Milton Babbitt: A Discussion in 12 Parts

Milton Babbitt: A Discussion in 12 Parts

7. The Economics of New Music

MILTON BABBITT: Look, what we don’t have now, let’s be very, I think the misused word is pragmatic—you as a Columbia man and John Dewey would object to that use of the word pragmatic as much as I do—we had support. We had the Rockefeller Foundation and the Ford Foundation and the National Endowment, which now won’t commission individuals. It will commission only, may I use the word, bureaucrats. Do you know the programs that Ford had in those days?

FRANK J. OTERI: They commissioned orchestras, they had orchestra commissions for new music…

MILTON BABBITT: They had all kinds of commissions. They promoted the recording of music…

FRANK J. OTERI: The American Music Center was involved with that program.

MILTON BABBITT: Yeah, I mean, the amount of stuff. The Rockefeller Foundation put on those famous competitions—one doesn’t like competitions, but it led to any number of people learning music that they never would’ve even looked at and other people hearing it. They paid for extra rehearsals. Did you know that the Rockefeller Foundation paid for an extra week of rehearsals for major orchestras to learn new works?


MILTON BABBITT: It was just incredible. It was a different kind of world. The Rockefeller Foundation paid for the founding of the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, for the foundation of New World Records. And this was all individual people at these organizations, it was always the individual persons.

FRANK J. OTERI: That’s precisely what it has to take: money that’s allotted to a program that specifically goes to fund extra rehearsals. Because let’s face it, you get two rehearsals of a piece—I don’t care how accessible or inaccessible someone may wind up saying the piece is later—two rehearsals, you’re not going to get a good performance of a new piece. You’re just not…certainly not an orchestral piece.

MILTON BABBITT: No, no, no, I mean I couldn’t agree with you more. In fact, when you consider…I mean, we go back to these historical things: How many rehearsals Tristan got before they cancelled it and said it wasn’t ready yet? Ninety-eight, I think. How many rehearsals for the first performance of Moses and Aron? How many…when the Orchestral Variations of Schoenberg were first performed, I think Furtwängler gave it something like twelve rehearsals and Schoenberg heard that it was a very poor performance; he couldn’t afford to go to Berlin to hear it. No, of course, it was taken for granted. Look at the rehearsals that Mahler spent on any concert that he gave, even in New York when he came to the Philharmonic. If you want to hear something remarkable, and this doesn’t involve the music we’re talking about, listen to Frederick Stock and the Chicago Symphony in the ’20s, playing whatever, you name it, those Rossini overtures that we all know, with a kind of precision, with a kind of control, with a kind of ensemble we never hear because they rehearsed everyday, all day long, damn it.

FRANK J. OTERI: So what happened?

MILTON BABBITT: Well, we’re not allowed to say unions are we?

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, maybe that is the problem.

MILTON BABBITT: It is one of the problems. Look, when Jimmy Levine is kind enough and interested enough to perform my Second Piano Concerto and I don’t have a single record of it, they wouldn’t let us make a tape, a private tape. The Metropolitan tried, Carnegie Hall tried and I tried. We all tried just to get a tape for ourselves and they wouldn’t permit anything. I have no record of that. I have no record of the Philharmonic playing my Relata II. To what end? And Jimmy wants to do the piece again when he can save up enough time so they can rehearse it.

FRANK J. OTERI: And that orchestra, the Met orchestra, sounds better than any orchestra.

MILTON BABBITT: I couldn’t agree more. You’re absolutely right.

FRANK J. OTERI: They’re fantastic. I was at their Wozzeck a few weeks back and it was great.

MILTON BABBITT: Terrific. Oh, that orchestra can sound unbelievable. Absolutely, absolutely… So what do we do?

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