A Tale of Two Twelve-Tone Techniques

Milton Babbitt and the Darmstadt Holiday Courses for New Music.

Daniel Wolf

The inheritance of Schoenberg's "method of composing with twelve tones" was divided among many successors representing an extreme diversity of compositional results. The most consequent and internally consistant approach to both twelve-tone theory and composition has very likely been that of the American Milton Babbit, a composer and theorist whose work has never become well known in Europe. Babbitt's technique features a thorough exploration of:

(1) the implications of Schoenberg's dictum that no tone -- in Babbitt's useful term, a pitch class, without reference to octave registration -- should be repeated until the remaining eleven tones have intervened. The successive complete sets of twelve tones, or aggregates, which play a role in twelve-tone music analogous, perhaps, to that played by harmonic rhythm in tonal musics, are insured a maximum diversity of orderings and partionings through combinatorial virtuosity. This virtuosity was achieved through an examination of the set-theoretical properties of twelve-tone equal temperament.


(2) the ways in which each of the musical parameters may be organized so as to simultaneously project or articulate a single underlying set structure. Thus, instrumentation might be used to project the individual "lynes" of the combinatorial array, and rhythmic attacks would be distributed throughout a measure in an analogy between metrical and pitched intervals. This contrasts with the tendency in works of Messiaen, Goeyvaerts, Boulez, Cage, Stockhausen for each parameter to aquire independent organization.

One of the puzzles in the development in post-war twelve-tone and serial technique is the apparently limited contact and exchange between European and American composers, in particular the lack of awareness of Milton Babbitt's work in Europe. In fact, the successive directors of the Darmstadt Holiday Courses for New Music were seriously interested in bringing Babbitt to the attention of young European composers and the new music public. But instead, a series of problems (with a publisher, an untimely automobile accident, a change in administration in Darmstadt, scheduling conflicts, and perhaps a lack of money) conspired to create a situation where Darmstadt's open invitation to Babbitt to teach was continuously postponed. Although Babbitt was well-received when he finally came to teach at Darmstadt, the Darmstadt he arrived at was no longer that of the serial Boulez, Nono, or Stockhausen, who had each stopped attending the Holiday Courses*, but had instead moved on to the rather different concerns of Kagel, Pouseur, Ligeti, and Helms.

The following is a synopsis of the correspondance between Milton Babbitt and the International Music Institute in Darmstadt, for the use of whose archives I am very grateful.


3.5.58 Dr Wolfgand Steinecke, director of the courses, writes to Babbitt, proposing the performance one or more chamber works by Babbitt in the upcoming course, and inviting him to serve as a Dozent in the course whenever he would be coming to Europe.

19.6.58 Babbitt to Steinecke: Babbitt apologizes to Steinecke that his request to the publisher Boelke-Bomart to have scores sent to Darmstadt was not fulfilled and that responsibilities to the Princeton Music Department, Tanglewood and the advent of the RCA synthesizer had left him tied up with other obligations.

11.12.58 Steinecke to Babbitt: apologizies from Steinecke to Babbitt for the delayed answer. Steinecke invites Babbitt to hold a composition seminar in 1959, consisting of 10 lectures on his own theme, with a fee of DM1000.

17.2.59 Steinecke to Babbitt: a repeat of the previous offer with a change of dates and a reminder of the problem with undelivered scores.

5.3.59 Steinecke to Babbitt: yet another repeat of the previous offer.


11.3.59 Babbitt to Steinecke. Babbitt writes that he is still recovering from an auto accident in the previous summer and that the new dates conflicted with the Princeton Seminar for Advanced Musical Studies.

24.9.59 Steinecke to Babbitt: Steinecke makes Babbitt a new offer to teach in July, 1960.

There is no record of a response to Steinecke's new offer from Babbitt. Steinecke died, unexpectedly, on 23.12.59. As a footnote, it was due to Babbitt's accident that the young Californian composer La Monte Young chose graduate study at the University of California at Berkeley (with Schifrin and Imbrie) instead of with Babbitt at Princeton.

31.7.63 Ernst Thomas, Steinecke's successor, to Milton Babbitt in Dartington (Thomas notes that he got the address reference from Pierre Boulez): Babbitt is invited to teach in July, 1964.

11.9.63 Babbitt to Thomas: Invitation to teach in 1964 accepted in principle, but still awaiting an estimate of the travel costs. A greeting to Pierre Boulez, in English, is appended.

1.11.63 Thomas to Babbitt: Thomas requests that Babbitt teach a course of twelve 90-minute sessions, in English, with a fee of DM1200. A title for the course in German is requested.

16.1.64 Thomas to Babbitt: The request for the title is repeated. Thomas proposed a performance of Babbitt's "Vision and Prayer".


8.2.64 Babbitt to Thomas: "...unsure of course organization but... if divided into composition and analysis courses (above) title for composition course and "The Synthesis and Perception of the Musical Event" is the title for the analysis course." Babbitt recommends that Bethany Beardsley be invited to sing "Vision and Prayer" and notes that he will also bring a tape of his "Ensembles for Synthesizer".

28.2.64 Thomas to Babbitt: An acknowledgement of Babbitt previous letter and acceptance of the proposed performance by Beardsley.

26.4.64 Babbitt to Thomas: a note about tape machines.

14.5.64 Thomas to Babbitt: a technical note.

23.6.64 Babbitt to Thomas: confirmation of travel plans.


Babbitt taught his course in July 1964. The program for the 1964 course included composition seminars by Babbitt, Ligeti (Apparitions, Atmospheres, Aventures), Pousseur (Electronic Music), Kagel ("Analysis of Analysis"; "Composing and Decomposing"), and by Hans G. Helms ("Composition in Language"). A congress was held on the topic of "Notation in New Music".

Babbitt's Vision and Prayer was sung by Bethany Beardsley on a chamber music concert on 23.7. The program also included works by Stockhausen (Kontrapunkte, Klavierstücke VII and VIII), Earle Brown (December 52) and by Bruno Maderna (Dimenzioni IV).

Students enrolled in the courses that summer included: Carlos Martin Alsina, Eberhard Blum, Cornelius Cardew, Robert P. Ceely, Joel Chadabe, Jani Christou, Alvin Curran, Rudolf Frisius, Dr. Heinz Josef Herbort, Hans Joachim Hespos, Theo Hirsbrunner, Erhard Karkoschka, Helmut Lachenmann, Getrude Meyer-Denkmann, Emmanuel Nunes, Bernard Rands, Rolf Riehm, Makoto Shinohara, Isang Yun, Roman Zupko, Frederic Rzewski.

The press reception to Babbitt's course was universally positive:

Otto Tomok, Hessischer Rundfunk broadcast: "With his seminar...(Babbitt) found general great attention."

Cornelius Cardew, in the Financial Times (31.7.64): "Of the lecturers Milton Babbitt was well worth hearing... 12 excellently delivered lectures".

H.H. Stuckenschmidt, cited in a Frankfurter Rundschau article of 28.7.64: regarding the American's compositional theory, it was a "high school of thought in the relationship of tones, a fundmental research of the purifying kind".

Heinz Joachim, in Die Welt (20.7.64): "...the high point was the college of Milton Babbitt.... the intellectual center... was formed by the composition course of the American composer and pedagogue Milton Babbitt, who, with uncommon force and clarity, with penetrating intelligence and mathematical precision was able to decipher and communicate insight into the "Structure of musical systems", namely those of Schoenberg, Webern and Stravinsky, from whom whole generations of composers could follow."

But Joachim injects a cautionary tone, that suggests that Babbitt's strengths were ill-matched to the current concerns of the new music community as represented by Darmstadt:

"It was a double shame that these recognitions had to remain closed to those who could not follow the often purely abstract discourse in the language of the American. For the interest in the Holiday course, as far as we could observe, had noticeably declined, and never had Darmstadt stood so perilously before the question on which its future would be decided: What can be done, in order to secure compositional handwork and to strengthen the responsibility of the creative musician? We expect the answer -- the practical solution -- next year."

The answer was not to come, in Darmstadt, from Milton Babbitt.


4.11.64 Thomas to Babbitt: Thomas invites Babbitt to teach in 1965.

15.1.65 Thomas to Babbitt: Thomas repeats the invitation, proposing that Babbitt teach "The Structure of Musical Systems II" as well as participate in a congress on "Form in der neuen Musik".

26.1.65 Babbitt to Thomas: Babbitt writes that he is unable to come due to the costs.

5.2.65 Thomas to Babbitt: Thomas offers Babbitt a fee of DM4000.

ca. 17.3.65 Babbitt to Thomas: Babbitt writes that he cannot accept. "...didn't intend to ask for money from you and won't accept it this year." In addition, Babbitt notes that he had received a commission from the Cleveland Orchestra.

17.3.65 Thomas to Babbitt. Thomas, noting that DAAD-Fulbright funds could be secured, invites Babbitt to teach in 1966.

25.10.65 Thomas to Babbitt. Thomas's invitation is repeated.

5.1.66 Thomas to Babbitt: Thomas's initation is again repeated.

9.1.66 Babbitt to Thomas: Babbitt writes of "...a very complex struggle I have had with myself in attempting to arrive at a decision...". "I feel certain you must know how much, on the one hand, I have appreciated and profited from your great considerateness and generosity, and on the other hand, have felt keenly the ambiguous position of an American composer in Europe at this time. I have had to try to decide whether I, in all aware modesty, could best serve not only my own interests (which, admittedly, do concern me increasingly) but those of the younger American composers who are suffering , almost without exception, and almost as greatly as I did, the absence of publishers, of genuine colleagueship with their European contemporaries, the lack of representation by performance in Europe that they provide for their European contemporaries, and -- in sum -- the great gulf that musically separates our two continents, So, with a relunctance which I hope you are fully aware of, I feel obliged to conclude that whatever I represent and can contribute, I would do best to represent and contribute here at this particular moment in our musical development. For me, this is a sacrifice of the great pleasure that I know I would have again in seeing you and in spending two more exciting weeks in Darmstadt, but i see no alternative. I hope only that you will find it possible to make your promised trip here and allow me to try to repay something of your great hospitality."

"I hope the time is not too far distant when I will be able to face the musical situation that exists between our two cultures with greater equanimity and, perhaps, even optimism. If so, I can hope only that you will still feel it possible generously to invite me again."

"With warmest personal greetings, I remain,

As ever,

Milton Babbitt"

The correspondence between Babbitt and the International Music Institute ends with this letter.


* Boulez was increasingly involved in performance and less interested in teaching; his compositional practice, more and more informed by his performance experiences, was also less suitable for providing textbook examples of compositional techniques. Nono's political concerns were largely outside of the technique-oriented framework of the course, and his use of the electronic music studio was well beyond the technical resources of the courses. Stockhausen had formed a competing course of his own, in Cologne, with the hope to establish this as a year-round institution.