Review | Istvan Anhalt: Pathways and Memory, Robin Elliott and Gordon E. Smith, eds.

Istvan Anhalt: Pathways and Memory, edited by Robin Elliott and Gordon E. Smith. Montréal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2001. [496p. ISBN: 077352102X, $85.00 (hardcover).]

The recent Festschrift-style volume, Istvan Anhalt: Pathways and Memory (Montréal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2001), is the most valuable document to date on a major figure in twentieth- and twenty-first-century music, as well as a significant addition to the understanding of the development of current art music in North America, as distinct from the European tradition. It can be argued that Istvan Anhalt is the quintessential Canadian composer: he relates how upon his arrival in Canada in 1949 from Hungary by way of Paris, he:

immediately felt very good [t]here. At that time there was no flag, no national anthem that everybody could sing. Also, people made fun of nationalism in those days, which was very refreshing. (34)

This statement is critical not only in understanding Anhalt as a composer, but also to the worldview of an entire generation of composers who endured what can only be described as horror brought on by xenophobia. In view of this, the thoroughly un-patriotic Canada must have seemed like the Promised Land.

It may appear ironic that a composer who moved from Europe in his thirties would come to epitomize Canadian music, but in a nation as full of immigrants as Canada is, it is quite normal. American composer George Rochberg claims that Anhalt is “entirely and deeply European,” (356) and he refers to Anhalt’s attention to detail and care with documentation as evidence of this claim. Nevertheless, Robin Elliott’s elegant biographical sketches, “Life in Europe” and “Life in Montreal,” remind the reader that North American art music developed at least partly through cross-pollination with Europe. One need only look at the influence of Nadia Boulanger, whose students included many well-known North American musicians, and as a young Hungarian immigrant to France, Anhalt studied with Boulanger.1 Of course North American art music had native influences, including the powerful influence of American popular music, but in the early 1950s, there was little aesthetic difference between the European and North American traditions of art music. As Anhalt’s music shows, this was soon about to change: powerful North American influences such as indeterminacy and minimalism and the continent’s rapidly changing demographics forever changed art music.

Istvan Anhalt was born in 1919 to Jewish parents in Hungary, but never felt at home in his native country. Thus, it is all the more poignant that his search for home would not only lead him to Canada, the immigrant nation par excellence, but would also inflect his music with this search that is in line with the developing Canadian musical aesthetic. Anhalt’s eagerness to absorb Canadian culture, both French and English, and his curiosity about trends in American music, both serious and popular, has allowed him to create a panoply of musical references that is neither trivially post-modern nor rigidly modernist. Instead, what he has developed is a musical style that is eclectic in the best sense of the term. It carefully celebrates the achievements of others, dutifully notes much twentieth-century music, resulting in a music that is both pleasant to listen to and filled with references that contemporary listeners can relate to. This example, from his recent Juno Award winning CD demonstrates the beauty of line that characterises Anhalt’s recent orchestral music:

Audio Example 1: Tents of AbrahamCanadian Composer Portraits: Istvan AnhaltCentredisc CMCCD 10204 (2004)

Although he studied with some of the century’s greatest teachers, including Zoltán Kodály and Nadia Boulanger, he could neither adopt Kodály’s Hungarian nationalist pride, nor share Boulanger’s allegiance to Stravinsky. He was, and remains, a broadly learned person, a man for whom there is no container, a composer whose style cannot be described in terms of the traditional stylistic moles of Stravinsky: Schoenberg, acoustic: electro-acoustic, American: European. He is all of these, and more. Perhaps the most inspiring and peculiar thing about Anhalt is that his most productive period began after his retirement as Head of the Queen’s University School of Music in Kingston Canada. His series of large-scale works includes a trilogy of orchestral works from the late 1980s,2 two theatrical works which he describes as operas (although they are far from traditional operas) Traces (Tikkun)(1995) and Millennial Mall (Lady Diotima’s Walk) (1999), and a series of orchestral works (not listed in the book) including Twilight Fire (2002) and The Tents of Abraham (2004). This immense body of work is the result of study and knowledge from a lifetime of development. William Benjamin, author of “Alternatives of Voice,” the article on Anhalt’s orchestral music, frequently expresses frustration at the intensely original forms the composer chose to frame his works. To his dismay, there are no sonata-allegro forms in any of these works; they are organic, free works that defy labels.

Like Anhalt’s work, the volume, edited by Robin Elliott and Gordon E. Smith, is eclectic and varied, reflecting the style of its subject. At the same time, though, it is a remarkable tour de force because it carefully contextualizes the composer and his work in a changing world by seeking out authors who write well and clearly about specific aspects of this vastly knowledgeable and wise person. The volume is divided into four parts: the first is a biography; the second, a discussion of his compositions; the third deals with his literary endeavours; and the fourth is comprised of writings by the composer himself, affording the reader the opportunity to experience the composer’s unique voice.

The first chapters are a comprehensive biography of the man. Elliott describes his turbulent years in Hungary and France in the first chapter and his settlement in Montréal in the second. Montréal is where he first made his mark on the international contemporary music scene in the 1950s at McGill University, but it also tells with great sympathy of his struggles with academia. While Elliott weaves an elegant narrative of the composer’s personal reminiscences, in often intimate and personal detail, Smith takes a practical approach, dividing his chapters according to Anhalt’s musical development, including several in-depth discussions of works. Smith deals with Anhalt’s years in Kingston, which were prolific and interesting years as a composer and author. In line with the more settled nature of Anhalt’s life in this small university town, Smith deals exclusively with Anhalt’s professional life, leaving one to presume that his personal difficulties were finished. Chapters concerned with his work follow the biography; Robin Elliott writes about his solo work, while distinguished Canadian composer John Beckwith writes in great detail about Anhalt’s orchestral work. It is a shame that the two most beautiful orchestral works that have come from the pen of this composer, Twilight Fire (2002) and Abraham’s Tent (2004) were written after the volume was completed, since they are two of his most personal works. Given multiple authors, elements of discussion in this book were occasionally revisited, which gave it a sometimes patchwork feel as a complete work, despite the high quality of individual contributions.

There can be no doubt that Anhalt is important to any student of Canadian music; as this volume makes clear, he is a mentor to many composers, musicologists, and educators from all parts of the world (including this author, who studied with the composer at Queen’s University during Anhalt’s final year of teaching in 1984). Furthermore, his communication, friendship with, and influence upon many modernist masters of the twentieth make him a vital part of twentieth-century music.3 His knowledge of the emancipation of beauty,4 control of orchestral forces, and dedication to form as the necessary shape of creation make him a composer of extraordinary importance. And if this were not enough, he writes about music like almost no one else. His book, Alternative Voices – part analysis of the great works of high modernism, part personal creed, and part book of magical musical spells – is forward-looking in ways that are ably outlined by Austin Clarkson.

Most composers can be best judged by their work; in some cases, as Plato cautioned, their works speak more eloquently about them than they do. In Anhalt’s case, his music often deals with the subjects that are closest to him at a given point, and his style as a creative artist changed, somewhat like Elliott Carter, in a way circumscribed only by his own work, and not by styles. This is not to say that the composer was not influenced by musical trends, of course. His Fantasia(dedicated to, and recorded by Glenn Gould) is in a twelve-tone idiom reminiscent of Alban Berg, and some of his early electro-acoustic works, especially his Electronic Composition #3 “Birds and Bells” (1960) or Cento (1967), are in a style similar to Stockhausen’s Gesang der Jünglinge (1956).

Composer David Keane writes sympathetically about Anhalt’s contribution to the fledgling Canadian electronic music community, his music, and his connections with European and American electronic composers. Anhalt’s greatest contribution to electronic music began in 1958 when he visited the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) in Ottawa, an important centre for electronic music in Canada, directed by the composer-engineer Hugh Le Caine. 5 Most interesting is the fact that the then-chaotic NRC studio was, in Anhalt’s estimation, much better equipped than the Cologne studio of West Deutsch Rundfunk (WDR) or the Group de Recherche de Musique Concrète (GRMC) in Paris. His work with Le Caine was mutually beneficial for both men and it set Canadian electronic music onto a road that created what is today a vibrant community in this country. Anhalt founded the McGill Electronic Music Studio in 1964, the second important university electronic music studio after the University of Toronto (1959), and (with Keane) the Queen’s University Electro-acoustic Music Studios. Keane points out that Anhalt’s mixed media works – part electronic, part acoustic – are probably his most significant contributions to the electro-acoustic repertoire. Cento (1967), Foci (1968), the still-unperformed Symphony of Modules (1967),6 and La Tourangelle (1975) are scored for tape and live performers.

“Alternatives of Voice,” written by William Benjamin, is by far the longest chapter in the book. While the bulk of the book is devoted to the composer’s influence and his contributions, Benjamin chose to focus solely on two orchestral works, the Symphony (1958) and Sparkskraps (1995), although he also deals with other works in passing, as well as critical issues in the composer’s work.

Audio Example 2: SparkskrapSIrisdescence (Espirit Orchestra, dir. Alex Pauk)CBC Records SMCD 5132 (2001)

Benjamin notes that he is “sidestepping the problems of composing for the voice and with language (which have preoccupied him [Anhalt] so centrally)”(165, emphasis added). The result is that Benjamin spends a quarter of the book dealing with something that is, by his own admission, not Anhalt’s primary concern. This chapter does not deal with Anhalt’s ideas on the human voice or language. It is very long, and makes claims that, while presented as beyond question, are in my opinion very much to be questioned. For instance, he asserts that the title “symphony” must be understood within the context of the single-movement symphonies of the beginning of the twentieth century:

…there is a clear precedent for it in the single-movement symphony that developed towards the end of the nineteenth century and that composers cultivated so extensively at the start of the twentieth. In this genre, a greatly extended and very loosely interpreted realization of first-movement sonata form acts as a framework for thematic sections that represent each of the remaining movements of the classical symphony — the slow movement, the scherzo, and the finale — and the whole is optionally framed with introduction and coda. Perhaps the foremost examples of the genre are found in Schoenberg’s early works, most notably the First String Quartet (1907) and the Chamber Symphony (1908). Anhalt’s Symphony is scarcely a direct descendent of these works, but its affiliation with them, across half a century of music, is not to be doubted. (171)

In view of Anhalt’s views on form (i.e., that the form of the work is organic and to be determinant by the needs of the material), this insistence on finding sonata form in the work seems peculiar. Furthermore, a string quartet is not a symphony, regardless of how similar the form may be, and so to consider the early twentieth-century single-movement symphony should either use examples from within the repertoire, or expand the definition to include something to do with single movement forms. One finds perplexing his assertion that the connection between these apparently unrelated works is “not to be doubted.” It seems to me that it is not only to be doubted, but denied. At the very least, Benjamin would need a great deal more evidence of the importance of Schoenberg’s early work to that of Anhalt.

To Benjamin’s credit, he insists that this music, while of the pitch-class set variety, must be understood from within the presumption that tonality is a known quantity. The awareness of tonality is too frequently ignored by theorists as a means of studying atonal music. Benjamin’s diagram of Anhalt’s Symphony has a procrustean quality as well. Forcing a work like this one into a sonata form is, I fear, unfair to the work, especially in view of the fact that the author claims that his primary concern in providing the analysis is “to provide rich and stable audiation” (i.e., mental representation) of the work. Perhaps this is not Benjamin’s fault, though; Anhalt found it necessary (presumably to compose a work of such complexity) to produce a large number of charts and explanatory notes, and Benjamin makes liberal use of them. All the same, as a composer myself, I am not sure that I would feel that these make up a reasonable interpretative framework that should be used for interpreting a work of sound-art. Despite several odd conceptual premises, Benjamin clearly understands Sparkskraps and his analysis is a rewarding reading.

Sparkskraps is a work of a significantly later period, written much more quickly and with a much more concentrated effort than his earlier symphonic works, if the number of notes generated is any indication of the amount of work involved in its creation. Based on the works of Kabbalistic writings of Gershom Scholem,7 its traditional form seems to confound analysis. Benjamin points out that

these sections form a complex network in which each is related in a variety of ways to many (but not all) of the others, the search for a traditional archetype underlying the formal syntax if these sections – determining the order in which they occur – can also be soon and safely abandoned, as there is little in the character of most of these sections … that even remotely suggests the rhetoric of a traditional form. (237)

He attributes this formal originality to the fact that Anhalt had written for the voice during much of the previous twenty-five years. Benjamin claims that Anhalt defies the sort of formal analysis so popular in North American composition departments; his style is so unique, so complex, yet so natural, that there is virtually nothing to compare it to. Nevertheless, he insists on pointing out similarities (which appear only on the surface and not in the sound) and differences between the music of Peter Maxwell Davies, George Rochberg, Alfred Schnittke, and John Zorn. His view is that Anhalt’s work is centred in his own highly personal style as a European/North American concert composer, aware of popular music, valuing both originality and familiarity in their places, rather than as a composer of any particular philosophical or political stripe.

Among the most fascinating sections of Benjamin’s analytical essay are his personal remembrances and subtly brilliant comments on the state of music in the 1960s. “You must find your voice,” Anhalt said, while Benjamin was studying with him. Benjamin remembers this most common of statements from a composition teacher as a dreaded reminder of the state of music at the time. Benjamin remarks that in that time, unlike today, “finding one’s voice meant inventing one’s own style – a contradiction in terms if ever there was one” (283). This statement, as well as being an explanation for why so many budding composers lost their voices at this time, is a way of demonstrating the Symphony’s lack of success in the concert hall. Benjamin suggests that its mastery was also its downfall because “the idea of composition as style mastery was fast being played out” (284). Anhalt’s remarkable success in the years since his retirement are tribute to his being true to his ear, rather than his abiding (and, according to Benjamin, his mistaken) belief in musical progress. Anhalt knew that success as a musical artist lay in personal expression rather than style. Or, in Benjamin’s words, “the ability to compose with symbols that function suprapersonally is probably the main determinant of compositional relevance” (288). In the end, William Benjamin’s analysis of two major works of Anhalt’s middle and late periods is resonant with brilliant insight into the state of current music, while his detailed analyses are documents that offer somewhat less to the reader.

Part Three of the book, entitled “Writings,” includes articles by Carl Morey, Austin Clarkson, Helmut Kallmann, and George Rochberg. Morey’s short essay on Anhalt’s use of words is virtually a poem itself. Referencing ideas of Joseph Haydn, Franz Liszt, T.S. Eliot, Edith Sitwell, popular film and jazz, Walter de la Mare, and Edward Lear into an essay on the value of words and music in a rich tapestry of expression, as Anhalt has done in his work since the 1960s, Morey identifies the importance of recollection, memory, and reminiscence to Anhalt’s music. He points out that this insistence on remembrance is key to both a syntactical and a metaphysical understanding of CentoFoci (example 3), Doors… shadowsSimulacrum, and other works that have a similar quality, described by Anhalt himself as “a memory of being ‘in transit’” (320).8 The work that incorporates these precepts best and most personally, Morey notes, is Traces (Tikkun), Anhalt’s 1995 monodrama9 for baritone and orchestra. The term “Tikkun” is a word from the Kabbalah referring to the return of the world to its original design, which suggests the value of reminiscence or, more importantly, of remembering things that create the world of today.

Audio Example 3: FociCanadian Composer Portraits: Istvan AnhaltCentredisc CMCCD 10204 (2004)

Following this poetic description of Anhalt’s use of words is Austin Clarkson’s article concerned with the almost unimaginably vast array of materials Anhalt incorporated in his immensely important book Alternative Voices (1984). This was the first book to treat extended vocal techniques as they were used in the 1960s and 1970s, with particular interest in the music of Berio, Ligeti, and Lutoslawski. Clarkson notes that Anhalt is nearly alone in his belief, demonstrable in current music, that texted vocal music has deeper import to audiences than untexted music. This amounts to a revolutionary statement on the primacy of the voice in music from 1960 until today, something that shows the sea change from the nineteenth-century tradition of the primacy of concert music. Anhalt suggests that the reason for this change is because the voice is “the most intimate musical means for expression.”10 The dynamic between a text and its context take up a great deal of the composer’s thought, including several chapters in his Alternative Voices.

As archivist and librarian Helmut Kallmann notes in his article outlining the contents of the Anhalt fonds at the National Library of Canada, text is a crucial element in virtually all of Anhalt’s many works. The extent of this even had a startling effect on the composer. Kallmann notes that “[v]isiting the National Library … after the initial deposits and seeing his life’s activities graphically spread out in front of his eyes had a startling effect on Anhalt” (349). To a man as aware of himself and his own mortality, this must have been an immensely moving experience. “A Weave of Life Lines,” Anhalt’s reaction to this was subsequently included in the fonds as a sort of aid to those wanting to understand this multi-layered experience.

George Rochberg offers a slightly different perspective on Anhalt’s life. His memoir combines opinion with remembrance in the style of a personal letter, and it is placed precisely (and likely deliberately) just where the profundity of the composer’s output threatens to overwhelm the reader. This brief and informal letter, filled with opinion and insight, offers little substance but much style to the book.

The final section of the book is in the voice of the composer. As appropriate as this is in any Festschrift, it is more proper in the case of Anhalt. Throughout his career he has shown an almost Shavian propensity for explication; he has written almost as many words about his music as he has written musical notes. This section is the last and most personal in the book. Beginning with a beautiful discussion of his “operatic” trilogy (it is not operatic in the strict sense, but this is the way the composer has chosen to describe these works), La TourangelleWinthrop, and Traces (Tikkun), the composer outlines major trends in his musical output. The editors have also included a Glenn Gould-style dialogue with the self – Anhalt on the subject of Traces – which was performed at Harrison-Le Caine Hall in March 1996. In this playful and delightfully witty monologue, Anhalt discusses with himself his reasons for writing this work. Indeed, all the Anhalt-written articles are delightfully humorous and light-hearted, particularly considering the gravitas that accompanies writings about his work by others.

As a collection, Istvan Anhalt: Pathways and Memory is one of the most comprehensive and valuable books centering on a single composer in years. It is an exceptionally valuable addition to the literature of contemporary music in North America, and more particularly, of Canadian music.

Dr. Sandy Thorburn


Anhalt, Istvan. Alternative Voices. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1984.

———. “Music: Text, Context, Countertext.” Contemporary Music Review 5, (1989). 101-35.

Morey, Carl. “Anhalt, István.” In Encyclopedia of Music in Canada.2nd ed. Eds. Helmut Kallmann and Gilles Potvin. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992. 26-28.

Scholem, Gershom. On the Kabbalah and its Symbolism. Trans. Ralph Manheim. New York: Schocken Books, 1965.


  1. Other Boulanger students include Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson, Leonard Bernstein, Marc Blitzstein, Gian Carlo Menotti, Ned Rorem, Quincy Jones, Burt Bacharach, Thea Musgrave, Ruth Anderson, and Philip Glass.
  2. These include Simulacrum (1987), SparkskrapS (1987), and Sonance•Resonance (Welche Töne?)(1989).
  3. This list includes Kodály, Ligeti, Rochberg, Stockhausen, Wishart, Babbitt, Cage, and Canadian musicians such as Beckwith, Somers, Schafer, Papineau-Couture, Garant, Hétu, Tremblay, Le Caine, and Glenn Gould.
  4. This term is used as a bookend to the Schoenbergian emancipation of the dissonance.
  5. The National Research Council’s electronic music studio was the brainchild of an engineer named Hugh Le Caine, who had been developing peculiar electronic musical instruments since the 1940s, including a touch-sensitive electronic keyboard, an instrument called the electronic sackbut and an exceptionally flexible multi-track tape recorder. Le Caine also wrote Canada’s first all-tape composition, Dripsody, written by splicing and manipulating the sound of a single drip of water.
  6. This work has a convoluted near-performance history; the tape part has never actually been definitively completed, in part because the original tape part needed revision by the time it was ready to be performed and in part because the composer had, by that time, moved on to other projects. As a result, this work, which took several years of Anhalt’s life, will probably never be performed.
  7. Gershom Scholem, On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism, trans. Ralph Manheim (New York: Schocken Books, 1965), is the work most frequently referred to by Anhalt.
  8. The text on this page cites Istvan Anhalt, “Music: Text, Context, Countertext,” Contemporary Music Review 5, (1989): 129.
  9. Anhalt has described it as a pluri-drama, because a single performer enacts more than ten characters.
  10. Istvan Anhalt, Alternative Voices (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1984), 261.
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