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Babbitt, Milton (Byron)

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Babbitt, Milton (Byron), prominent American composer, teacher, and theorist; b. Philadelphia, May 10, 1916. He received early music training in Jackson, Miss., at the same time revealing an acute flair for mathematical reasoning; this double faculty was to determine the formulation of his musical theories. He pursued training in music with Marion Bauer and Philip James at N.Y. Univ. (B.A., 1935). After private lessons with Sessions, he pursued studies with that mentor at Princeton Univ. (M.F.A., 1942). In 1938 he joined the faculty of Princeton Univ. as a music teacher. After teaching mathematics there (1942–45), he again taught music there from 1948. In 1966 he became William Schubael Conant Prof. there, and also served as director of the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center (from 1959). In 1984 he retired as prof. emeritus at Princeton Univ. He also taught at N.Y.‘s Juilliard School (from 1973) and at various other venues in the U.S. and Europe. In 1949 and 1964 he received the N.Y. Music Critics’ Circle awards. In 1960–61 he held a Guggenheim fellowship. He was elected a member of the National Inst. of Arts and Letters in 1965, and of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1986, receiving its Gold Medal in Music in 1988. In 1974 he became a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 1982 he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize Special Citation for “his life’s work as a distinguished and seminal American composer.” From 1986 to 1991 he was a MacArthur fellow. In 1992 Princeton Univ. awarded him his Ph.D. for a diss. he had written as a student there but which had been rejected. A new review of his diss. prompted Princeton to award him his Ph.D., noting that the diss. had been so advanced for its time that it could not be properly evaluated. Taking as the point of departure Schoen-berg’s advanced compositional methods, Babbitt extended the serial principle to embrace 12 different note values, 12 different time intervals between instrumental entities, 12 different dynamic levels, and 12 different instrumental timbres. In order to describe the potential combinations of the basic four aspects of the tone row, he introduced the term “combinatoriality,” with symmetric parts of a tone row designated as “derivations.” Babbitt’s scientific theories have profoundly influenced the musical thinking of young American composers. His “Twelve- Tone Invariants as Compositional Determinants” (Musical Quarterly, April 1960) gives a resume of his system of total serialism. The serial application of rhythmic values is expounded in his “Twelve-Tone Rhythmic Structure and the Electronic Medium” (Perspectives of New Music, Fall 1962). For a general exposition of his views on music, see S. Dembski and J. Straus, eds., Milton Babbitt: Words about Music (The Madison-Lectures) (Madison, Wise, 1987).

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