On Milton Babbitt’s centenary, a rare film score revisited
May 10 is the 100th birthday of Milton Babbitt (1916-2011), the brilliant, genially Gordian panjandrum of American musical modernism, whose mathematically rigorous scores course with sharp, heterodox lyricism. His avant-garde image was well-earned, but Babbitt was more versatile than his reputation: Witness, for instance, his unproduced but thoroughly idiomatic Broadway musical, “Fantastic Voyage” (a dividend of Babbitt’s dance-band apprenticeship, which seeded an encyclopedic knowledge of American popular song). Less-cited — and even more less-known — is Babbitt’s sole film score, for a 1949 production called “Into the Good Ground.”
Unlike his pop-song efforts (of which he remained proud), Babbitt usually dismissed “Into the Good Ground.” As he told it, Pathescope, the production company, while consulting Babbitt on sound reproduction, asked him to score the film just because he happened to be around. He once called it “one of those very complex, pretentious movies that they were making in New York just before television came,” and joked that he was grateful some prints omitted his credit. But the film is considerably more interesting — and unexpected — than Babbitt let on.
“Into the Good Ground” is an educational drama, and, moreover, an explicitly religious one. Pathescope made the film on hire for the Presbyterian Church and its publishing company, the Westminster Press. (The film is hard to find — I watched a copy helpfully supplied by the Notre Dame University archives — but one suspects prints may yet lurk in church basements.) Outwardly successful architect Dan Gardner (played by Harvey Stephens), through a series of personal and professional crises, comes to a more God-centered understanding of scripture, and a more purposeful life. Tellingly, the tale is bookended by excerpts from Handel’s “Messiah.” But the bulk of the music is Babbitt’s.
And there is a lot of music. The film’s heavy reliance on explanatory montage and narration hampers the drama, but offers ample opportunity for underscoring. Babbitt’s cues are elegantly rich and often harmonically daring. The pastorally labyrinthine style blends Aaron Copland’s neo-classicism and Paul Hindemith’s chromaticism — a common combination in postwar American classical music, but one Babbitt takes to fascinatingly piquant places. In a rare positive assessment, Babbitt called it “a serious score”; he was right.
One can only speculate why Babbitt strenuously (if self-deprecatingly) downplayed “Into the Good Ground.” Was it the didactic religiosity? The musical style? By 1949, Babbitt was already otherwise far down the 12-tone path he would so comprehensively explore. It is interesting to compare Babbitt’s earlier, similarly sacred, similarly Hindemith-like “Music for the Mass” — which he finally published not long before his death. The music for “Into the Good Ground” might warrant similar rehabilitation: obscure but intriguing evidence of Babbitt’s ever-resourceful craft.