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Milton Babbitt

Milton Babbitt at work in one of the four composition studios at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, Columbia University, New York, ca. 1968. © William Gedney Collection/Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library at Duke University.

BABBITT. For decades, that bouncy disyllable signified two things: a man who was one of the most engaging presences in the New York musical world—composer, theorist, teacher (at Princeton and Juilliard); connoisseur of popular song from the golden age; lecturer possessing formidable erudition, wit, and improvisatory prowess; faithful supporter at his friends’ and students’ concerts—and a prodigious body of work that went back to the years immediately after World War II and guaranteed its author a leading place among those remembered for remaking music at that time. But, hard as this may be to admit for those who benefited from his generosity, the balance was off. Babbitt the man was often to be encountered, Babbitt the music rarely.

Espoused as his works were by many formidable musicians, from James Levine, who commissioned his last two orchestral scores (the Second Piano

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