Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Milton Babbitt’s Lighter Side

I was recently reviewing a new CD of Babbitt’s Clarinet Quintet (by the Phoenix Ensemble, Innova 746 – it’s good, but the Feldman coupling is better - my review his here) and was struck by a passing comment in the liner notes. The work is apparently infused with jazzy rhythms and is at the breezier end of Babbitt’s aesthetic. I needed this pointing out as it sounds typically crunchy to me – not that there is anything wrong with that of course, that’s just the way I like it. But one interesting fact was used to demonstrate Babbitt’s lighter side: in 1946 he wrote a Broadway musical! Broadway, it hardly needs to be said, wasn’t interested. The mind boggles, but it seems that Babbitt has had a soft spot for musical theatre throughout his life. The failure of this one project was apparently one of the reasons he abandoned that path and instead ensconced himself in the Princeton electronic music studio.

The work is called ‘Fabulous Voyage’ and is a theatrical retelling of Homer’s Odyssey. Dawn Upshaw and James Levine gave a few of the numbers an airing in 1999, and Allan Kozinin of the New York Times came away particularly impressed by “Penelope’s Night Song”. Could it be time for Broadway to make amends for this slight? For opponents of Babbitt’s atonal sounds (and indeed of his aesthetic dogmas) it may well be too late. It could have been an impressive dual career though, and success on the boards might have tempered some of the composer’s more intolerant opinions of composers who weren’t following his chosen path.

And it all might go to explain another conundrum. Stephen Sondheim famously studied with Babbitt, and like Cage with Schoenberg, I’ve always wondered what common musical ground there could have been between teacher and pupil. Well, now I know. I’m struggling to get my head round the idea of Babbitt as a light-hearted melodist though.

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