Composer James Whitbourn has provided this note on his choral work Annelies, which the NEC Concert Choir performs October 24 in the Boston premiere of its chamber version, under the direction of Erica Washburn.
Before the first complete performance of Annelies Anne Frank's cousin, Bernd Elias, who introduced the new work, said “if Anne could be with us tonight, I know she would shed tears of joy and pride, and she would be so happy—happy the way I remember when I saw her last.” Such is her place in the world today that it is easy to forget that Annelies (Anne’s full name) was a real person, with friends and family. She was a happy and energetic person, wanting to live life to the full.
To date I have never met anyone who, on hearing the name Anne Frank, has said “who?” If you stop to think what it takes to achieve this level of familiarity, it is extraordinary. But when you start to work with the text, it becomes clear why this book is known all around the globe. The writing is a brilliant fusion of the everyday musings of a young girl with the most penetrating observations of the human soul seen through apparently much older and wiser eyes.
The creation of the libretto of Annelies from the diary was the work of my collaborator Melanie Challenger, and it was she who came to me with the idea of a musical work. No-one had been permitted to use the diary in this way before, and permission was not granted lightly. It was a careful, thoughtful, and ultimately loving process that led to the agreement to make a new work of art from this extraordinary and personal diary text, and it felt right to name the piece by Anne’s full name, even though she is more commonly known by the shortened form.
The fact that the diary sits within an event of such horror as the Holocaust makes its brilliance painful. But at the time of writing her diary, Anne had not experienced the most brutal aspects of the Holocaust first hand, though she was much more aware of them than her companions-in-hiding realized. One of the helpers, Miep Gies, who kept the supply of food to the annex flowing, recalls that Anne (whom she adored) used always to follow her downstairs at the end of each day’s visit and ask many questions of what was really happening in the outside world. For example, she wanted to know what was happening to the Jews she saw rounded up and arrested on the streets below. “I told her the truth”, Miep said. Anne knew what was happening. But none of the housemates, not even her own parents, knew the depths of her understanding. The side of her character she called her “finer side” was hidden from sight, and reserved only for the pages of her diary. It is that side of her character which is reflected most strongly in Melanie Challenger’s libretto, although there are references in Movement 5 to her more playful side too.
As my composition developed I became increasingly aware of Anne Frank as a contemporary person. Melanie and I were helped by a number of people, perhaps most crucially Bernd (Buddy) Elias, who brought discreet encouragement and affirmation. Through him, it became a much more personal piece to create than it might have been, almost as though I were writing for him and for his family and friends. This particular context affected the language of the music that started to come into my mind. Anne’s diary is absolutely direct and the music had to be too. In the early weeks, I wrestled with many ideas but always came back to a musical language that could be understood by many and which might reflect the life of a young girl. I was perhaps fortunate that the period of composition coincided with the time in my life when my own two daughters were similar in age to that of Anne Frank when she started her diary.
The score is permeated with sounds which reflect Anne’s wider life and acknowledge other parts of the diary not directly quoted. There are stylistic references (e.g. Movement 12) to the classical composers she listened to on the radio (she particularly mentions one Mozart concert) and of the war-time songs (Movement 5) she might have heard on the BBC, used to boost morale among the troops. There are the bells of the nearby church (Movement 5); there are childhood references, such as the little xylophone she was playing (Movements 1 and 9) when she first met her friend Hannah Goslar. And, although there are no specific quotations from Jewish melodies, their contours and cadences inform much of my writing and can be clearly heard.
Annelies Marie Frank died in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, along with her sister Margot. By that stage, she knew her mother was dead, and she believed her father was dead too. In fact, he survived; and Anne's friend Hannah Goslar, the last person we know to have seen her alive, always wondered whether Anne would have found the strength to live if she had known her beloved father was not dead. The legacy of her death, though, has been remarkable.
Even before its première, parts of Annelies were heard in a most extraordinary setting. The piece came to the attention of the organisers of the U.K.’s National Holocaust Memorial Day 2005, the sixtieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz (where Anne Frank was also kept captive). Three movements of the work were performed on that occasion, in the presence of Queen Elizabeth II whose face (then as Princess Elizabeth) Anne Frank had gazed at on the wall of her little attic room all those years ago, and of 500 survivors of the Holocaust and their families. The work was introduced by Anne’s school friend, Hannah - the girl who Anne had dreamed about (Movement 9) reaching out to her in desperation. As events unfolded, it was her friend who survived and Anne who died. This work is a musical commemoration of that young life.