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Milton Babbitt

BABBITT, MILTON (1916– ), U.S. composer and theorist. Born in Philadelphia, Babbitt started playing violin at the age of four and played in jazz performances and composed popular songs in high school. His father's involvement in mathematics stimulated Babbitt's interest in the subject. In 1931 he began studying mathematics at the University of Pennsylvania, but soon he transferred to the study of music at New York University. In 1935 he was a student of Roger Sessions in composition at Princeton University and in 1938–42 became a staff member there. During World War II Babbitt was active as a mathematician both in research (Washington) and teaching (Princeton University). In 1948 he rejoined the Department of Music at Princeton University, where in 1960 he became Conant Professor of Music. From 1973 he was a member of the composition faculty of the Juilliard School, and taught as a guest lecturer in the U.S. and Europe. His 1983 Madison lectures were published as Words about Music. Babbitt received several honors, including membership in the American Academy of Science and Letters (1986) and its Gold Medal in Music (1988).

Together with Roger Sessions, Elliot Carter, and George Perle, Babbitt represents the stratum of the American avant-garde which was devoted to the rational methods in composition. He wrote the first formal and systematic research paper on Schoenberg's compositional method (1946). In his articles of the 1950s and 1960s Babbitt was a pioneer in his thinking on music, involving terms from mathematics, such as "source set," "secondary set," "derived set," "combinatoriality." In his innovative compositions of that time Babbitt sought to use and sometimes to combine Schoenberg's and Webern's technique of composition. From the 1970s and on the composer continued his intellectual search in 12-tone sound combinatoriality. During the 1960s and 1970s he also worked with the synthesizer, experimenting with electronic sounds.


NG2; MGG2; A. Mead, An Introduction to the Music of Milton Babbitt (1994).

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.