Academic journal article Current Musicology

Milton Babbitt's Glosses on American Jewish Identity

Academic journal article Current Musicology

Milton Babbitt's Glosses on American Jewish Identity

Article excerpt

In 1987 Milton Babbitt's longtime collaborator, the Jewish poet and literary critic John Hollander, compiled several translations of Psalm 150 for Babbitt's choral work, Glosses (1988). (1) The men had worked together since the sixties. They regularly sat on panels together, discussing the relationship between music and text. (2) And, when Babbitt set Hollander's texts, the two men would correspond. Hollander would not only give detailed explanations of his poems' structures and contents, but also suggest appropriate musical settings. (3) It is therefore likely that Babbitt and Hollander discussed Hollander's conception of biblical literature as it related to his reworking of Psalm 150 for Glosses, particularly because the same year that Hollander supplied the translations for the musical work, he also contributed an essay on the Psalms to Congregation: Contemporary Writers Read the Jewish Bible, a collection of meditations on the books of the Old Testament. In his reflection, republished as "Hearing and Overhearing the Psalms" in 1997, Hollander argues that the Psalmic glosses exemplify how fluid, situated, and subjective the construction of literary meaning is. Each gloss, fashioned according to individual or collective contingencies and susceptible to circumstantial agendas, is not only valid, he claims, but in fact essential to the verse. He concludes: "Biblical poetry exists in and for its interpretations" (123-24).

Hollander's approach to the Psalms, which gives ontological power to interpretation, reflects a particularly American understanding of Jewish identity and meaning in the postwar period. Many American Jews in Hollander's and Babbitt's generation felt an obligation to reaffirm their Jewish identity in the post-Holocaust era. Yet, because they had matured in predominantly secular or purposefully assimilatory households, they lacked a clear or unified understanding of what it meant to be Jewish (Shapiro 1990, 73-74). This indeterminacy obliged each Jewish individual to design his or her own "Jewishness" in congruence with prior convictions. Thus, American Jewish identity in the postwar period was often constructed upon the rediscovery and assimilation of Judaism into one's preexisting, personal worldviews. For Babbitt, this manifests in symbols, derived from Jewish history and mythology, which he employs as metaphors for essentially non-religious, aesthetic views.

In what follows, I outline how Babbitt's relationship to his Jewish identity evolved over the course of his career: from concessions he made to Princeton's anti-Semitic policies early in his career to his active participation in conferences devoted to Jewish issues later in his career. Then, I examine allusions to Jewish history in Babbitt's lectures and published essays. The Exodus narrative proved especially rich for Babbitt's aesthetic philosophy, having implications for how he understood Schoenberg (as Moses) and (exiled) academic composers in America (the Promised Land). Lastly, I examine the repercussions Babbitt's constructed Jewish identity had for his music. To this end, I offer an analysis and interpretation of some of the more salient features--in particular, three climactic unsung moments--in Glosses. These three unpitched vocalizations, I argue, realize the Jewish tradition wherein God, in defying definition, also resists signification. Moreover, they allude to the musical symbol for YHVH, established by Schoenberg in his gloss of Psalm 150, Modern Psalm Op. 50c (1950).

The Unspoken "Jewish Issue"

Despite claiming that he "regarded himself as Jewish and did not wish to be in any way evasive about being Jewish," Babbitt rarely discusses his Jewish heritage in his published writings (quoted in Rosenburg 1979, 46-47). (4) When he does, he describes having been raised in a "lower upper class, economically well off" Jewish household (quoted in Cohen 1982, 235). Additionally, although he attended Reform services at the Beth Israel temple in Jackson, Mississippi, where the musical repertory, he laments, "consisted of one tune which was Anton Rubinstein's melody in F and another tune that was not," he never considered himself a religious person (quoted in Cohen 1982, 235). …

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