Milton Babbitt, American composer, has died, aged 94. In spite of his rigorously intellectual approach to his compositional craft, I’ve never heard a piece by Babbitt that was not at core profoundly musical. Stylistically, it might not have been my cuppa, but his pieces always worked. And he was by all accounts a true gentleman, as witness this account by Jeff Harrington, a fine composer and gentleman himself:
He was genuinely the nicest person I met at Juilliard and both he and I being from Mississippi helped us bond. When I ran out of money and had to drop out, he was the only member of the composition department that seemed to give a shit. During a Master’s panel for the end of term, David Diamond attacked my conducting skills, in the most un-warranted fashion and would just not let up. Mr. Babbitt very calmly cleared his throat and then asked me in the most serious manner, “Jeff, having lived in Louisiana, what’s the secret to a good Jambalaya?” I almost cracked up from the relief of the situation and calmly replied, “It’s all about the Roux… it has to be burnt a bit.” David Diamond became red with rage and sat down furious.