Dodecaphony: Part 4 (a.k.a. Influential People: Milton Babbitt)

Epilogue: Total Serialism
Influential People: Milton Babbitt

It’s been a while. If you haven’t read or don’t remember a three-part series I wrote a few months back on the beginnings of the twelve-tone system, go check out the first post here. It was written in conjunction with articles on early pieces of the Second Viennese School, and tries to be a bit of a primer in that whole area.

image via Brittanica 

(This article is the final in the four-part series about the early Second Viennese School and serialism, as well as an intro to three works of Milton Babbitt we will be talking about this week. More below). 
In one of those series, I mentioned total serialism (or whatever you feel like calling it), and it’s this complete serialist method that takes the advancements of the Second Viennese School to new, challenging heights. While just a year ago, it was a challenge to endure even Schoenberg’s more approachable pieces, this even more strict, rigorous form has by now captured my interest for some time

“Listen, don’t worry about whether or not the music sounds coherent to you the first time you hear it. What about the first time you hear a sentence in Hungarian? — assuming youre interested in listening to and learning Hungarian.” Milton Babbitt

I would listen with fascinated interest to the first thirty seconds of Boulez’s second piano sonata (a piece I keep using as a more extreme example), mostly with wonderment at the fact that someone intentionally sat down and composed those sounds, but then it all finally ran together and I’d have enough and that was as far as I’d get. Babbitt was different. Babbitt was my serial Scriabin. I WANTED to understand his work, to like it, to appreciate it, and one day I listened (again) to his second string quartet and I was absolutely blown away. Stunned, even. While some parts of it still kind of left me scratching my head, it was suddenly wildly interesting.
I must say, this is a technique and a methodology I knew precious little about in practice when I started finding myself so interested in it all. I found the complexity to be not off-putting, but rather fascinating and intriguing. Either your ear or your research tells you that there’s something musical going on, and it isn’t a typical white bread classical harmonic progression ending in a perfect cadence. No.
But first, let’s talk about Milton Babbitt, just briefly. I’m a bit intimidated, though, because his devoted followers, friends, family, the performers and students that knew him and his work best are a very intelligent, talented crowd; Babbitt himself was not only a professor of music but also of mathematics. When you come to appreciate and understand his music, this is unsurprising.
My fascination with this man, who by the way it seems many music majors have heard
very little, possibly only the name (if that), is that while he has his niche sort of small-but-devoted following, he should, in my book, be the next B in the three Bs: Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Babbitt. Maybe Berg should be in there, or Bartok, but definitely Babbitt. Why?

Think of it this way: If Mahler had been alive long enough (or rather had just made the conscious enough decision) to pass the baton of outrageous, intense, incredible music on to someone else, he may or may not have chosen a number of people, but in my book, there were two who took it from him. One was Arnold Schoenberg. Schoenberg’s largest work (and one of the largest works in any repertoire today) came quite early in his career (his massive Gurre-Lieder), and after that, he didn’t do much on such a large scale, certainly nothing like Mahler’s symphonies. He had a few operas and concertos, but I would peg him as a good candidate for a Mahlerian descendent. In slightly another way, with more focus on the symphony, of which he wrote fifteen, I would think of Shostakovich, but that’s another discussion.
Let’s ask that same “who carries the baton?” question for people like Berg and Webern. Listen to Webern’s Fünf Sätze or his symphony, op. 21, and then jump to some of the works we’ll be talking about this week by Babbitt, and I feel the answer is clear. It’s not because Babbitt was German; he wasn’t. It’s not because he studied under Webern; he didn’t. He was fascinated by Schoenberg’s early works from a young age and even met him at least once when he was in New York. So it’s not that they were close friends or colleagues, but Babbitt apparently had an enormous appreciation for their music. We haven’t talked about it yet at all here, but ideas like hexachordal combinatoriality and very intricate, logical relationships and patterns permeated not just Webern’s tone rows (small scale) but his pieces as a whole (large scale), and it was this economical, logical, rigorous use of content that seems (as far as I can see) to have inspired Babbitt to be the man to take this idea even further.
Of course, I oversimplify.
So what we had with late Schoenberg and Webern was the use of the tone row, not just as the basis of a melody (in fact, it was not often used so obviously), but as a blueprint, a structure for not only the order of pitches, but of sections, passages, and governed or laid out the framework for entire pieces and their concepts. It seems only logical, then, to take this increasing complexity and apply a structural rigor to other aspects of the music, more patterns, greater layers of and opportunities for development. That is to say… Schoenberg based his music on a tone row; it affected the order of his pitch classes, but he could really use them in whatever way he wanted. To more fully implement this idea, Babbitt began to apply ideas of structure and pattern to things like tempi, dynamics, orchestration, and even things like the use of pizzicato, so that everything has an incredibly strong underlying logic, a reason for being the way it is, as this kind of music cannot be written (in my mind) without an incredible amount of planning.
What it is NOT is “predetermined” in the sense that most people hear that word and think “unchangeable,” “predestined,” or “fixed.” It’s not an algorithm into which you plug your instruments and number of bars and ploop comes out a piece of music. No. While you could do it that way, that’s not what’s been done here. Let’s use a very diatonic example.
The fugue. The fugue is the highest form of counterpoint, using contrasting keys and melodies for or against each other in many ways to create complex textures, all very neatly structured, so that certain sections or ideas are developed at one point and others appear in various permutations, all with the goal of achieving a complex, interesting, enjoyable result. But take even an extremely complex example of a fugue, Beethoven’s Große Fuge. Is that the only way in which those four themes could have been developed and expounded? Is it the only manner in which they could be treated? Can one see how with different orders, different treatments, the result would be a very different piece?
Such is the case with serial music. I would like to think (just to make him more human) that Beethoven painted himself in a corner on more than one occasion with the fugue, and had to find a way out, or take a few steps back and rework something in a new direction, but the general idea is that you eventually end up with a logical, relatively complete package with no loose ends. And you don’t do that in one fell swoop unless you’re Bach.
But in any case, to greatly oversimplify (or worse, err), think of the ideas of serialism as the same type of ‘rules’ that govern the composition of a fugue, but dictated by the composer with a specific purpose in mind. A chef always chooses his ingredients carefully, with the final concept in mind, always thinking of ‘flavor palates’ and what the end result will (hopefully) be.
So the ‘theories’ of serialism might not be the same from piece to piece, but the idea is universal, and the cleanliness of the packaging and incredible logic and rigor with which Babbitt wrote so many of his pieces is stunning, but even more so because they’re also incredibly musical, moving works.

The science doesn’t get in the way of the art.

Babbitt was a genius, an experimental, unrelenting motivated composer who pushed the boundaries of what had been done in music up to that point, and this week, it is some of his earliest compositions that we will discuss, at least those that have resonated with me the most. In them, there will be some easy-to-understand examples of some serialist concepts put into practice, but overall, it’s just music which is fascinating, complex and beautiful, truly captivating, as if the more you stare into its darkness, the more, ever so slowly, the music begins to reveal its secrets, even if you might need a Ph.D to understand the real nuts and bolts of it all.
Again, you’ll find serial works that run the gamut: everything from Babbitt’s approach in 1947, (the work we will begin with tomorrow) which I find to be quite pleasant, to frightening things by Italian composers that I can’t listen to. But again, it’s all there. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t sway and swoon to the music of Milton Babbitt like I would to Chopin or Schubert, but it’s a different experience, if you’re willing to experience it. And actually…. in some ways, I do. His sixth string quartet is easily as beautiful as any other quartet I’ve ever heard, and I’ve spent as much time listening to his five as I have any other quartet from Beethoven or Brahms or anyone else.
Babbitt’s string quartets continue to fascinate and intrigue me (six of them, with the first withdrawn, so only five), as do many of his other compositions, but I am still a long way away from putting on Berio’s Sinfonia or something from Stockhausen. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t right around the corner.  In summary, total serialism is a technique that takes Schoenberg’s idea of ‘serializing’ pitch classes and applies it to all (or at least more) aspects of composition. It is perhaps even more difficult to appreciate for an average listener because of an even greater lack of repetition or (readily) identifiable patterns or ideas, but can be a fascinating study (or at least listen) into the most modern of musical schools of thought.
In the next three days, we will be talking about some pieces of Babbitt’s that I have come to love, leading up to his second (and earliest available) string quartet as part of our twentieth century string quartets series. I REALLY wanted to include his sixth… but we’ll have to work up to it. I really want to do these in chronological order, so we’ll be sharing a few of his earliest serial compositions before his second string quartet. Please please stay tuned.
Also, since these pieces are way too modern to be on IMSLP or anything, you’re going to have to trust me and just go buy the CD or download the tracks to listen. There are no YouTube videos to share this time (with maybe one exception). Tomorrow, we’ll be talking about his 1947 piece Three Compositions for Piano. Please read.
Le fin. 
I hope this four-part series has helped at least someone to ‘get’ what all of the buzz with this nearly 100-year-old but still controversial compositional method is all about, why it’s challenging for many, but what it offers as a different approach to music. It’s one that I have become fascinated by and so interested to keep exploring, and it isn’t (or doesn’t have to be) the difficult, arcane, impossible to enjoy theoretical music that many make it out to be. It’s just beautiful music. Again,

“Listen, don’t worry about whether or not the music sounds coherent to you the first time you hear it. What about the first time you hear a sentence in Hungarian? — assuming youre interested in listening to and learning Hungarian.” Milton Babbitt



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