Magazine article Musical Opinion

The Collected Essays of Milton Babbitt

Magazine article Musical Opinion

The Collected Essays of Milton Babbitt

Article excerpt

The Collected Essays of Milton Babbitt Edited by Stephen Peles, with Stephen Dembski, Andrew Mead and Joseph Straus Princeton University Press Oxford University Press 517pp, hardback ISBN 0-691-08966-3 $39.50

At the age of almost 88, the American composer, teacher and musicologist Milton Babbitt is still going strong, and this tome gathers the collected essays of this influential musical thinker. Whether its entire contents truthfully comprise 'essays' is another matter, for not every one of the contents would meet the academic criteria normally applied thereto: yet there are genuine essays here, alongside short newspaper articles and so on.

None the less, once an editor has started collecting it is always difficult to know when to stop in terms of the length of each piece, so we must be grateful that Stephen Peles and his colleagues have cast their editorial net so widely. At first, also, it might appear odd that a book such as this requires four editors, but there are copious editorial notes and explanatory material which add much to the book's value. As for Babbitt's writings, they cover 50 years, from 1949, with the Bartok String Quartets, to My Viennese Triangle at Washington Square of 1999.

Babbitt as a composer has a large following in the USA; as for the impact of his teachings, one may hope that the majority of his many students possess the strength of character to question, and often to dismiss, the aesthetic premises on which such teachings would appear to have been based, if the main contents of this book are a guide. But as a polemical writer on music Babbitt is unputdownable.

Not many folk have taught both music and mathematics at the same University at the same time; consequently, we should not be surprised that these dual disciplines of Babbitt led to his genuine essay, Twelve-tone Invariants as Compositional Determinants of 1960, which appeared a few years after the immediate post-Darmstadtian School had evolved "through-composed" durchkomponiert writing. …

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