On National Holocaust Day in 2005, Queen Elizabeth paid her respects at a national ceremony in London marking the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp. It was at that extraordinary event where three pieces from "Annelies," James Whitbourn's choral setting of Anne Frank's diary, were first heard in public.
According to Whitbourn, the Queen's presence at that special service had added significance. "Of course she's head of state and it's always wonderful to have the queen at any event. But on this occasion even more so than ever, because Anne Frank herself had a little photograph of the queen hanging on her wall in the Annex—Princess Elizabeth, as she was at the time. She had little pictures of Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret, her sister, hanging on the wall. And she was one of those people—the princess... the queen as she now is... who Anne Frank looked up to, as sort of Hollywood stars. I think it's quite telling to remember how active the queen is today, and she was a few years older than Anne Frank. It just shows how recent this history is."
The world premiere recording of the chamber setting of "Annelies" was just recently released and various performances are scheduled in Sarasota, Florida and Chicago. When British composer James Whitbourn was first approached by writer and poet Melanie Challenger about collaborating on this project using the story of Anne Frank, he says they both were keenly aware that it was a highly charged subject matter. "It was not originally part of the brief that we would use the diary text. But as we talked about it, it became quite apparent to us both that for the piece to have the impact that we wanted it to have, and to serve the purpose that we wanted it to serve, we really needed access to the diary text itself. So this then meant that we embarked on a period of working with the Anne Frank Fund, the family, the people who have an emotional and personal investment in this text."
Soprano Arianna Zukerman (the daughter of Pinchas Zukerman), who sings the role of Anne Frank, may have a special personal connection to this story. "Ariana has a very special voice, a very translucent voice and I think what she manages to do is to combine the sort of youthfulness of the physical person of Anne Frank with the maturity of her mind. Because she is quite an ambiguous figure, Anne Frank, in the sense that what she writes sometimes is quite beyond her years. Ariana Zukerman comes from a family who were directly affected by the Holocaust. Her grandfather was held in Auschwitz and survived that experience, of course. And—I don't know this for a fact—but it's very possible that he was there at the same time that Anne Frank was there. I think, that when you have that shared experience, that just adds a different dimension to your understanding of a piece like this."
The section of the piece titled "Life in Hiding," is very distinctive, with narration interwoven with chamber music played by clarinetist Bharat Chandra and the Lincoln Trio, "This paints a little picture of life in the Annex, which was a time of great intensity, obviously, living in a very claustrophobic setting, and under very difficult conditions," Whitbourn explains, "But within that very difficult time there were obviously moments of levity and they're reflected in this movement. In particular, the family was allowed to listen to the radio after 6 p.m. when the factory was closed. And within those radio broadcasts we know that Anne Frank listened to bits of Mozart, for example, that she mentioned in the diary, but there would also have been wartime songs and keeping-up-the-spirits-type music. That is directly reflected in this movement as well, to paint a little bit of the soundscape that would have been in that otherwise silent place."
Anne Frank was born in Frankfurt, and her mother was never very comfortable with the adopted language of the Netherlands, so she would read poems from time to time in German. "Courage" is based on a poem she may have read to Anne, "The Winter is Over, I See the Light of May." "It's a very beautiful poem. And over this German poem, I place just one or two reflections from Anne's diary as well. So the soprano is singing in English from the diary while the choir is singing in German, something that could have been spoken in the Annex at that time."
One of my favorites on "Annelies," is the Kyrie Whitbourn says initially people questioned how a Kyrie fit into a work like this, "Those two words—Kyrie Eleison—'Lord have mercy'—just those two words are included," Whitbourn clarifies. "And of course they are taken from Christian liturgy, not from Jewish liturgical sources. I think it's important to recognize that actually the Holocaust is not just a Jewish story. It's not part of just Jewish history. It's part of everybody's history. And there were many sides to this particular atrocity. And this is a text which simply calls for mercy in the simplest possible way."