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Music in the Late Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 3 The Apex
Richard Taruskin

Babbitt seized the moment both to rectify the slight his dissertation had received and to secure for advanced music composition a new sort of academic patronage. On the strength of the “scientific revolution” that had taken place in music thanks to the development by Schoenberg of serial technique and its theoretical extension by Babbitt himself, he now proposed to the Princeton administration that music composition be recognized as a legitimate branch of music research through the awarding of the Ph.D., the highest earned research degree, as the terminal degree in musical composition as well as musicology.

He summarized his arguments and gave them a practice outing in an extemporaneous talk presented to a select audience at the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood, the summer festival home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra near Lenox, Massachusetts, where Babbitt had been hired to give a seminar in twelve-tone composition in the summer of 1957. Besides his students and other interested musicians, his audience that afternoon included Roland Gelatt, the new editor of High Fidelity, a large-circulation magazine for record collectors and audio enthusiasts, which was published in nearby Great Barrington. Gelatt was trying to give the magazine a new orientation, tipping the balance of its coverage from hi-fi hardware toward more serious music coverage, and asked Babbitt if he could publish the talk. Babbitt at first declined, explaining that he had spoken off the cuff and that there was in fact no written text to publish. A tape had been made, however, and eventually Babbitt agreed to let an edited transcript of the talk appear in the February 1958 issue of the magazine.

He submitted the typescript with “The Composer as Specialist” as its title. A canny editor, Gelatt substituted a far more provocative head for the published text. As “Who Cares if You Listen?”, Babbitt's little talk became one of the most widely reprinted and hotly discussed manifestos in the history of twentieth-century music. Although Babbitt's supporters have deplored the title's implications, it purchased for the argument advanced within the article an instant notoriety—and an efficacy—it might never otherwise have earned, and thereby played a significant part in the success of Babbitt's mission.

The article contains passages in which the author does seem to be mocking the musical public (or what he calls “lay listeners”). “Imagine, if you can,” one such passage begins,

a layman chancing upon a [mathematics] lecture on “Pointwise Periodic Homeomorphisms.” At the conclusion, he announces: “I didn't like it.” Social conventions being what they are in such circles, someone might dare inquire: “Why not?” Under duress, our layman discloses precise reasons for his failure to enjoy himself; he found the hall chilly, the lecturer's voice unpleasant, and he was suffering the digestive aftermath of a poor dinner. His interlocutor understandably disqualifies these reasons as irrelevant to the content and value of the lecture, and the development of mathematics is left undisturbed. If the concert-goer [who has heard the musical equivalent of the math lecture, say a composition by Milton Babbitt] is at all versed in the ways of musical lifemanship, he also will offer reasons for his “I didn't like it”—in the form of assertions that the work in question is “inexpressive,” “undramatic,” “lacking in poetry,” etc. etc., tapping that store of vacuous equivalents hallowed by time for: “I don't like it, and I cannot or will not say why.”30

Before this passage, however, and using language shrewdly chosen for its “Einsteinian” resonances, Babbitt had laid out the principles according to which the music that he and other composers of “contemporary serious music”31 were writing necessarily differed from music designed to appeal to “laymen.” Its “tonal vocabulary,” to begin with, is described as being more “efficient,” and less “redundant,” meaning that (as we have already observed) each of its “atomic events” participates in a greatly augmented field of functional relationships—or as Babbitt put it, “is located in a five-dimensional musical space determined by pitch-class, register, dynamic, duration, and timbre.”

Such music, then, has a greatly increased level of “determinacy” when compared with conventional concert or popular fare, and a greatly increased level of “contextuality” and “autonomy” as well. Any piece so composed will therefore follow unique rules, deducible only from itself, and will therefore be, in a fundamental sense, more “genuinely original” than is otherwise possible. To appreciate its originality, however, listeners must be trained, like their counterparts in physics or mathematics, in contemporary “analytical theory.” Without such training, comprehension is impossible. Why then, Babbitt asks rhetorically, “should the layman be other than bored and puzzled by what he is unable to understand, music or anything else?” The difference, however, is that in the sciences, the lay public's inability to understand leads to enhanced prestige, while in music it usually leads in the opposite direction. That is the source of Babbitt's complaint: “It is only the translation of this boredom and puzzlement into resentment and denunciation that seems to me indefensible.” What is sought, then, is protection from that resentment and denunciation in the form of patronage. “And so, I dare suggest,” rings the culminating sentence, “that the composer would do himself and his music an immediate and eventual service by total, resolute, and voluntary withdrawal from this public world to one of private performance and electronic media, with its very real possibility of complete elimination of the public and social aspects of musical composition.”32 Anyone who knows the history of twentieth-century music will catch the resonance here with the premises of Arnold Schoenberg's Society for Private Musical Performances, advanced some forty years before.

The significant difference—the sign of the times—was the scientific basis of the argument, which pointed in the direction of a different source of patronage. The last three paragraphs of Babbitt's article, the crucial ones, were the paragraphs written, as it were, for the eyes of his university's president:

Such a private life is what the university provides the scholar and the scientist. It is only proper that the university, which—significantly—has provided so many contemporary composers with their professional training and general education, should provide a home for the “complex,” “difficult,” and “problematical” in music. Indeed, the process has begun.

I do not wish to appear to obscure the obvious differences between musical composition and scholarly research, although it can be contended that these differences are no more fundamental than the differences among the various fields of study. I do question whether these differences, by their nature, justify the denial to music's development of assistance granted these other fields. Immediate “practical” applicability (which may be said to have its musical analogue in “immediate extensibility of a compositional technique”) is certainly not a necessary condition for the support of scientific research. And if it be contended that such research is so supported because in the past it has yielded eventual applications, one can counter with, for example, the music of Anton Webern, which during the composer's lifetime was regarded (to the very limited extent that it was regarded at all) as the ultimate in hermetic, specialized, and idiosyncratic composition; today, some dozen years after the composer's death, his complete works have been recorded by a major record company, primarily—I suspect—as a result of the enormous influence this music has had on the postwar, non-popular, musical world. I doubt that scientific research is any more secure against predictions of ultimate significance than is musical composition. Finally, if it be contended that research, even in its least “practical” phases, contributes to the sum of knowledge in the particular realm, what possibly can contribute more to our knowledge of music than a genuinely original composition?

Granting to music the position accorded other arts and sciences promises the sole substantial means of survival for the music I have been describing. Admittedly, if this music is not supported, the whistling repertory of the man in the street will be little affected, the concert-going activity of the conspicuous consumer of musical culture will be little disturbed. But music will cease to evolve, and, in that important sense, will cease to live.33

Babbitt's final sentence, with its familiar tunnel view of musical evolution, “has been often pounced upon,”34 as one later commentator dryly observed. Its arrogance is indeed palpable, as is the implication—echoing Webern's old battle cry, “All the rest is dilettantism!”—that only one kind of contemporary music was “serious” and “original.” But this was the least novel aspect of Babbitt's program. Any reader of this book can easily trace it back to its source in the century-old polemics of the New German School. It was the parallel with math and physics, rather than with romantic notions of organicism, that gave Babbitt's argument its irresistible stamp of timeliness, and Princeton did not resist.

The Ph.D. in musical composition was officially instituted there in 1961, and first awarded, to the British composer Godfrey Winham (1934–75), in 1964. In addition to a musical work, Ph.D. candidates in composition had to submit an essay in theory and analysis. Winham's, called Composition with Arrays, was an explication of, and an addition to, Babbitt's latest technical extensions, as were the essays submitted over the next several years by Philip Batstone (Multiple Order Functions in Twelve-Tone Music, 1965), Henry Weinberg (A Method of Transferring the Pitch Organization of a Twelve Tone Set through All Layers of a Composition, a Method of Transforming Rhythmic Content through Operations Analogous to Those of the Pitch Domain, 1966) and Benjamin Boretz (Meta-Variations: Studies in the Foundations of Musical Thought, 1970).

Some of the early recipients of the degree—Mark DeVoto (b. 1940), Michael Kassler (b. 1941), Arthur Komar (1934–94)—did not submit original compositions at all; it was part of the fundamental research concept not to distinguish, at least officially, between music theory and composition, with the perhaps unexpected result that of the dual requirements for the Ph.D. in composition, it was the composition that turned out to be optional.

Kassler's dissertation, A Trinity of Essays, was an especially symptomatic contribution: its main component, an essay called “Toward a Theory That Is the Twelve-Note-Class System,” was in effect a computer program that could “assert” the operations required to analyze or compose music like Babbitt's (the two processes—analysis and composition—being regarded as a single act performed in two “directions”). Kassler's program was devised not primarily for practical application but as a test of the twelve-tone system as extended by Babbitt and his pupils, the assumption being that, like any scientific theory in the computer age, a musical theory needed to be rationalized and quantified to the point where it could be programmed in order to be validated (that is, shown correct).

The institution of the Ph.D. in composition made the Princeton music department, already a magnet for ambitious young composers thanks to the presence there of Roger Sessions as well as Babbitt, the source of an invincible new credential for career advancement. Other universities were more or less compelled to follow suit. Within a decade, the Ph.D. in composition was common in America, and “Ph.D. music,” it was widely if tacitly recognized, meant serial music. That, along with the remarkably cogent “mathematicalization” of twelve-tone theory by Babbitt and his pupils, has been one of the reasons why, firmly rooted in the rich institutional soil of the American university system, twelve-tone music proved such a hardy and tenacious growth in America at a time when the European avant-garde was leaving it behind.

And yet, once “house-broken into the academy” (as Joseph Kerman, an older Princeton alumnus, put it), could serial music retain its avant-garde status? Obviously it could not, nor did it wish to. American postwar serial music has always been a proud, strict academic style, its practitioners more suspicious and derisive than any other contemporary musicians of the whole concept of the avant-garde. What was new (and “scientific”) was the equation of academicism with technical innovation, rather than with the conservation and propagation of ancient lore. Thus a term, “academic,” that had been used throughout the twentieth century to decry musical conservatism was now actively claimed by a school of composition that called itself new and radical. The implicit paradox, and the attendant crisis of identity, brought a new set of anxieties into play.


(30) Milton Babbitt, “Who Cares if You Listen?,” High Fidelity, February 1958; reprinted in P. Weiss and R. Taruskin, Music in the Western World: A History in Documents (2nd ed., Belmont, CA: Thomson/Schirmer, 2007), p. 483.

(31) Ibid. p. 481.

(32) Ibid. p. 484.

(33) Ibid.

(34) Joseph Kerman, Contemplating Music: Challenges to Musicology (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985), p. 104.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 3 The Apex." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 7 Oct. 2022. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-003011.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 3 The Apex. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Late Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-003011.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 3 The Apex." In Music in the Late Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-003011.xml