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.

Read the rest of this entry »