“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.” These words were spoken by Bernd Elias, Anne Frank’s first cousin, before the first performance of Annelies. His is a remark that stops you in your tracks, because it is easy to forget that Annelies (Anne’s full name) was a real person, with friends and family, and not just a historical figure. She was a happy person, and a hugely talented girl. Today, she would still be only in her 80s had she lived. In her room in hiding, she had a photograph stuck onto her wall of Princess Elizabeth (of the UK), now Queen Elizabeth II, one of the famous people she loved to admire. It is sobering to remember that the British monarch is several years her senior and at the time of this recording still carries out her royal duties. Anne Frank should have been a younger contemporary of hers.
Yet Anne Frank did not grow up. Her death has kept her an eternal child, and her diary continues to speak directly to children and adults today. Anne Frank was a highly intelligent human being, full of perception and maturity, and her diary is a brilliant piece of writing in its own right. The fact that it sits within a story of such horror as the Holocaust makes its brilliance so painful.
But at the time of writing the diary, Anne had not experienced the Holocaust first hand, though she was much more aware of it than her companions-in-hiding realized. By all accounts, she was always full of questions. One of the helpers, Miep Gies, who kept the supply of food to the Annexe flowing, recalls that Anne (whom she adored) used to follow her down the stairs at the end of each day’s visit and ask about what was really happening in the outside world. For example, she wanted to know the fate of 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, realized the depths of her understanding. The side of her character she called her ‘better side’ was hidden from sight and reserved only for the pages of her diary.
It is these penetrating observations that form the basis of Melanie Challenger’s libretto. In Melanie, I saw qualities that chime with Anne Frank’s character, especially her penetrating understanding of other people. The idea for a choral work came from Melanie at a time when she had been working on a music project with children from war-torn Bosnia. She approached me with the idea, and we worked on it intensely together for almost three years. From the outset, we were clear that it was those remarkable observations that were to form the basis of this work. Squabbles within the Annexe, teenage romantic encounters and the like were all put aside, and the diary distilled into this sequence of beautiful, spiritually-charged texts. Melanie has skilfully made a translation suitable for me, as a composer, to set to music.
Rarely have I found a text so compelling and the inspiration for so much thought, simply as a document in its own right. But as time went on, and as I worked on the score, I became more aware of Anne Frank as a contemporary person. Eventually, I came to meet Bernd (or Buddy, as he’s often known), her cousin, and later one of her school friends, of whom she speaks so often in the diary. These personal family links influenced the kind of piece it was destined to be, and at times it felt as though I were putting together the music for the family’s memorial event. It was to be a commemorative work, not only for Anne Frank, but for those by whose side she lived, those she watched with penetrating eyes, and those voiceless millions who shared her fate.
Annelies Marie Frank died in the Bergen-Belsen camp, along with her sister Margot, having previously been held at Auschwitz. By that stage, she assumed 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 had she known her beloved father was not dead.
The legacy of her death, though, has been remarkable. She always intended to publish her diary, and that wish has been fulfilled in a way she cannot have imagined. It has been a privilege to work on these texts.
The world premiere in London—in the original orchestral version—was beautifully conducted by the American conductor Leonard Slatkin. But even before its premiere, three movements of the work were performed at the UK’s National Holocaust Day event for the sixtieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. It was given in the presence of Queen Elizabeth II, whose face Anne Frank had gazed at on the wall of her little attic room all those years ago, and of five hundred survivors of the Holocaust, their families, and several hundred others. The setting was Westminster Hall, an enormous eleventh century hall within the Houses of Parliament in London. It was a cold January day, and the hall was appropriately cold for the occasion. The work was introduced by Anne’s school friend, Hannah Goslar.
Annelies having begun its life in Westminster UK, it is a happy coincidence that Westminster US has played an important part in the work’s journey. The Princeton campus of Westminster Choir College of Rider University was the venue for the North American premiere in 2007. This was a new chamber version (a slightly different scoring from the final chamber version recorded here) written for James Jordan and his Westminster Williamson Voices. In distilling the orchestral scoring down to just a few instruments I found I could give another perspective on the piece.
All the instruments used are capable both of great beauty and of great passion. It is also a nice synergy that the final ensemble of piano, violin, cello and clarinet is the same group for which Messiaen wrote his Quatuor pour la fin du temps—a work written within a prisoner of war camp and first performed by Messiaen and three other prisoners of war. All these instruments are also associated with Jewish tradition and culture, and while there is no actual quote of traditional Jewish melody within Annelies, I have often drawn on the melodic contours and expressions in my phrases.
Now Westminster Choir College continues the journey by making the premiere recording of this work. I have had the privilege of working with these fine young musicians for a number of years and have come to learn the true value of the methods of their conductor, James Jordan. Their preparation for this recording has been one of total immersion, not only in the text and the music but also in wanting to learn the historical context and the philosophical questions that arise from attempting to create a work of art from so devastating a tragedy as the Holocaust. In this respect, they were helped by direct contact with a soloist, Arianna Zukerman, who not only possesses a voice and musicianship of great quality but whose own family was severely affected by the horrors of the Holocaust, her grandfather having survived Auschwitz and her grandmother having survived the Łódź Ghetto and subsequently a work camp in Berlin. As I came to know the members of Williamson Voices better, I learned that hers was not the only family with a direct connection to the Holocaust.
I believe the fruits of this immersive preparation can be heard in the choral sound on this disc and shines through in the honesty of the singing. All these vocal artists are complemented by outstanding instrumental playing from the Lincoln Trio and the clarinettist Bharat Chandra. Their commitment to the chamber needs of this piece and their ability to engage with the young voices of Westminster Choir College as members of a chamber ensemble, are some of the qualities that made the recording sessions so rich for those involved.
In the end, though, it is the text itself that is of such strength that it finds a way to leave the indelible mark of that young girl whose wisdom and perception can teach us all.
James Whitbourn (b. 1963)