NEC Director of Choral Activities Erica Washburn writes in this note about the works written during Anne Frank's time that she has selected to accompany Annelies, James Whitbourn's choral work based on Anne Frank's diary, for the October 24 concert by NEC's choruses.
Choral Works by Casals, Distler,
Kodály, Milhaud, Pizzetti
World War II was, without question, a dark time for much of the northern hemisphere. Yet despite the oppression, the danger, and the uncertainty, many artists found solace in creation. For some, their work was a means of rebellion, of exposing truths and/or injustice. For others, the process of creation was their way to reconnect with the beauty and peace which existed in their lives before the chaos; to revisit the past and find hope in the future. Pablo Casals, Darius Milhaud, Zoltán Kodály, Hugo Distler, and Ildebrando Pizzetti were five such artists. Each had their personal tale of struggle against, or within, the ruling dictatorial parties in Europe before, during, and/or after the second war.
The first half of tonight’s program features octavos composed during Annelies Marie Frank’s all-too-brief lifetime. In 1932, when Anne was a toddler, Catalan Pablo Casals penned what has become one of his most well-known and loved Latin motets, O vos omnes. Much like Casals’s very public political stance against General Francisco Franco and the Spanish Nationalist party, the motet is direct in its delivery of the text and passive in its composition.
During the immediate years leading up to the invasion of Poland (September 1, 1939) Milhaud, Kodály, and Distler composed choral works that embodied their own quintessential compositional technique. Toward the end of the 19th century into the first several decades of the 20th, France was under the influence of an influx of various musical styles. From the Universal Exposition in Paris in 1889, when many French composers were exposed to musics of the East, to Nadia Boulanger’s introduction of popular American musical styles (jazz to ragtime), Darius Milhaud and his fellow composers were never unified when it came to a national French style. Babylone is the first of Milhaud’s triptych Les deux cités, Op. 170, which he composed in 1937. A poem written by French colleague Paul Claudel (who was a very public anti-Fascist), Babylone is a lament to the great fallen city, and an excellent example of the polytonal technique Milhaud championed in his writing for most of his career.
In 1935 Zoltán Kodály, already an accomplished composer and ethnomusicologist, became associated with the Singing Youth movement—an educational initiative program created by fellow composer Lajos Bárdos to create and improve music education in the Hungarian school system. Side by side, Kodály and Bárdos created new a cappella choral works for the people of Hungary. Kodály penned Esti dal in 1938, at a time when Hungarian politicians were beginning to side with the Axis powers. Esti dal was one of the many tunes Kodály collected while traveling across his native countryside over the years. Though it is a simple prayer, the text focuses primarily on the safe-keeping of a loved one, and that with faith, the reciter will be ever protected by God and his angels.
On November 1, 1942, only a few months into hiding for the Frank family in Amsterdam, Hugo Distler committed suicide in Berlin, Germany. By age thirty-four he had become increasingly more depressed due to the deaths of friends, military attacks, professional pressures, and the very real fear of being conscripted into the German army (he had already managed to evade two prior call-ups in 1940 and 1941). It is a wonder how, with all the negativity that surrounded his life, he was able to compose such an incredible choral collection as the Mörike-Chorliederbuch, Op. 19, composed for mixed chorus as well as men’s and women’s choirs. Vorspruch (Prologue) is the first of the forty-eight octavos in the collection, and appropriately so. Distler was a supporter of the Lutheran Liturgical movement, Barneucher Kreis. Though the Mörike-Chorliederbuch technically is considered a secular collection, the poet, Eduard Mörike, was a Lutheran pastor. To have selected one of Mörike’s sacred poems and set it ("mäßig rasche – moderately rapidly") as the prologue was likely Distler’s way of paying enthusiastic respect to Mörike and the Lutheran church.
In 1947, Italian-born Ildebrando Pizzetti’s 1942–43 work Tre composizioni corali received its premiere at the International Society for Contemporary Music festival in Copenhagen. It is no secret that Pizzetti walked a very fine line within the Italian fascist government during the second World War.
From 1917–1952 he held prominent positions within Italy’s largest conservatories, often as director or president, and was also a writer for several newspapers. He was a very public figure in the arts, and as such during these decades, was encouraged to follow suit with those above him. While his autograph can be found on documents such as the 1925 Manifesto of the Fascist Intellectuals, Pizzetti did not always side with Prime Minister Benito Mussolini, particularly when Mussolini’s decisions affected Pizzetti’s artistic work. Cade la sera is the first of the Tre composizioni corali, a set which he dedicated to Pope Pius XII, a man who was a critic of Nazism and kept in contact with the German Resistance during the war. The text, by Gabriele d’Annunzio, creates a peaceful pastoral scene. Pizzetti’s use of enharmonic pitches to create seamless harmonic shifts through lyrical, unraveling chromatic lines aids the listener in conjuring a scenic view from above, watching each of Nature’s creations flow into another in perfect harmony.
By the time Pizzetti’s work was heard in Copenhagen, Anne Frank, her older sister Margot, and her mother had all died in Nazi concentration camps. Otto Frank, Anne’s father, survived. When he returned to the "Secret Annex" on Prinsengracht in Amsterdam in 1945, with the hopes of seeing his family again, he was instead greeted by a friend who handed him a stack of Anne’s writings.
The five afore-mentioned composers suffered their own trials. Just like Anne, it was their work, their writing, that brought them solace. On Tuesday, 7 March, 1944, less than five months before her capture, the then 14-year-old Annelies Marie Frank wrote in her diary, “…I’ve found that there is always some beauty left—in nature, sunshine, freedom, in yourself; these can all help you. Look at these things, then you find yourself again, and God, and then you regain your balance.”