István Anhalt | The Canadian Encyclopedia


István Anhalt

LifeIstván Anhalt audited classes with Kodály in 1936 and studied with him 1937-41 at the Royal Hungarian Academy of Music. In 1942 he was conscripted into a forced-labour unit of the Hungarian Army, but escaped two years later and spent the final months of the war in hiding.
Anhalt, Istv\u00e1n
Istv\u00e1n Anhalt's musical composition is strongly influenced by his study of the psychology of speech (courtesy Istv\u00e1n Anhalt).
István Anhalt. Composer, teacher, author, born Budapest 12 Apr 1919, naturalized Canadian 1955, died Kingston, Ont, 24 Feb 2012; honorary D MUS (McGill) 1982, honorary LLD (Queen's) 1991.

István Anhalt audited classes with Kodály in 1936 and studied with him 1937-41 at the Royal Hungarian Academy of Music. In 1942 he was conscripted into a forced-labour unit of the Hungarian Army, but escaped two years later and spent the final months of the war in hiding. A brief period (1945) as a répétiteur at the Hungarian National Opera was followed by studies in Paris 1946-9 at the Conservatoire with Louis Fourestier (conducting), and privately with Nadia Boulanger (composition) and Soulima Stravinsky (piano).

A recipient of one of 30 Lady Davis Fellowships that had been set up to bring stateless intellectuals to Canada, Anhalt was able to emigrate there in 1949, and immediately joined the music faculty at McGill University. He developed an outstanding program for the study of composition and acted 1963-9 as chairman of the Theoretical Music Department. During the 1950s his growing interest in the new field of electronic music led him to work during the summers 1959-61 at the Electronic Music Laboratory of the National Research Council in Ottawa, as well as at the Columbia-Princeton Centre in New York and the Bell Telephone Laboratories in Murray Hill, NJ, in 1961. A 1959 concert organized by Anhalt at McGill of electronic music and musique concrète by himself, John Bowsher, Hugh Le Caine, and Stockhausen, was probably the first such concert in Canada, and he established (and directed 1964-71) McGill's Electronic Music Studio.

In 1969 he was Slee Visiting Professor at the State University of New York in Buffalo, and in April 1972 he returned to Budapest to lecture on contemporary composition for voice at the Academy of Music. He was head 1971-81 of the Music Department at Queen's University, and retired in 1984 with the title professor emeritus. As a teacher and an administrator at McGill and Queen's University, Anhalt greatly influenced the education of many Canadian musicians and guided such composers as William Benjamin, John Fodi, Clifford Ford, Keith Hamel, Hugh Hartwell, John Hawkins, Alan Heard, Jack Sirulnikoff, and Alexander Tilley, and such scholars as Gail Dixon, Robin Elliott, and Christopher Lewis.


The Six Songs from Na Conxy Pan are the earliest works acknowledged by Anhalt, and their composition in Budapest and Paris is a link between first compositional experience and the creative activity that began in Montreal. Reflections of the broad musical orientation of his Budapest education are evident in the freely atonal pieces first written after the move to Canada; the Trio (1953), for example, reveals a classical clarity of form, a romantic richness of texture, and the rhythmic influence of Bartók and Stravinsky. The choral style of the late Renaissance can be heard in the texture and linear/harmonic motion of The Bell-Man (1954). Beginning with Fantasia (1954) for piano, he turned to the application of serialism which brought to his music a measure of structuralist orientation and objectivity, but this in no way precluded the expressive element in his musical thinking; the intuitive and deeply felt response is never absent from Anhalt's music. The systematic approach to pitch combined with his interest in extending the possibilities of textures and masses of sound led to his interest in electronic music, and after the composition of four entirely electronic pieces, he moved to the integration of traditional instrumental and vocal sounds with electronic elements. Changing densities and combinations of textures and sonorities are a major formal feature of Anhalt's music.

Anhalt's first large-scale instrumental piece was the Symphony, the premiere of which he conducted in Montreal in November 1959 at a concert organized to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the establishment of the first Jewish community in Canada. The long one-movement work is a set of variations in 13 sections and exemplifies Anhalt's interest in a formal plan that is at once evolutionary and clearly articulated. The pitch material of the Symphony centres on a four-note group which remains constant and appears throughout the work both melodically and harmonically, while the remaining eight-pitch-class group appears in diverse ways. The interplay of these two groups, one variable and the other invariable, was regarded by the composer as 'complementation,' an idea that is present in much of Anhalt's music. The effect of the music is broadly romantic with a lyricism and intensity reminiscent of the manner, but not the sound, of the music of Alban Berg. A second large-scale work, the Symphony of Modules (completed 1967), requires a large orchestra with augmented percussion and two tapes, and includes controlled improvisatory sections as well as a fully notated score. The constructive basis of the piece is the relationships of large sound masses, the "modules" of the title.

Twenty years elapsed before Anhalt returned to purely instrumental large-scale writing with Simulacrum, SparkskrapS, and Sonance•Resonance (Welche Töne?), which use a technique frequently found in Anhalt's music, namely, the development of the music from ideas that are extrinsic to music but which become intrinsic to a composition. The three orchestral works of the 1980s are each a statement about the universal process of memory - of the personal power of memory, of the disjunct unconscious memory of opposing forces in creation, of Beethoven's grappling with music itself. While each of these works reflects with individual distinction the maturity and flexibility of his imagination, they are also part of the personal, cohesive, and consistent musical approach that Anhalt established firmly by the 1960s. A statement by the composer about SparkskrapS could stand as a philosophical elucidation of this style: "Its numerous shifts of mood may be understood as merely suggesting that a sense of unity might be possible within the confines of a single entity despite, or perhaps even because of, contrasting and seemingly mutually antagonistic elements within."

In the 20-year break in his orchestral writing, Anhalt's music always involved the voice (almost half of Anhalt's compositions include the voice as solo or in ensemble). A keen interest in the extension and functions of vocal music, on which he has lectured and written widely, culminated in the book Alternative Voices. Often socio-linguistic in approach, this is a pioneering work of analysis of significant vocal writing after about 1945, and of striking insights into the kinds and powers of vocal utterance in art and society. In his own music Anhalt has been concerned with the range and variety of sounds which can be produced vocally and the ways in which a text may be treated structurally. A text may be presented in a straightforward manner where the music is a commentary on or a reflection of the meaning, but the text might also be treated less for the surface meaning of words than for the juxtapositions or the sounds and types of articulations which can be used as expressive means in a musical composition to project underlying meaning.

In Comments the unconventional text consists of miscellaneous newspaper clippings. The ordinariness of a weather report was set to sustained and richly textured music which, by the setting up of a conflicting musical gesture, suggests an interior drama behind the trivial exterior of the text itself; and the report of the death of a Balinese dancer following a European tour serves to focus through the music on the tension and on the potential for violence inherent in the sharp contrast of cultures and societies. Related to the spirit of place and time in Comments is Cento, "Cantata Urbana," a treatment of Eldon Grier's poem "An Ecstasy." The long poem was reduced by Anhalt to 25 lines and the text fragmented, the words themselves broken up so that recognition of sense is blurred and meaning becomes uncertain. In its carefully controlled abstraction, Cento portrays the tension and disjunction of modern urban life where elusive meaning bubbles to the surface only to sink back before it is grasped. The use of mixed media and the temporality of subject matter are continued in more complex ways in Foci, where words from a number of sources in a variety of languages form an important part of the texture of a piece to be performed in a planned visual environment.

The consistency of approach in the instrumental music is also apparent in Anhalt's vocal music, and in all cases the works derive from the composer's philosophical and humanistic ideas. The combination of these elements is nowhere more richly or extensively realized than in the musical dramas La Tourangelle and Winthrop. They each tell of a personality in the 17th century that was important in establishing the religious and moral outlooks of North America, particularly of Canada, and do so on a large scale and in a format of scenes very like an opera or scenic oratorio. The works are at once historical and personal explorations of the immigrant to the New World, of personal accommodation, and an individual's influence in building a society. La Tourangelle is built around the central narration about Marie de l'Incarnation but with a variety of participants who are both part of, and commentators on, the events. The levels of action and participation, as well as the musical forces, are greatly extended in Winthrop. On a smaller scale in Thisness, "A Duo-drama for Mezzo-soprano and Accompanist," Anhalt employs a similar textual/dramatic basis for the continuous setting of his own text in ten episodes, one of which is a pantomime. In the first song, "Quest," the singer begins a process that guides the listener through various levels of experience, realized through the integration of visual, musical, and verbal materials as varied as the encounters that they express. In Thisness can be recognized a continuation of the dramatic elements present in Comments 35 years before.

Continuing the operatic cycle begun with La Tourangelle, Anhalt's opera Traces (Tikkun) premiered in Toronto in 1996. Traces, which contains autobiographical elements, concerns itself with a protagonist's exploration of his past as the key to the present; the composer described it as a "pluridrama." A fourth work in the operatic vein, Millennial Mall (Lady Diotima's Walk), features a soprano soloist who guides the listener through a shopping mall, which functions as a symbol of the wider world and the 'religion' of consumerism. Millennial Mall was premiered at Winnipeg's New Music Festival in 2000.

Anhalt's music, complex both in detail and in underlying motive, is born of intellectual clarity and absolute conviction and speaks strongly with contemporary eloquence.

Honours and assessment

Anhalt was the recipient of commissions from the Esprit Orchestra, the National Arts Centre Orchestra, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, the Vancouver New Music Society, and the CBC. His collected works may be heard on the five-LP set Anthology of Canadian Music 22 (1985, Radio Canada International); Fantasia was recorded by Glenn Gould on Glenn Gould Plays Contemporary Music (1992, Sony Classical WSK 52677); and his Cento is included on Tornado (McGill Records 2001-01-2). SparkskrapS is performed by the Esprit Orchestra on the CD Iridescence (1994, SMCD 5132). His The Tents of Abraham won the Juno award for best classical composition in 2005.

Anhalt was a member of the Canadian League of Composers, and an associate of the Canadian Music Centre. He was a contributor to Encyclopedia of Music in Canada. His papers have been deposited at the National Library of Canada. In 2003, the composer was named an Officer of the Order of Canada.


La Tourangelle. 1975

Winthrop. 1986

Traces (Tikkun), opera. 1996

Millennial Mall (Lady Diotima's Walk), opera. 1999


"The making of Cento," Canada Music Book, 1, Spring-Summer 1970

"About Foci," Artscanada, vol 28, Apr-May 1971

"La musique électronique," "L'histoire de Cento," Musiques du Kébèk, ed Raoul Duguay (Montreal 1971)

"Luciano Berio's Sequenza III," Canada Music Book, 7, Autumn-Winter 1973

"About one's place and voice," Identities: The Impact of Ethnicity on Canadian Society, ed Wsevolod W. Isajiw (Toronto 1977)

"Winthrop: the work, the theme, the story," Canadian University Music Review, vol 4, 1983

Alternative Voices: Essays on Contemporary Vocal and Choral Composition (Toronto 1984)

"What tack to take? An autobiographical sketch (life in progress ... )," Queen's Quarterly, vol 92, Spring 1985

"Pst ... pst ... are you listening? Hearing voices from yesterday," Queen's Quarterly, vol 93, Spring 1986

"Music: context, text, counter-text," Contemporary Music Review, vol 5, no. 1, 1989

"Text, context, music," Canadian University Music Review, vol 9, no. 2, 1989

"Thisness: marks and remarks," Musical Canada

Oppenheimer (opera), 1990, play only not music

Record and book reviews in Canadian Music Journal (1957-61), including a review of Varèse recordings, Winter 1961

Contributions to Istvan Anhalt: Pathways and Memory (Part IV)


Interludium. 1950. Sm orch. Ms

Funeral Music. 1951 (Montreal 1954). Sm orch. Ms

Symphony. 1958 (Montreal 1959). Orch. BMIC 1963

Symphony of Modules. 1967. Orch., tape. Ms

Simulacrum. 1987. Orch. (Ott 1987). Ms

SparkskrapS. 1988. Orch. (Toronto 1988). Ms

Sonance•Resonance (Welche Töne?). 1989. Orch. (Toronto 1989). Ms

Twilight Fire (Baucis' and Philemon's Feast). 2001. Orch.

The Tents of Abraham (A Mirage). Premiered 2004. Orch.


Trio. 1953. Pf trio. Ms. RCI 229/RCA CCS-1023/5-ACM 22 (Brandon University Trio)

Sonata. 1954. Vn, piano. Ms. RCI 220/RCA CCS-1014/5-ACM 22 (Bress violin)

Foci (various). 1969. Sop, chamber ensemble, tape. Ber 1972. RCI 357/5-ACM 22 (Mailing)

Doors ... Shadows (Glenn Gould In Memory). 1992. Str quartet. Ms


Arc en ciel, ballet. 1951 (Montreal 1952). 2 piano. Ms

Sonata. 1951. Ms

Fantasia. 1954. Ber 1972. Col 32-11-0046 (Gould piano)


The Bell Man (Herrick). 1954 (rev 1980). Chor, 2 bells, organ. Ms

Three Songs of Love (de la Mare, anonymous). 1951. SSA. Ms

Three Songs of Death (Davenant, Herrick). 1954. SATB. Ms

Cento 'Cantata Urbana' (Grier). 1967. 12 spkrs (SATB), tape. BMIC 1968. RCI 357/5-ACM 22 (Tudor Singers of Montreal)


Six Songs from Na Conxy Pan (Sándor Weöres). 1941-7 (Eng version 1984). Bar, piano. Ms

Psalm XIX 'A Benediction' (A.M. Klein). 1951. Bar, piano. Ms

Journey of the Magi (Eliot). 1952. Bar, piano. Ms

Comments (Montreal Star clippings). 1954. Alto, piano trio. Ms

Chansons d'aurore (Verdet). 1955. Sop, fl, piano. Ms

A Wedding Carol (Anhalt). 1985. Sop, organ. Ms

A Little Wedding Music (Hopkins). 1984. Sop, organ. Ber 1985

Thisness, "a duo-drama" (Anhalt). 1986 (Vancouver 1986). Mezzo, piano. Ms

The Squirrel (E. Barnett). 2002. Voice, Piano

Also Electronic Composition no. 1-4. (1959-62). (no. 3, 4) Marathon MS-2111/(no. 2, 3, 4) 5-ACM 22

See also La Tourangelle, Winthrop

Further Reading