Milton Babbitt’s Glosses on American Jewish Identity

Maggart, Alison

Despite the fact that Babbitt claimed to “regard himself as Jewish and did not wish to be in any way evasive about being Jewish,” little scholarship has documented how Babbitt’s Jewish identity influenced his discourse or music. Yet, during the postwar era—a time when many American Jews felt an obligation to reaffirm their Jewish identity—Babbitt frequently employed Jewish themes in his discourse. Mapping the Jewish Exile narrative onto the plight of academic composers, he often draws correspondences between Schoenberg and Moses, America and the Promised Land, and the university and Masada. In this article, I contextualize this aspect of Babbitt’s rhetoric by outlining how his relationship to his Jewish identity evolved over the course of his career: from concessions he made to Princeton’s anti-Semitic policies early in his career to his active participation in conferences devoted to Jewish issues later in his career. I argue that the analogies Babbitt draws between Jewish tradition and his music demonstrate that he, like many American Jews during the period, fashioned his Jewish identity around Jewish individuals and religious beliefs that complemented his secular worldview. Then, I examine the repercussions Babbitt’s constructed Jewish identity had for his music. To this end, I offer an interpretation of three climactic, unsung moments in Glosses (1988). These three un-pitched vocalizations, I argue, not only realize the Jewish tradition wherein God, who in defying definition also resists signification, but also gloss Schoenberg’s musical symbol for YHVH.


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October 23, 2018