Canadian Composers Portraits
Istvan Anhalt
Kingston Symphony
Centrediscs 229326





CD1 - Eitan Cornfield - Anhalt Documentary

CD2 - The Tents of Abraham - A Mirage-Midrash
Kingston Symphony, Glen Fast

CD2 - Phyllis Mailing - Foci
Kingston Symphony, Ensemble instrumental de Montréal, Istvan Anhalt

During the past 55 years Istvan Anhalt has left an indelible stamp on the musical fabric of Canada through his activities as a composer, theorist, writer, educator, and administrator. At the age of 85 he remains active as a creator of fascinating and richly allusive new compositions. In the comfortable surroundings of the lovely home in downtown Kingston that he shares with Beate, his wife of 52 years, he enjoys the companionship of a wide circle of friends and academic colleagues, as well as visits from his two daughters and three grandchildren. His vital contribution to the cultural life of Canada was recognized in 2003 when he was appointed an Officer of the Order of Canada.

Anhalt was born in Budapest on 12 April 1919. Though he grew up during a turbulent period in the life of Hungary, with frequent regime changes, ongoing anti-Semitic legislation, and general ill will towards the Jews, Anhalt remembers his childhood as a happy time on the whole. There was much entertainment around, especially on Margaret Island, a park in the middle of the Danube with a zoo, an amusement area, and outdoor concerts (the 1933 film Zoo in Budapest gives an idea of what the park was like during Anhalt’s youth). Anhalt also enjoyed an exemplary schooling, as educational standards in Budapest at the time were remarkably high. He made many lasting friendships during his school years, and discovered his affinity for music as well. Piano lessons began at about the age of six, but ended at twelve due to a lack of money. A chance meeting four years later with a boy from a neighbouring school who could both play the piano and compose changed the direction of Anhalt’s life. László Gyopár was the name of this talented young boy, and he and Anhalt quickly became firm friends, united by their interest in music and composition. Both became pupils of Zoltán Kodály at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest. Anhalt completed his studies at the Liszt Academy in 1941, and in that same year began work on what are his earliest preserved compositions: Six Songs from Na Conxy Pan, a song cycle for baritone and piano to poems in Hungarian by Sándor Weöres (Anhalt completed the work in Paris in 1947 and translated it into English in 1984), and the choral suite Ünnepek (Feasts; the three-movement work was completed in 1942). Also dating from this period are a number of chamber music compositions which are now lost.

On 1 December 1942 Anhalt was conscripted for Hungarian labour service duty, which was mandatory for all Jewish men. This involved heavy physical labour for ten to twelve hours a day, six or seven days a week. Thousands upon thousands died in the course of this forced labour, whether from illness, exhaustion, or murder. Included among the many casualties was Anhalt’s friend Gyopár, who died in Poland. In tribute to his inspirational friend, Anhalt helped to arrange a performance of Gyopár’s Missa of 1942, which took place in Budapest in 1994, the fiftieth anniversary of Gyopár’s death. Anhalt managed to escape from his labour service brigade and hid out in Budapest for the duration of the war with the assistance of morally courageous friends. (Characteristically, Anhalt later arranged for the recognition of two of these friends – Pater János Antal and Theresa de Kerpely – by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial institute. On Anhalt’s initiative, the two were granted the title of Righteous Among the Nations, a designation reserved for non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust.)

In the straightened circumstances of post-war Budapest, Anhalt could not see a promising future for himself, so in January 1946 he left behind his life in Hungary and travelled to the West. Anhalt settled in Paris and had private composition lessons with Nadia Boulanger, a Stravinsky devotee and one of the leading composition teachers of the twentieth century. The lessons lasted three years; Boulanger was thus Anhalt’s second (and last) important composition teacher. Under Boulanger’s direction, Anhalt completed a Concerto in stilo di Handel, a piano sonata, and a string quartet. While living in Paris, Anhalt also had piano lessons from Soulima Stravinsky (Igor’s son) and received a diploma in orchestral conducting from the Paris Conservatoire after studies with Louis Fourestier.

In January 1949, three years almost to the day after he had left Hungary, Anhalt sailed for Halifax. He was en route to a position at McGill University’s Faculty of Music, arranged as a result of his successful application to Montreal’s Lady Davis Foundation. The foundation had been set up in 1948 to assist in bringing displaced and refugee scholars to Canada. Anhalt’s term as a Lady Davis fellow and assistant professor at McGill lasted until 1952. During this period, his only duty was to give a one-hour composition class each week. The Faculty of Music was housed in a ramshackle Victorian mansion at the time, and the ranks of the B.Mus. program consisted of just 12 students. After the Lady Davis fellowship expired, Anhalt stayed on at McGill as a part-time instructor. He was then reappointed at the assistant professor rank in 1956, promoted to associate professor in 1962, and became a full professor in 1967. Anhalt’s promotion through the ranks at McGill coincided with a great expansion and improvement of the quality of music education there, and Anhalt was instrumental in helping to bring about these changes. During the McGill years, Anhalt served as the founding director of the Electronic Music Studio from 1964 to 1971, and as the chair of the theory department from 1963 to 1969, in addition to a full slate of teaching and creative activities. Among the career highlights of his early years at McGill were two concerts devoted to his own compositions. The first, on 20 March 1952, included his Funeral Music of 1951 (dedicated to the memory of László Gyopár) and two works written in Paris: the Piano Sonata and Six Songs from Na Conxy Pan. The second concert, on 6 December 1954, featured the premiere of three works: the Fantasia for piano (performed by Anhalt himself on this occasion, and later recorded by Glenn Gould), the Piano Trio, and Comments (a set of songs for alto and piano trio, to texts drawn from items found in the Montreal Star newspaper). Other important works from the 1950s include the Violin Sonata and the Symphony, two pieces that continued the exploration of twelve-tone techniques that Anhalt had begun in the Fantasia. Anhalt conducted the premiere performance of the Symphony in November 1959 in a concert at Plateau Hall in Montreal celebrating the bicentennial of the Jewish presence in Canada. It was subsequently performed by Jean-Marie Beaudet conducting the Montreal Symphony, and by the CBC Symphony Orchestra under Walter Susskind at the International Conference of Composers in Stratford in 1960 . The early years in Montreal were rich with personal rewards as well. In 1952 Anhalt married Beate Frankenberg, who was of German Jewish birth but had fled her native country with her family in 1939 to settle in Montreal. As Anhalt noted in his biographical memoir A Weave of Life Lines, the wedding was “the happiest and most important event in my life” (p. 427). The couple had two daughters, Helen, born in 1953, and Carol, born in 1955; a month after Carol was born, Anhalt became a Canadian citizen.

In the later 1950s, Anhalt developed a strong interest in electronic music. He visited the leading studios in Europe and the United States, invited Karlheinz Stockhausen to speak about electronic music at McGill in 1958, and with the assistance of Hugh Le Caine of the National Research Council in Ottawa set up a studio at McGill in the spring of 1964. Anhalt’s own creative work in this field included Electronic Compositions Nos. 1-4 and the tape parts of his mixed-media works Cento, Foci, and La Tourangelle. Cento, Foci, and the as yet unperformed Symphony of Modules were the last works that Anhalt completed in Montreal. He enjoyed friendly relations with both the francophone and anglophone communities in Montreal, but grew uneasy during the FLQ crisis and decided to move his family to more tranquil surroundings. When the position of head of the music department at Queen’s University in Kingston was advertised, he applied for and was offered the job in 1971. Despite the fact that Kingston is a much smaller and less cosmopolitan city than any Anhalt had lived in before, he soon felt at home there, and he came to enjoy the challenges of building up the new music degree program at Queen’s (the first B.Mus. students had enrolled there in 1969). Anhalt’s term as the head of the Queen’s music department lasted from 1971 to 1981, after which he continued on staff until his retirement in 1984. One of the things that drew Anhalt to Queen’s was the prospect of a new building for the music department, which duly opened in 1974. The Harrison-Le Caine building (named after the Dublin-born music scholar Frank Harrison and Anhalt’s friend Hugh Le Caine) was outfitted with an electronic music studio, offices, classrooms, and practice rooms, and continues to serve as the home of music at Queen’s 30 years later. During the Queen’s years Anhalt abandoned electronic music and became engrossed in writing for voice, and more particularly in theatrical works and in the use of extended vocal techniques. These interests are reflected not just in his creative work, but also in his scholarship, including the important book Alternative Voices: Essays on Contemporary Vocal and Choral Composition (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1984). Two major operatic works date from this period, both to libretti by Anhalt: the “musical tableau” La Tourangelle, which tells the story of Marie de l’Incarnation and her voyage from Tours to New France, and Winthrop, an opera “in the manner of an historical pageant” about John Winthrop and the founding of the Boston. Common themes link the two works, including emigration, the pioneer spirit, religious quests, moral crises, and personal/inter-personal conflict. The works are both set in the same time period (late-sixteenth/early-seventeenth century), and explore two important facets of Canada’s spiritual life: French Catholicism and English Protestantism. Anhalt’s retirement years have been the most productive of his life. In 1985 he completed the harrowing “duo-drama” Thisness for mezzo-soprano and piano, written for and premiered by Phyllis Mailing. In 1986 a five-LP set of his works was released by Radio Canada International (Anthology of Canadian Music, vol. 22); the set provides recordings of some of his major compositions to that date, and an autobiographical sketch titled “What Tack to Take,” narrated on LP by Anhalt (it had earlier been published in the Spring 1985 issue of Queen’s Quarterly). In the same year that the anthology was released, Anhalt started work on what became a triptych of commissioned orchestral compositions: Simulacrum, SparkskrapS, and Sonance-Resonance (Welche Töne?). Two important dramatic works followed in the 1990s, both again to libretti by Anhalt: the “pluri-drama” Traces (Tikkun) for baritone and orchestra (1995) and Millennial Mall (Lady Diotima’s Walk) a “voice-drama for the imagination” scored for soprano, choir, and orchestra (1999). All of these works received important premiere performances by leading Canadian musicians. Anhalt’s most recent major compositions as of this writing are two orchestral works, both premiered by the under its musical director Glen Fast. Twilight~Fire (Baucis’ & Philemon’s Feast), written in 2001, was a 50th wedding anniversary present for Anhalt’s wife Beate, and The Tents of Abraham (A Mirage~Midrash), written in 2003, was premiered in a concert celebrating the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Kingston Symphony. Twilight~Fire takes as its subject matter the myth of Philemon and Baucis, with its themes of marital fidelity, longevity, kindness, and hospitality. The Tents of Abraham is inspired by the story of Abraham and his sons Isaac and Ishmael, as told in the Book of Genesis; it is a musical meditation on the origins of the Middle East conflict, and the composer has referred to it as “a dream of peace between Judaism and Islam.” These two orchestral works are remarkable products of a lively, engaged, and humane spirit. At peace with himself and his surroundings, and benefiting from the accumulated wisdom of eight and a half decades, Anhalt continues to surprise, delight, inform, and comfort us with his creative work. We are the richer for his example, and for his prodigious gifts.


The Tents of Abraham (A Mirage-Midrash) (2003) Any attempt to arrive at an understanding of the racial/religious conflict in the Middle East is fraught with difficulties. How far back does one have to go to arrive at root causes? And if one can ascertain root causes, what is the hope for resolution? In confronting these questions, Istvan Anhalt found himself engrossed in a story that began 4,000 years ago, the story of Abraham. Abraham, the shared ancestor of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam; Abraham, whom both Muslims and Jews invoke daily in their prayers; Abraham, God’s intimate, who was commanded by Him to leave his country and go to an as yet unnamed Land of Promise; whose first child was born, at the suggestion of his barren wife, Sarah, to his concubine, Hagar, this being Ishmael, progenitor of Islam, from whom Muhammad claimed descent; whose second child was born, miraculously, to Sarah when she was 90 and Abraham 100 years old, this being Isaac, progenitor of Judaism; who, however reluctantly, through Sarah’s insistence and with God’s approval, cast out Ishmael and Hagar; Abraham, about whom historically, outside of the Bible, we know nothing. Music speaks to us in ways that words cannot. The Tents of Abraham, which the composer speaks of as “my attempt at showing how I feel about the tragic situation in which two intense people, the Jews and the Muslims, find themselves”, provides us with a vision of the Abraham story that only music can provide. Anhalt calls his work a mirage-midrash. We are in the presence of that wonderful Jewish word ‘midrash’ which one biblical scholar has referred to as “the Jewish way of saying that everything to be venerated in the present must somehow be connected with a sacred moment in the past. It is the ability to rework an ancient theme in a new context.” Accordingly, Anhalt sees Abraham, a central figure in both Bible and Koran, as a “potential symbol for a conceivable reconciliation between Jew and Muslim.” Section one depicts the physical surroundings, the landscape of Canaan. Section two focuses on Abraham as leader/wanderer/iconoclast/visionary, as destroyer of idols in his search for the one true God. Section three illuminates the conflict between Sarah and Hagar as to who shall be first in Abraham’s eyes. Isaac, still a little boy, is mismatched with his teen-age half-brother in the “Boys’ Games” of section four. Sarah looks on apprehensively, eager to see Hagar and Ishmael banished. The final section brings us to God’s promise for the descendants of Abraham: the ‘Heritage’. A ‘Question’ remains: can there be resolution? Can greater understanding of this complex tale lead us to solutions? We are left with the hope that what is yet to be accomplished can be accomplished. This music is of great breadth and power and originality, a work whose significance for our times it is impossible to overstate. The dedication for The Tents of Abraham reads, “…for the peace-seeking descendants and friends of Isaac and Ishmael…”
The Tents of Abraham was commissioned by the Association, and its director, Glen Fast, with the financial support of the Ontario Arts Council.

Foci (1969) Foci is a composition for voices (one ‘live’ and 29 pre-recorded) and instruments (piano, celesta, electric organ, electric harpsichord, percussion, flute, clarinet, trombone, violin, cello, double-bass, and pre-recorded electronic sounds). It is to be performed in a planned visual environment (with a lighting program) according to a predetermined action scheme. As the title suggests, the work is presented as a series of views on life; glimpses of contemporary existence and glimpses of situations from the past. Some of these suggest perceptions of exterior events, spaces, aural and visual images, however, many of them refer to the inner spaces of the mind/heart. All but two of these contexts (sections 3 and 5) are secular in character; however, the entire piece may be understood as a cult ritual whose doctrine and substance is embedded in the presentation itself. Foci emphasizes each and every person’s uniqueness as expressed through the voice, as it speaks, sings, whispers, laughs, moans, sighs, etc. We hear solos, duos, ensembles, in English, French, Italian, German, Yiddish, Aramaic, Greek, Hungarian, and Creole. The words come from diverse sources (selected and assemble by the composer: a dictionary of psycholofy, The New Testament, The Genevan Psalter, The Zohar, the Ishtar legend, The Odyssey, Voodoo texts, legal formulas, newspapers, and elsewhere.) The single live voice (a soprano) appears in the final section only. The overall structure of the work is meant to give the impression of originating in a ‘clean slate’ kind of frame of mind. It begins with a very low information rate, in complete darkness, progresses through many different states of higher and lower tensions, and concludes, once again, with darkness and complete silence.
1. “Preamble – Definition 1. At the outset a number of heavy hammer blows are heard, followed by a faint, very high frequency sound and some beeps. The first words are those of ‘Definition 1’.
2. “Measures” is about the idea of quantification.
3. “Icons”. This section seeks to combine the world of John Calvin with that of Byzantium through the citing of fragments from The Geneva Psalter and through references to a 17th century icon by Demetrios, which I happened to see during a visit to Geneva in 1968.
4. “Definition 2” is an allusion to ‘soft’ rock.
5. “Individuals”. This section focuses on religion, mysticism, and myth. It begins with a cabalistic text and concludes with a fragment from the Babylonian Ishtar legend.
6. “Group”. It is a hurly-burly of voices and instruments in a ‘here and now’ mood.
7. “Definition 3” shows the inability of two individuals to communicate with each other.
8. “Preparation” is like the preparation of a witness, a swearing-in.
9. “Testimony”. A woman testifies here; her text consists of the three definitions already heard, to which a fourth is now added, that of ‘lying’. She begins her speech – actually an impassioned aria. From this agitated state she gradually moves into another one characterized by despair and fear. At the end she displays signs of having sunk into a psychotic condition. The piece ends with stupefaction and pity on the part of the instrumentalists as they leave the stage one by one, while the woman continues her moaning in the slowly dimming light. Her voice becomes inaudible about the same time as complete darkness descends.
Foci was composed at the invitation of Lejaren Hiller for the members of The Center of the Creative and Performing Arts of the State University of New York at Buffalo, and given three performances by the Center’s ensemble under the direction of Lukas Foss.