- Eagle Minds: Selected Correspondence of Istvan Anhalt and George Rochberg, 1961-2005
Published correspondence is usually consulted rather than read, but not so with the selected correspondence (1961-2005) of István Anhalt (1919-) and George Rochberg (1918-2005). The editor, Alan Gillmor, has delivered a marvellous piece of work that deserves to be read slowly, with time to linger over well-wrought phrases and closely argued disagreements. The Wilfrid Laurier University Press should also be commended for making this significant contribution to our understanding of music in North America. The letters are well presented, carefully edited, and preceded by Gillmor's thoughtful and informative introduction. Though it is bursting with useful nuggets of information, this book is more than a compilation of source material. Gillmor's edition gives the letters a shape, a kind of narrative structure that takes us through the unexpected twists and turns that active composers experience as they move through their careers. [End Page 471]
Anhalt and Rochberg first met in the summer of 1960 at an International Conference of Composers that took place in Ontario at the Stratford Festival. The former was born in Budapest and immigrated to Canada in 1949, the latter in Paterson, New Jersey. Both are of Jewish background. The book opens onto a bleak landscape. Paul Rochberg (born 1944) passed away in November 1964 following a long illness, leaving his father profoundly wounded. Throughout his letters, Rochberg rails against the 'layers deep horrors' of life 'with all its pain, uncertainty, unreasonableness (only academics still prate about reason & reasonableness).' As a Holocaust survivor, Anhalt had experienced more than his share of horrors and, like Rochberg, he, too, angrily denounces the ills of contemporary society. And yet, he could also step back and write, 'It is a good life,' something Rochberg seemed incapable of doing.
One of the most substantive differences between the two that underlies many discussion topics is their respective approaches to history. Though he constantly refers to the data of the past, Rochberg's letters show him to be unable, unwilling, or simply uninterested in addressing the complex contingencies of time and place and how they impinge on value judgments. By contrast, Anhalt consistently reminds Rochberg that to 'search for meaning in the "now" one must travel backwards.' The statement is more than mere lip service to central European habits of thought. Anhalt's respect for history as an intellectual discipline informs both his ethics and his aesthetics. In an article on modernism, Rochberg drew a Manichaean division between 'the intransigently radical avant-gardists who deny everything but their own ideas and those who believe in the continuity of civilization and its enduring values.' Anhalt insisted that he qualify this assertion in terms of time and place, and added, '[B]esides, or instead of, being "beautiful" . . . music can, and should at times, at least aim at presenting truth or some aspects of truth.' The latter statement reveals Anhalt's strong links to German idealism and particularly to Arnold Schoenberg's intellectual legacy, as articulated by Theodor Adorno. Thus, where Anhalt felt the need to 'walk the world with open eyes,' looking for understanding, Rochberg seemed overwhelmed by 'uncertainty in the very midst of vast mysteries which neither our perceptions nor our intelligence are strong and large enough to grasp adequately.'
On one occasion, this difference in approach caused Anhalt to raise his voice in admonition against his friend. The object of discussion was one of Anhalt's major symphonic achievements, The Tents of Abraham (A Mirage Midrash) (2003), in which he reflected on 'the awful situation existing between the Israelis and the Palestinians.' In looking for terminus ab quo Anhalt focused on the story of Abraham and his two sons. 'The outcome of all of this is the new piece, quite likely my "rounding-out statement" about wanderers/searchers . . . a "role" and a "type" I have [End Page 472] known only too well.' The score bears the dedication, '[F]or the peace-seeking descendants and friends of Isaac and...