This year’s Focus! festival, the 32nd, celebrates the centennial of late faculty member Milton Babbitt and includes six concerts from January 22 through 29.
One part of the preparation for this festival has been a real thriller. It began last spring when faculty member Jonathan Dawe (MM ’91, DMA ’95, composition) breathlessly told me that Concerti, Milton Babbitt’s lost 1977 violin concerto, had been found—in the Juilliard library! I had never heard of it, and Jonathan said that although Babbitt had spoken of it, he had never been sure if the piece was truly finished or if it was perhaps just sketches. The idea of a major Babbitt world premiere was thus doubly exciting. But there was an immediate problem: the piece is scored for violin, small orchestra, and four-channel tape—it was Babbitt’s next-to-last work using electronics—but no tape had been located. Still, Jonathan, who studied with Babbitt at Juilliard, was confident that as all the pitches and rhythms of the electronics are notated in the score, he could draw on his extensive knowledge of Babbitt’s electronic sound world to create something that Babbitt himself might have. Since they were very close and Jonathan is not one to be overconfident, it sounded promising, so I immediately offered the solo part to third-year DMA violinist Julia Glenn knowing that her playing would be ideal for it and that, having completed her classes and exams, she would probably have more time to learn it.
Concerti had been commissioned by Isidor Lateiner, the violinist-brother of the late Jacob Lateiner (piano faculty 1966-2010), but he’d never played it. Jonathan said that Babbitt was really discouraged by the lack of a performance and seemed to lose confidence in the piece, and I’m guessing that Isidor never could find a group that could do it and/or that the electronics may have posed other problems, such as finding a competent, willing conductor or being able to raise production costs or overcoming the hostility of many performers to electronics, which was a major factor in the music world of that time. When Isidor died in 2005, he bequeathed the score and solo part to Jacob, who was a major collector, and after Jacob’s death, in 2010, his large collection came up for sale and Jane Gottlieb, our vice president for library and information resources and director of the doctoral program, snapped it up.
The score bore no indication of having been published, and C.F. Peters, Babbitt’s publisher, confirmed that there was no contract for publication, which meant performance rights rested with Babbitt’s estate. I contacted his daughter, Betty Ann Duggan, and while we were on the phone, her partner, Paula, handed her the missing tape! (Betty Ann described Paula as “very organized.”) But soon another challenge arose. Bob Taibbi, the head of Juilliard’s recording studio, sent the tape to a restoration company, which reported that at 15 inches per second, there would be 5 minutes of music; at 7½ inches per second it held 10 minutes of music. That gave me pause, since according to the score, the tape plays in almost all of the 19 minutes of the piece—a big part of the tape was clearly missing or had never been completed. So now it was clear why Concerti was never performed, but not why Babbitt never returned to it, especially since he completed another piece with tape—his last—three years later. We’re still working to see if that mystery can be solved, but in the meantime, Jonathan is confident that he’ll be able to re-create Babbitt’s palette of sounds and complete the tape for use in our concert. I share his confidence and look forward to N.J.E. giving Concerti its long-overdue premiere on January 22 at the opening Focus! concert.