Milton Babbitt

(1916–2011) Composer

Milton Byron Babbitt was one of the world’s leading intellectual forces in contemporary music in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. His pioneering work on the RCA Mark II synthesizer at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center established his international reputation in the late 1950s, and he was a vital and creative composer until his death at age ninety-four. Babbitt’s many honors include a special Pulitzer citation for his life’s work in 1986 and a three-hundred-thousand-dollar MacArthur Fellowship in 1986. He earned diplomas from New York and Princeton Universities and received honorary degrees from numerous other institutions of higher education. He was a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Babbitt grew up in Jackson in the Belhaven neighborhood, a friend of writer Eudora Welty from an early age. Proud of his Mississippi roots, he insisted that his biographical information in liner notes and record jackets note that he was “educated in the public schools of Jackson, Mississippi.” His family had moved to Mississippi from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, after his father accepted an invitation from Welty’s father to work at the Lamar Life Insurance firm. Babbitt’s father was an actuary, a position that sparked Babbitt’s later interest in mathematics. Babbitt gave his first public performance at age five on the violin. A Jackson newspaper called him a “whiz kid” and noted that he had perfect pitch and could add up his family’s grocery bills in his head. Soon thereafter he learned saxophone and clarinet, and he became a great fan of jazz cornet player Bix Beiderbecke. At age ten Babbitt was sitting in on clarinet when touring professional jazz bands from New Orleans came through Jackson. He began writing songs in the popular style of the day at age seven, and at thirteen he won a songwriting contest in his hometown.

After graduating from Central High School at age fifteen, he enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania to study mathematics and philosophy. He quickly discovered that he was more interested in composing and transferred to New York University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in music. He subsequently studied with composer Roger Sessions at Princeton, earning a master of fine arts degree in 1942. He also worked as a music critic and wrote articles on the subject for various publications. In addition, he served on Princeton’s mathematics faculty from 1942 to 1945 and did highly classified mathematical research in Washington, D.C., for the US government. In 1948 he moved from Princeton’s mathematics faculty to the school’s music faculty, and in 1965 he was named the William Shubael Conant Professor of Music. He continued to teach at Princeton until 1982; in 1973 he also joined the faculty of New York’s Juilliard School. Babbitt also gave courses at the Rubin Academy in Jerusalem, the University of Wisconsin, New York University, and Harvard University, where he held the Fromm Foundation Visiting Professorship.

As a music theorist, Babbitt made significant contributions. His influence on the understanding and development of serial composition was second only to that of Arnold Schoenberg, its creator. According to Joseph N. Straus, “Virtually all modern work in 12-tone theory stems from the writing and teaching of Milton Babbitt.” Babbitt coined many terms now widely in use in music theory, and his writings appeared in all of the most respected international music journals, including Perspectives of New Music, Journal of Music Theory, Musical Quarterly, and The Score. In 2003 Princeton University Press published The Collected Essays of Milton Babbitt.

First and foremost, however, Babbitt was a composer. Every college music history textbook in current use devotes significant space to his work. He was one of the first to identify the possibilities of electronic music, and he used his training in mathematics to create unique and beautifully rigorous musical structures. He described himself as a “maximalist,” seeking to make each piece “literally as much as possible.” He discovered new ways to connect pitches, dynamics, and rhythms, and he was the first to pursue the “integral serialism” that influenced Pierre Boulez, Luigi Nono, and other European composers in the 1950s. Babbitt wrote many pieces for multiple combinations of instruments and voice as well as orchestral works, including two piano concertos. Frequently demanding, his works have been performed and recorded by world-class performers.

Further Reading

  • Elaine Barkin, in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. Stanley Sadie (2000)
  • Donald Jay Grout and Claude V. Palisca, A History of Western Music (2001)
  • Allan Kozinn, New York Times (29 January 2011)
  • Andrew Mead, An Introduction to the Music of Milton Babbitt (1994)
  • Robert P. Morgan, Twentieth-Century Music (1991)
  • Lynn Raley,interview with Milton Babbitt (2003)
  • John Rockwell, All American Music (1983)
  • Joseph N. Straus, Introduction to Post-Tonal Theory (1999)

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Milton Babbitt
  • Coverage 1916–2011
  • Author
  • Keywords Milton Babbitt
  • Website Name Mississippi Encyclopedia
  • URL
  • Access Date April 7, 2020
  • Publisher Center for Study of Southern Culture
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update April 13, 2018