Obituary: Modernist composer Milton Babbitt, 94

Posted on: January 31, 2011

In Saturday’s (1/29) New York Times, Allan Kozinn writes, “Milton Babbitt, an influential composer, theorist and teacher who wrote music that was intensely rational and for many listeners impenetrably abstruse, died on Saturday. He was 94 and lived in Princeton, N.J. … Although he dabbled early in his career with theater music, his Composition for Orchestra (1940) ushered in a structurally complex, profoundly organized style that was rooted in Arnold Schoenberg’s serial method. But Mr. Babbitt expanded on Mr. Schoenberg’s approach. In Mr. Schoenberg’s system, a composer begins by arranging the 12 notes of the Western scale in a particular order called a tone row, or series, on which the work is based. Mr. Babbitt was the first to use this serial ordering not only with pitches but also with dynamics, timbre, duration, registration and other elements. His methods became the basis of the ‘total serialism’ championed in the 1950s by Pierre Boulez, Luigi Nono and other European composers. … He composed prolifically for chamber ensembles and instrumental soloists and created a substantial and varied catalog of vocal works. He also composed a compact but vital group of orchestral pieces and an enduring series of works for synthesizer, often in combination with voices or acoustic instruments.”

Posted January 31, 2011