took flight. Thus Babbitt stands in the same relation to the seismic transformations of the musical language wrought by Schoenberg as Brahms does to those of Beethoven’s heroic period. These two periods of transformation both represent an almost incomprehensible upheaval, a profound, irrational upwelling of unconscious forces. It was only after these upheavals had subsided that others could arrive to see their results in the clear light of day. Babbitt, like Brahms, was the heir of such an upheaval, and like Brahms he saw its results more clearly, more systematically, than anyone else.
There are two consequences to such a clarity of vision. The first, which has often been remarked upon by Babbitt’s enemies, but is also clear to many of those who admire him the most, is that in systematizing the revolution one must inevitably change its meaning. This is the reason that he has often been attacked as an “academic” and a sterile technician, much as Brahms was, during his own lifetime, by no less a commentator than Hugo Wolf. These charges, as I have tried to show, are specious. There is in Babbitt’s music, as in his influence, a mysterious factor that defies such categorizations. What is true is that, along with the bracing clarity of vision with which Milton was gifted, there must also come a sense of lateness, of having come after. Babbitt, like Brahms, knew himself to be in some sense the end of a tradition, and perhaps this is what infuses some of his most beautiful works — among which I might place the Solo Requiem, or Philomel, or the Sixth String Quartet — with an elegiac sorrow not unlike that which fills the Brahms Clarinet Quintet. If Davidovsky’s view is correct, then Milton’s death marks a very significant end (or, at least, the beginning of an end). In saying goodbye to him, we say goodbye to a part of our own history.
I readily admit that these last reflections might be said to constitute, at best, a myth rather than an explanation. Being something of a Romantic myself, however, I tend to believe that myths can be the vehicles of important truths, and this one may go some way toward elucidating Milton’s pessimism, his acute historical awareness, and the grim, ironic humor that he often displayed in conversation.
It is with an example of this last — Milton’s dark humor, which forms such a striking contrast to the light-hearted wordplay for which he was better known — that I would like to close. This memory is among those that I value most highly. After sitting in silence for some time as he looked at the score I had brought in, he laughed slightly and said, in his inimitable bass, “my boy, you are going to have a very difficult life.” Into this comment were mixed all of the complex, tangled impressions of his own difficult life: scorn for the standards of a musical world that had often slighted him; a weary fear for the future; and, finally, a faith in the enduring value of art, which might, just might, make it all worthwhile. Had Milton been a different person — had he been less sophisticated, less allergic to cliché, and born about a century earlier — he might have said, you will suffer for your art.
He didn’t, of course. Yet I can think of no better example of that stubborn Romantic streak that lay, most often carefully concealed, beneath the surface of Milton’s wit and erudition. I remember that I flushed with pleasure at the time. I felt — and still feel — that from him there could be no higher praise.
It is this that explains, for example, the ire directed at him by Richard Taruskin in the New Republic four years ago:
The idea that someone who read Hegel and Quine would seek musical fulfillment in McCartney rather than Webern was new, and it was very threatening to established authorities such as Milton Babbitt, who complained, in an interview published in 1979, that “we receive brilliant, privileged freshmen at Princeton, who in their first year of college are likely to take a philosophy of science course with [logical positivist] Carl Hempel, and then return to their dormitories to play the same records that the least literate members of our society embrace as the only relevant music.” Pierre Bourdieu, were you listening? This came very close to enunciating as an explicit program the tacit view of art as a producer of social distinction that the Joshua Bell “experiment” reinforced.
The charge that Milton advocated the use of art as a “producer of social distinction” — that there was, in other words, an inescapable element of class prejudice attendant upon his elitism — would be deeply damaging if it were true. Aside from the mere presence of the word “privileged,” however, there is no justification for this charge in Milton’s actual words, unless we are to interpret “the least literate members of our society” as being either equivalent to, or a euphemism for, a particular social class. To do so we must either believe, or ascribe to Babbitt the belief, that not only art but “literacy” itself is necessarily a “producer of social distinction.”
Those who subscribe to such a belief themselves can point, in justification, to the recent massive inflation of education costs which, combined with the growth of a “technocratic” elite, have greatly undermined the ideals of class mobility and meritocracy that were at the heart of the American educational experiment. But such recent reflections are of little relevance to the interpretation of a comment made in 1979, when the price of college tuition was a fraction of what it is now, by a man who had taught mathematics to World War II veterans at Princeton in the mid-forties, a time in which the G.I. bill had made a higher education accessible to a previously unimaginable number of the poor and the working class. Milton’s elitism was meritocratic rather than oligarchical; it was an elitism of ability and education, rather than of class; and though Milton often came under attack from those whose ideology denied the very possibility of distinguishing between these things, there is little reason to doubt that he made such a distinction himself.
The point of Milton’s comment, if we are to take it at face value rather than try to read an insidious political program into it, is simply that the knowledge of music ought to be an integral part of any serious education. If we leave aside the relation of education to class, which is Mr. Taruskin’s preoccupation rather than Babbitt’s, then the real point in contention becomes the question of what a musical education should be. The two men’s respective answers to this question reveal a profound generational split.
Against Babbitt’s complaint that Princeton students lacked musical education, one might argue — as Taruskin more or less does in the essay quoted above — that of course these students knew music; they knew the Beatles and the Rolling Stones (or, this being 1979, Led Zeppelin and Wings). But such a response begs the question; it is like arguing that of course someone knew poetry because they knew the Beats, or knew literature because they had read Catcher in the Rye. For the students that Babbitt described were not merely listening to McCartney rather than Webern, they were listening to McCartney rather than Bach or Mozart or Brahms. This is what it means for popular music to be embraced as “the only relevant music.” So the issue is not merely one of the opposition between elite and demotic cultures, but of popular culture’s relation to the past. What disturbed Milton about these students was not that they listened to the Beatles, but that their absorption with the cultural products of their own generation precluded any interest in the musical past.
The peculiarity of this situation — and this is the heart of Milton’s comment — is that such a profound divorce from the musical past could exist among the most educated strata of society, among the very same people who would find ignorance of Sophocles or Shakespeare, for example, to be a sign of crippling intellectual impoverishment. Their forgetfulness of the musical past was thus an anomalous (or at least uniquely acute) condition. But it was in terms of music, first and foremost, that many in Mr. Taruskin’s generation defined their revolt against their parents; perhaps this is why it is only in relation to music — at least so far — that the historical solipsism consequent upon this revolt has been so unquestioningly accepted as a virtue. [↩]
A representative example of the logic by which this equation is made can be found in Thomas Christensen’s Music Theory and its Histories. Mr. Christensen writes, of Allen Forte:
[Forte] asserts that historical factors in and of themselves cannot provide complete understanding or logical validation of a theory. This is, of course, the position of the positivist.
The telltale clause ‘of course’ often serves to alert us that a statement is not as self-evident as its author would wish us to believe. Mr. Christensen seems to be saying that anyone who asserts that historical conditions, in and of themselves, cannot completely explain an idea or system of knowledge must be a positivist. But this is patently false. If someone believes in any transcendental standard of knowledge or value, then they must also, a fortiori, deny that historical factors can explain everything. The ranks of those who would concur with Mr. Forte’s position, as outlined above, would thus include most of the philosophers in the western tradition and, in the realm of music, Rameau, Mozart, Brahms, and every composer who ever believed counterpoint and voice-leading to be more than purely contingent stylistic conventions.
Mr. Christensen’s assertion thus conflates two very different positions: on the one hand, the belief in the possibility of objective knowledge or value, and on the other, the positivist claim that science alone can provide such knowledge. The effect of his assertion, if we were to accept it, would be to draw a very small circle around a particular position — which would be acceptable to only the most committed historical relativist — and to define everything outside of this circle as positivism.
It is impossible to do justice here to Mr. Christensen’s broader argument, which is more nuanced and interesting than his remarks on positivism might suggest. The latter merit attention since they illustrate the loose way in which “positivism” is often used in this context. Although Mr. Christensen’s remarks do not mention Babbitt, it is unlikely they would have been made were it not for him. For it is precisely because of the prominent role Babbitt’s positivism has played in musical debate that the opponents of modernism have been able so easily to deride vast swathes of contemporary musical thought, if not an entire movement, as “positivistic.” This grim historical irony, which Milton would no doubt have appreciated, is perhaps the single most troubling aspect of his legacy. [↩]
Those who get this impression might be forgiven for overlooking something else of great importance, which is that the technical language of analysis after Babbitt — like the technical language of an architect — often had a concrete, practical purpose. As Rakowski, perhaps the most eminently pragmatic of Babbitt’s students, put it: “Milton and other people had to come up with these things. I just use them because they sound good.” [↩]