Babbitt & Historicism

Babbitt & Historicism

( work in progress )

In the famous & infamous “Who Cares if You Listen?” article in Stereo Review, Babbitt used the word, “evolve”. His detractors and even some of his admirers pounced on that. In later program notes he spoke of music being “everything it can be”. It can do what he wants it to do, and that might be something musically worthwhile that music had never done before. A group of enthusiastic players and listeners recognized what he was doing, which was all the recognition he had hoped for. (More about that achievement will follow.) One of the most powerful of Babbitt’s champions was James Levine. For Babbitt’s 90th birthday Levine and his Metropolitan Opera Chamber Players put on a concert of Babbitt’s music at Weill Hall. In the pre-concert talk between Babbitt & Levine, the opening gambit went straight to the heart of the matter when Levine proposed that Babbitt’s work is the primary thrust of Western musical evolution. (The exact wording can be found in the archival recording of the concert of the Metropolitan Opera Chamber Players, May 10, 2006.) Babbitt’s response was that we cannot speak in those terms. This exchange has not received the recognition that it deserves. It was really very amusing of Levine to take that tack, but it offered Babbitt another very public opportunity to set the record straight.

There’s no doubt that Babbitt loved to use language whose complexity mirrored the complexity of his music. That was one of his more charming gags. In many cases, however, Babbitt was very careful to speak plainly and simply. He would speak plainly when he needed to dispel magical thinking, teleological language, or misguided analogies between music and math or music and science. One example: I once proposed to him that his music is fractal. No, he said, I am interested in relationships between big things and small things, if you want fractal music you should go to Jonathan Dawe. Babbitt had no patience with Douglas Hofstadter, and there were occasions when Hofstadter-type errors would crop up in a lecture/discussion—a misapplication of Gödel’s incompleteness theorems—and it was at such moments when he would look for the most simple way to avoid the error.

“Making music everything it can be” is a pragmatic end run around historicist traps.

The Inversion Vein

Babbitt should be celebrated for defining terms that are still in use today. His defining and redefining of terms was exhaustive and perfectly suited to the reorientations that took place in the aftermath of Schoenberg & Webern. However, to dwell on that accomplishment plays into the hands of those nay-sayers who wish to dismiss his work as a composer. In his creative work, Babbitt followed a vein and mined it. If we put it this way, one might say that someone had to do it, and make a case for its musical value. He mined inversion.

The same case can be made for Schoenberg. Schoenberg used grandiose historicist language to describe what he did. We can revise in pragmatic terms along the lines shown in the careful adjustments that Babbitt made in his language.

The third movement of Brahms’ Clarinet Quintet, op. 114 begins with arpeggiations of A minor and F major, with the high point of the line teetering between E and F—

A minor A, C, E

F major F, A, C

Minor and major triads are inversions of one another.

F major: F up to A is 4 half steps; A up to C is 3 half steps.
A minor: E down to C is 4 half steps; C down to A is 3 half steps.

Next in op. 114 there is an explosion of yet another inversional shape. E-F! — E-D#!
Up one half step; down one half step.

Notice the counterpoint in the accompanying figures. The accompaniment of E-D# is the exact inversion of the accompaniment of E-F. (!)

The traditional harmonic changes are *expressed through counterpoint in melodic inversion*. Schoenberg was the one who asked and answered the question, “can the inversional relationships usurp the functional harmony altogether so that the functional harmony can be dispensed with?”.

During a calamitous century that forced Schoenberg to a continent that understood frightfully little about all that was dear to him, he seems to have taken pleasure in speaking of his achievements in grandiose, Hegelian terms. We must note the odd parallel to that which drove him out of Europe—another grandiose Hegelian error along racist lines. In pragmatic terms, Schoenberg was making music everything it could be. With great skill and artistry he made a case for music based on a “tune” (row) and its inversion (and their retrogrades), and dispensing with traditional harmony. That is an understatement in that Schoenberg brought to his task the sensibility of a consummate post-Wagnerian, post-Brahmsian master of thematic development.

Babbitt took inversion further.

At this point it will be useful to outline the poetics of inversion from Bach through Schoenberg & Babbitt The relationships can be dazzling in their own right, but some acknowledgement of the way inversion aged and seasoned and fermented over the centuries is indispensable for the question of why anyone should care about inversion. We must understand *the erotics* of inversion.

In Bach’s binary forms, the A section progresses from I to V; the B section progresses from V to I. These two big structural moves are inversions of each other. [example] It was an aspect of Bach’s work ethic, part of his craft, to reflect the large inversional relationship in the smallest melodic details within the sections. [examples]. We could think of this as working in a manner that is sensitive to the “grain” of his materials. It is more than that. It can be compared to Goethe’s reaction to the discovery of the inter-maxillary bone, through which he concluded that humans are another “tone” or “shade” in the cosmic harmony (not unique among animals), therefore, the study of anatomy and of the morphology of plants can lead to secrets about the creation. Bach’s work is revealing aspects of God’s creation. If we think of Goethe’s take as being far more pantheistic, more Spinozan than Bach could have been, we may be wrong. It’s quite certain that Bach was aware of the Pietists and its figurehead Jakob Böhme. Böhme’s neoplatonic influences include much that might be seen influencing both Bach and Goethe—the macrocosm reflected in the microcosm. Goethe later expands this to, “what is within is also without”.


Chopin’s B minor Scherzo opens with a high chord and a low chord. The first would become known as the “Tristan chord”, through its association with Tristan in Wagner’s opera. The second chord is the dominant 7 chord, which is the precise inversion of the Tristan chord. [example] The Tristan chord is a predominant chord, as mystifying in its ultimate destination as the dominant 7 is definitive. There is nothing in the West that is more akin to the Chinese yin/yang. These two harmonies perform yin/yang better than any words can explain it. Music goes (lovingly) until it stops and the V7 signals the end. Eros & Thanatos—Love & Death are flip sides of the same thing.

Wagner was the model *Symboliste*. The Symbolists see objects of erotic attraction building first enthusiasm and quickly undoing themselves, burning out, dying. Tristan & Isolde’s *Liebestodt* is axiomatic. The ideal is found in many other lovely post-wagnerian manifestations. Robert Walser’s Der Greifensee.

Mild und leise
wie er lächelt,
wie das Auge
hold er öffnet
—seht ihr's, Freunde?
Seht ihr's nicht?
Immer lichter
wie er leuchtet,
stern-umstrahlet
hoch sich hebt?
Seht ihr's nicht?



ertrinken,
versinken, –
unbewusst, –
höchste Lust!
Softly and gently
how he smiles,
how his eyes
fondly open
—do you see, friends?
do you not see?
how he shines
ever brighter.
Star-haloed
rising higher
Do you not see?

[...and ends...]

to drown,
to founder –
unconscious –
utmost bliss!

Theordor Storm’s Schliesse Mir die Augen Beide was set twice by Alban Berg
Schliesse mir die Augen beide
mit den lieben Händen zu!
Geht doch alles, was ich leide,
unter deiner Hand zur Ruh.

Und wie leise sich der Schmerz
Well' um Welle schlafen leget,
wie der letzte Schlag sich reget,
füllest du mein ganzes Herz.
Close both my eyes
with your beloved hands!
Let all my suffering
gain rest beneath your hand.

And as gently the pain
wave upon wave lies in sleep,
As the last blow falls
you fill my whole heart.

The strain of Symbolistes from Baudelaire through Mallarme to Valery place a high value on a Poe-inspired indefiniteness. Baudelaire says somewhere that he has no interest in anything “positif”. There needed to be constant cognizance of an [erotic] object’s fluidity, its propensity to turn into its opposite. Mallarme was particularly taken by Wagner, as was Debussy. In Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune the Tristan chord and dominant 7 chord find their most perfectly French expression, and moreover, a miraculous un-wording (a non-semantic performance) of what Mallarme did with respect to Wagner.* Here, Debussy does briefly, and with French airiness, what Wagner takes 5 hours to do in Tristan and Isolde.

*It would be more usual to say that Debussy did in music what Mallarme did with words, but that is less interesting because it reflects the normal valuation of the verbal over the non-verbal. We are verbal people and place too much value on the verbal sphere.

Valery shared with Mallarme a high regard for indefiniteness, and after Debussy & Mallarme were gone, Valery’s means of achieving the right indefiniteness became more involved. Edmund Wilson, in his book about the Symbolists, Axel’s Castle, explains the great complexity of Valery’s processes. Valery exerts a great amount of craft and technique in pursuit of the indefinite. This is also true of Boulez. After a brief period of rebellion when Boulez would write music calculated to shock, he arrived, with Le marteu sans maitre, at a ripened compositional technique that employed complex techniques in the service of a distinct indefiniteness of the Valery-Mallarme-Baudelaire-Poe vintage.

The technical aspects come from Schoenberg.

If Boulez can be thought of as an anti-positivist in the tradition of Poe, Baudelaire, Mallarme, Debussy, and Valery, Babbitt’s approach is openly and unapologetically *positivistic*. While his music may ultimately be more difficult than the music of Boulez, Babbitt’s techniques are *intended* as positive demonstrations of principles at work. Babbitt’s compositional concerns begin with Schoenberg’s practices, many of which were not understood by Schoenberg himself. Babbitt explained what was going on in Schoenberg, and went much further from there.

[ I need more information here about the odor of positivism, particularly in the arts. ]

Combinatoriality

Schoenberg employed combinatorial hexachords. Webern went further and explored combinatorial trichords. Neither understood how they worked.

[ Examples ]

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