Milton Babbitt, 1916-2011
I met Mr. Babbitt (he always insisted on “Mister” and abhorred the term “Professor”) the day before the tragedy of September 11. As a freshman double major in violin and composition at Juilliard, I attended a forum where my beloved composition teacher, Samuel Adler, introduced me to his friend and colleague, then already 85 years old. Before I met Mr. Babbitt, I knew him only as the fearsome legend behind music of mind-twisting complexity, the man who wrote (but did not title) the infamous essay Who Cares If You Listen?
At that first meeting, Mr. Babbitt offered to introduce me to Paul Zukofsky, a violinist who is one of the great champions of modern music. The tragic events of the following day derailed many plans, but Mr. Babbitt kept his promise and gave me Mr. Zukofsky’s phone number. When I decided to learn the Sonata for Solo Violin, a half-hour behemoth by Roger Sessions, I asked Mr. Babbitt if I could play it for him. He agreed, and as I was about to begin the piece in Mr. Babbitt’s fifth floor studio at Juilliard, he asked where my music was. I told him I’d be playing from memory.
“You son of a bitch,” he said with a smile. To this day, I haven’t received a more meaningful compliment.
When I returned to Juilliard in 2004, I decided it was finally time to work on a piece by Mr. Babbitt himself: Melismata, his 20-minute yearning, lyrical work for violin. In its lines of spontaneous and irrational freedom, a beguiling elegance, at once witty and nostalgic, awaits the listener willing to discover it.
In November 2004, I returned to his fifth floor studio to play it for him in private. Afterwards, he was very complimentary, and soon he was regaling me with incredible stories of a bygone age. He remembered concerts from 1945 as though they had happened yesterday. When he found out that my brother lived in Charlotte, he brightened and said, "Oh, they have great beer there."
At the recital where I performed Melismata, I re-told the story about the first time I ever played for Mr. Babbitt. When I got to his compliment about my memory, the audience chuckled. He called out in mock protest, “I would never use such language!”
Until I graduated from Juilliard in 2006, I ate breakfast with Mr. Babbitt nearly every Tuesday. He was unfailingly gregarious, funny, kind, and generous. He warily eyed me spreading jam on a bagel and joked, “If that was a real bagel, I might not speak to you again,” then waxed poetic about how you couldn’t find good bagels or Chinese food in New York anymore. For a man so firmly associated with the cutting edge in the minds of most people, he was remarkably old-fashioned. He avoided e-mail and when it came to non-classical music, he preferred the early jazz that most of us know from scratchy recordings. For him, of course, the vibrant sounds of the 1920s remained as fresh in his mind as though he had heard them yesterday.
He was always a perfect gentleman, revealing the gentility of his Southern upbringing in every encounter. On a day when he was almost 90, I introduced him to my girlfriend at the time. He struggled briefly to get up before collapsing back into his chair. “If my mother could see me unable to stand for a lady, she’d never forgive me,” he sighed. My girlfriend was very impressed and told me later I could learn a thing or two from him!
I was honored to perform Melismata again at his 90th birthday concert at Juilliard in March of 2006. That concert also featured his magnificent "Solo Requiem" (1976-77) for soprano and two pianos. This is an absolute masterpiece that incorporates ruminations on death by Shakespeare, Hopkins, Meredith, Stramm, and Dryden. Mr. Babbitt’s exquisite music expertly captures the assonance and meaning of the words, carefully considers and balances textural/structural elements, and manages to be achingly beautiful throughout. As a profound yet comforting statement on loss, it ranks up there with Brahms’ German Requiem.
As the organization now known as Cultures in Harmony began to take form, Mr. Babbitt was a great source of encouragement. I brightly told him that after my graduation from Juilliard, I would lead a group of musicians to the Philippines to promote cultural understanding. I would even learn some Tagalog! He raised an eyebrow and gently corrected my pronunciation of the language. It was then that I began to discover an extraordinary side of Mr. Babbitt. Since his secret work for the US government during World War II, he was fascinated by politics and by the world, and his phenomenal intellect has given him a nuanced and complex view of the world that might be a better place if run according to his principled opposition to power.
I had only just begun to learn from him in these areas when I graduated from Juilliard. I saw him a few times since then, but I never thought any particular time would be the last. The huge dome of his head, framed by tufts of white hair; his alternately stern and kindly gaze peering intently at you from behind those thick glasses; his slow but determined walk were indelible features of the years I grew into a professional musician.
And how could such a man ever leave us, when he refused nearly every concession people make to advanced age? He told me with pride that the president of Juilliard offered to send a car to New Jersey to bring him to Manhattan, but he insisted on taking the train.
But now he is finally gone, one of the last great men who remembered when gentlemen stood for ladies, when popular music was beautiful, when real bagels were plentiful, when no one stood on the pretense of fancy titles like “Professor.” Yet while those of us privileged to have known him still thrive thanks to him, he cannot be truly gone. The first leaping, seductive lines of Melismata thrum through my heartstrings like a breeze playing about grass-crowned mountaintops, and those bespectacled eyes twinkle in my memory, reminding me to be the decent person their owner always inspired me to be.
Mr. Babbitt claps for me at my recital on December 14, 2004, at The Juilliard School