Over the past several days I’ve ran into several people who’ve said they’ve been unexpected shook up about Milton Babbitt’s death. I don’t mean to say that I didn’t expect people to be moved by his passing, he was massively influential figure in basically every academic branch of music in addition to his compositional legacy, but that more than one person didn’t see it coming how much it would affect them. This tweet really crystallized it for me, but I was hit sort of hard myself. Of course I happened to find out while drinking barleywine in a bar in Madison, which I think was sort of fitting.
Plenty of people have made the point that Babbitt was just as famous for his polemic as he was his composing, and I think that’s the basis of this wave of Surprise Grief. Most of these people vehemently disagreed with his philosophies, but could see that he had some sort of point. For every needlessly rigorous work based on a Row of God that’s combinatorial in every possible manner but doesn’t do a damn thing with it like Composition for Twelve Instruments, Babbitt was capable of writing a complicated but sly and honestly pretty good piece like All Set. For a lot of peers, Babbitt’s death is not the loss of a hero or a heel but a truly Worthy Adversary. For a lot of people, his death also marks a tipping point that the Old Guard really does Changeth. With the exception of Charles Wuorinen and the allegedly neutral but apparently immortal Elliott Carter, most of the Uptown stalwarts are gone now. For anyone involved in the Battle of Manhattan or its aftermath it is bracing, especially considering that the old guard of the Downtown are not getting any younger themselves.
The following morning I watched a YouTube video that one of my colleagues had posted, apparently after her fiancée had tried to convince her that Babbitt was still alive. (Whoops!) It was of his Composition for Guitar, which I had never particularly cared for but actually found myself enjoying quite a bit. So was I awash in empathy and giving him the benefit of the doubt, or had my previous political stance blinded me to what was pretty good tunes? This isn’t really a new conversation. It’s the same thing people say about Wagner and it’s not like Babbitt was a Nazi, right? So his irascibility will likely be tempered by history to the subject of vigorous debate rather than the seething rage that occasionally pops up now, which is too bad in some ways. For all the talk of angular objectivity and crystalline structure, even modernist music is not diminished with a healthy dose of passion.