Two musical deaths – Milton Babbitt and Dame Margaret Price

Two musical deaths – Milton Babbitt and Dame Margaret Price


norman lebrecht

January 29, 2011

Milton Babbitt, godfather of American ascetic music, has died aged 94. He was far more than his music let on. A mathematician and wit, he once taught Stephen Sondheim, who spoke of him ever after with warm appreciation.

In a 2004 interview, Sondheim said‘Babbitt taught me what long-line composition is about, how to organise music over a span of time. It has to be the musical equivalent of a plot in a play.’

Here’s a 2006 Babbitt interview.

And here’s his Composition for Four Instruments, with running score. More clips on his Facebook page.

Also gone is Margaret Price, the great Welsh soprano, at just 69. She was a heroine almost without honour in her homeland. Acclaimed in Germany and Austria for her Lieder as well as her opera roles, she was inadequately appreciated in London and insufficiently recorded by Decca, which gave its plum roles to Joan Sutherland and Renata Tebaldi, and later to Kiri te Kanawa.

I heard her last some 20 years ago in Salzburg, a memorable Schubert recital, wonderfully modulated and without the harsh edge that sometimes marred her microphone performances.

Soon after, she recorded for Hyperion’s complete Schubert edition.

It’s a sad day for music when two titans leave the scene.

And here’s an underrated Mahler’s Fourth she recorded with Jascha Horenstein.

And Strauss Four Last Songs on Youtube.


  • Marie Lamb says:

    As you say, Norman, a sad day for music. I just had to inform my listeners of this news after the end of the Met broadcast, never an easy part of the job. Regarding Milton Babbitt, thanks for including links to the interviews, and especially to the video with the score of the Composition for Four Instruments. I’m not surprised that Babbitt was rather amused when Fred Child made the joking reference to Babbitt’s music as “gibberish.” Nothing could be further from the truth, IMHO. Having the score along with the music lets listeners follow what Babbitt is doing, and it is actually quite logical in its progress. The logic of Babbitt’s music, and the idea that it is so carefully “organized over a span of time,” is much of what makes it attractive and interesting. No wonder Sondheim, and many others, thought so highly of his work!
    As for Dame Margaret Price, I have been a fan of her fine singing ever since I was a teenager. I practically wore out her beautiful LPs of Mozart opera and concert arias that were released in the U.S. on RCA in the 1970s, and I have enjoyed her other work as well. It’s a shame that she was not better represented on commercial recordings, but, as you say, she was up against stiff competition. However, those of us who know her work are very loyal. Years later, when the two Mozart albums were reissued on a single CD, I gave my copy to WCNY-FM when I found out that we had almost nothing by her in the station library. I’m glad to say that the CD has received a lot of use, so that our listeners have had more of a chance to hear her. Also, after I e-mailed our post-opera show producer last night with the news, she informed me that she’ll do a tribute to Dame Margaret in the near future. I’m so sorry that she left this world at such an early age, but I am grateful for the beautiful voice and art that she shared with us all.

  • Thomas Hogan says:

    “Yes, Norman”, as your sycophantic co-blogger is sure to say, it is truly a sad day.

  • Angela Boyd says:

    It was a pleasure working with Margaret, when I was at RCA’s Red Seal office in London, and involved in the administration of her Mozart Aria albums. Thankfully the Opera and Concert aria LPs were made by RCA then, so that they can remain a permanent memorial to her beautiful Mozart interpretations.
    Angela Boyd