Zachary Bernstein

Some Reflections on Milton Babbitt, Schenkerian

Milton Babbitt was never shy about his enthusiasm for Heinrich Schenker, listing him, along with Arnold Schoenberg and Rudolf Carnap, as one of the vertices of his ‘Vienna Triangle’ of inspirations. Nonetheless, in many ways the influence of Schoenberg and Carnap is more overt in Babbitt’s music and theoretical writings than that of Schenker, and a great deal of scholarship on Babbitt has focused on his extensions of Schoenberg’s twelve-tone system or his Carnapian concern with a verificationist—for Babbitt, ‘scientific’—understanding of meaning and discourse.

This paper will look more closely at Babbitt’s conception of Schenker, for three reasons. The first is the central importance Schenker had for Babbitt. It will be shown that a great deal of Babbitt’s thinking was affected by the influence of Schenker, including his conception of the tonal and twelve-tone systems and his analyses of a wide range of tonal, atonal, and twelve-tone compositions. Perhaps most importantly, his understanding of Schenker profoundly shaped his compositional technique. The second is to re-evaluate Babbitt’s idiosyncratic view of Schenkerian thought.  Babbitt recast Schenker in terms of analytic philosophy, cognitive psychology, and compositional theory, three fields of inquiry largely missing from either Schenker’s writings or most modern Schenkerian discourse, but each with fascinating consequences.  The third is to understand the disciplinary consequences of this recasting. Babbitt’s understanding of Schenker shaped the ‘Americanization of Heinrich Schenker’, to borrow William Rothstein’s apt phrase, and had further consequences for the many composers inspired by Babbitt.