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Milton Byron Babbitt (born May 10, 1916) is an American composer. He is particularly noted for his pioneering serial and electronic music.


Babbitt was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvaniamarker and was raised in Jackson, Mississippimarker. He studied violin and later clarinet and saxophone as a child. Early in his life he showed ability in jazz and popular music.

Babbitt's father was a mathematician, and it was mathematics that Babbitt intended to study when he entered the University of Pennsylvaniamarker in 1931. However, he soon left and went to New York Universitymarker instead, where he studied music with Philip James and Marion Bauer. There he became interested in the music of the composers of the Second Viennese School, and went on to write a number of articles on twelve tone music including the first description of combinatoriality and a serial "time-point" technique. After receiving his bachelor of arts degree from New York University College of Arts and Sciencemarker in 1935 with Phi Beta Kappa honors, he studied under Roger Sessions, first privately, later at Princeton Universitymarker, where he joined the music faculty in 1938 and received one of Princeton's first Master of Fine Arts degrees in 1942 (Barkin & Brody 2001). During the Second World War Babbitt divided his time between mathematical research in Washington, DC, and Princeton, where he became a member of the mathematics faculty from 1943 to 1945 (Barkin & Brody 2001).

In 1947, Babbitt wrote his Three Compositions for Piano, which are the earliest examples of total serialization in music, pre-dating Olivier Messiaen's non-serial "Mode de valeurs et d'intensités" by two years, and Pierre Boulez's Polyphonie X by four. The Composition for Four Instruments of the following year was Babbitt's first use of total serialism for instrumental ensemble.

In 1948, Babbitt succeeded Bohuslav Martinů on Princeton University's music faculty and later also taught at the Juilliard Schoolmarker in New York.

In 1958, Babbitt achieved unsought notoriety through an article in the popular magazine High Fidelity ( Babbitt 1958). His title for the article, "The Composer as Specialist", was changed, without his knowledge or consent, to "Who Cares if You Listen?" More than 30 years later, he commented that, because of that "offensively vulgar title", he was "still ... far more likely to be known as the author of 'Who Cares if You Listen?' than as the composer of music to which you may or may not care to listen" (Babbitt 1991, 17).

Babbitt later became interested in electronic music. He was hired by RCA as consultant composer to work with their RCA Mark II Synthesizer at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center (known since 1996 as the Columbia University Computer Music Center), and in 1961 produced his Composition for Synthesizer. Many other composers regarded electronic instruments as a way of producing new timbres. Babbitt was much more interested in the rhythmic precision he could achieve using the Mark II synthesizer, a degree of precision previously unobtainable in live performances (Barkin & Brody 2001).

Babbitt continued to write both electronic music and music for conventional musical instruments, often combining the two. Philomel (1964), for example, was written for soprano and a synthesized accompaniment (including the recorded and manipulated voice of Bethany Beardslee, for whom the piece was composed) stored on magnetic tape. This piece was written in collaboration with the poet John Hollander and was funded by the Ford Foundation.

Although it might appear that his usage of the Mark II Synthesizer put Babbitt in the habit of writing music of enormous rhythmic complexity, and that his subsequent pieces for conventional instruments with mortal performers became, as a result, so complex as to seem unplayable, in actuality his interest in these sorts of complexities preceded his time with the Mark II and has continued to the present day, well after the demise of the Mark II.

In 1973, Babbitt became a member of the faculty at the Juilliard Schoolmarker.

In 1982, the Pulitzer Prize board awarded a "special citation to Milton Babbitt for his life's work as a distinguished and seminal American composer" (Columbia University 1991, 70).

Since 1985 he has served as the Chairman of the BMI Student Composer Awards, the international competition for young classical composers.

In 1986, he was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship.

In 1988, he received the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Award for music composition.

He is also a member of the Academy of Arts and Letters.

Babbitt's notable students include Fred Lerdahl, Mario Davidovsky, Lera Auerbach, Andrew Mead, Benjamin Boretz, Michael Kassler, Paul Lansky, David Lewin, Donald Martino, John Rahn, J. K. Randall, Peter Westergaard, Godfrey Winham, Stephen Sondheim, Mario Pelusi, Kenneth Fuchs, Su Lian Tan, Gilbert Levine, Mete Sakpinar, and Eric Ewazen.

In 2005, Babbitt's wife Sylvia died, as did his brother Albert E. Babbitt, Jr., a mathematician.

Babbitt has one daughter, Betty Anne Duggan, and two grandchildren, Julie and Adam.


  • (1958). " Who Cares if You Listen?". High Fidelity (February). [Babbitt called this article "The Composer as Specialist." The original title was changed without his knowledge or permission by an editor at High Fidelity.]
  • (1965). "The Structure and Function of Musical Theory", College Music Symposium 5.
  • (1972). "Contemporary Music Composition and Music Theory as Contemporary Intellectual History", Perspectives in Musicology: The Inaugural Lectures of the Ph. D. Program in Music at the City University of New York.
  • (1992) [written 1946] "The Function of Set Structure in the 12-tone system." PhD Dissertation, Princeton University.
  • (2003). "The Collected Essays of Milton Babbitt." ed. Stephen Peles et al. Princeton University Press.

List of Compositions

  • 1935 Generatrix for orchestra (unfinished)
  • 1939–41 String Trio
  • 1940 Composition for String Orchestra (unfinished)
  • 1941 Symphony (unfinished)
  • 1941 Music for the Mass I for mixed chorus
  • 1942 Music for the Mass II for mixed chorus
  • 1946 Fabulous Voyage (musical, libretto by Richard Koch)
  • 1946 Three Theatrical Songs for voice and piano (taken from Fabulous Voyage)
  • 1947 Three Compositions for Piano
  • 1948 Composition for Four Instruments
  • 1948 String Quartet No. 1 (withdrawn)
  • 1948; 54 Composition for Twelve Instruments
  • 1949 Film Music for Into the Good Ground (withdrawn)
  • 1950 Composition for Viola and Piano
  • 1951 The Widow’s Lament in Springtime for soprano and piano
  • 1951 Du for soprano and piano, August Stramm
  • 1953 Woodwind Quartet
  • 1954 String Quartet No. 2
  • 1954 Vision and Prayer for soprano and piano
  • 1955 Two Sonnets for baritone, clarinet, viola, and cello, two poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins
  • 1956 Duet for piano
  • 1956 Semi-Simple Variations for piano
  • 1957 All Set for alto sax, tenor sax, trp, trb, cb, pno, vib, percussion
  • 1957 Partitions for piano
  • 1960 Sounds and Words for soprano and piano
  • 1960 Composition for Tenor and Six Instruments
  • 1961 Composition for Synthesizer
  • 1961 Vision and Prayer for soprano and synthesized tape, setting of a poem by Dylan Thomas
  • Second Period

  • 1964 Philomel for soprano, recorded soprano, synthesized tape, setting of a poem by John Hollander
  • 1964 Ensembles for Synthesizer
  • 1965 Relata I for orchestra
  • 1966 Post-Partitions for piano
  • 1966 Sextets for violin and piano
  • 1967 Correspondences for string orchestra and synthesized tape
  • 1968 Relata II for orchestra
  • 1968–69 Four Canons for SA
  • 1969 Phonemena for soprano and piano
  • 1970 String Quartet No. 3
  • 1970 String Quartet No. 4
  • 1971 Occasional Variations for synthesized tape
  • 1972 Tableaux for piano
  • 1974 Arie Da Capo for five instrumentalists
  • 1975 Reflections for piano and synthesized tape
  • 1975 Phonemena for soprano and synthesized tape
  • 1976 Concerti for violin, small orchestra, synthesized tape
  • 1977 A Solo Requiem for soprano and two pianos
  • 1977 Minute Waltz (or 3/4 ± 1/8) for piano
  • 1977 Playing for Time for piano
  • 1978 My Ends Are My Beginnings for solo clarinet
  • 1978 My Complements to Roger for piano
  • 1978 More Phonemena for twelve-part chorus
  • 1979 An Elizabethan Sextette for six-part women’s chorus
  • 1979 Images for saxophonist and synthesized tape
  • 1979 Paraphrases for ten instrumentalists
  • 1980 Dual for cello and piano

  • Third Period

  • 1981 Ars Combinatoria for small orchestra
  • 1981 Don for four-hand piano
  • 1982 The Head of the Bed for soprano and four instruments
  • 1982 String Quartet No.5
  • 1982 Melismata for solo violin
  • 1982 About Time for piano
  • 1983 Canonical Form for piano
  • 1983 Groupwise for flautist and four instruments
  • 1984 Four Play for four players
  • 1984 It Takes Twelve to Tango for piano
  • 1984 Sheer Pluck (composition for guitar)
  • 1985 Concerto for piano and orchestra
  • 1985 Lagniappe for piano
  • 1986 Transfigured Notes for string orchestra
  • 1986 The Joy of More Sextets for piano and violin
  • 1987 Three Cultivated Choruses for four-part chorus
  • 1987 Fanfare for double brass sextet
  • 1987 Overtime for piano
  • 1987 Souper for speaker and ensemble
  • 1987 Homily for snare drum
  • 1987 Whirled Series for saxophone and piano
  • 1988 In His Own Words for speaker and piano
  • 1988 The Virginal Book for contralto and piano, setting of a poem by John Hollander
  • 1988 Beaten Paths for solo marimba
  • 1988 Glosses for Boys’ Choir
  • 1988 The Crowded Air for eleven instruments
  • 1989 Consortini for five players
  • 1989 Play It Again, Sam for solo viola
  • 1989 Emblems (Ars Emblematica), for piano
  • 1989 Soli e Duettini for two guitars
  • 1989 Soli e Duettini for flute and guitar
  • 1990 Soli e Duettini for violin and viola
  • 1990 Envoi for four hands, piano
  • 1991 Preludes, Interludes, and Postlude for piano
  • 1991 Four Cavalier Settings for tenor and guitar
  • 1991 Mehr “Du” for soprano, viola and piano
  • 1991 None But The Lonely Flute for solo flute
  • 1992 Septet, But Equal
  • 1992 Counterparts for brass quintet
  • 1993 Around the Horn for solo horn
  • 1993 Quatrains for soprano and two clarinets
  • 1993 Fanfare For All for brass quintet
  • 1993 String Quartet No. 6
  • 1994 Triad for viola, clarinet, and piano
  • 1994 No Longer Very Clear for soprano and four instruments, setting of a poem by John Ashbery
  • 1994 Tutte Le Corde for piano
  • 1994 Arrivals and Departures for two violins
  • 1994 Accompanied Recitative for soprano sax and piano
  • 1995 Manifold Music for organ
  • 1995 Bicenguinguagenary Fanfare for brass quintet
  • 1995 Quartet for piano and string trio
  • 1996 Quintet for clarinet and string quartet
  • 1996 When Shall We Three Meet Again? for flute, clarinet and vibraphone
  • 1998 Piano Concerto No. 2
  • 1998 The Old Order Changeth for piano
  • 1999 Composition For One Instrument (Celesta)
  • 1999 Allegro Penseroso for piano
  • 1999 Concerto Piccolino for vibraphone
  • 2000 Little Goes a Long Way for violin and piano
  • 2000 Pantuns for soprano and piano
  • 2002 From the Psalter soprano and string orchestra
  • 2002 Now evening after evening for soprano and piano, setting of a poem by Derek Walcott
  • 2003 Swan Song No.1 for flute, oboe, violin, cello, and two guitars
  • 2003 A Waltzer in the House for soprano and vibraphone, setting of a poem by Stanley Kunitz
  • 2004 Concerti for Orchestra, for James Levine and the Boston Symphony Orchestra
  • 2004 Autobiography of the Eye for soprano and cello, setting of a poem by Paul Auster
  • 2005–6 More Melismata for solo cello
  • 2006 An Encore for violin & piano

External links



  • Babbitt, Milton (1991). " A Life of Learning: Charles Homer Haskins Lecture for 1991". ACLS Occasional Paper 17. New York: American Council of Learned Societies.
  • Barkin, Elaine, and Martin Brody (2001). "Babbitt, Milton (Byron)". The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell. London: Macmillan Publishers; New York: Grove's Dictionaries of Music.
  • Columbia University (1991). The Pulitzer Prizes, 1917–1991. New York: Columbia University.
  • Dembski, Stephen and Straus, Joseph N., eds. (1987). Milton Babbitt: Words about Music. Madison, Wis.: University of Wisconsin Press. ISBN 0-299-10790-6.
  • Mead, Andrew (1994). An Introduction to the Music of Milton Babbitt. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-03314-5.

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