Composing Annelies

James WhitbournWed 9th January 2013

Finding a musical voice for Holocaust victim Anne Frank

So, 2013 sees the latest fruits of the most all-consuming project of my life as a composer so far, beginning with the release of its new recording in January on Naxos. Annelies is the project in question: a choral setting of a libretto taken from the Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl. The idea may sound simple, but the concepts are vast and the responsibility is huge. In all my travels, I have never met anyone who, on hearing the name Anne Frank, has asked ‘who?’ If you stop and 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 brilliant. It is a seamless 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 from the diary was the work of my collaborator, writer Melanie Challenger, and it was she who came to me with the idea of a musical work. That was ten years ago. Nothing about this project has been easy, and perhaps that is the way it ought to be. No one had been permitted to use the diary in this way before, and permission was not granted lightly. It is too important a text for that. 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 we called the new piece Annelies, Anne Frank’s full name.
Being asked to compose this piece has been both a privilege and a responsibility. But I was helped by a number of people, perhaps most crucially Anne Frank’s own cousin, Buddy Elias, who brought discreet encouragement and affirmation. Through him, it became a much more personal piece to create, almost as though I were writing for him and family and friends.

The context also 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 people. When this manifests itself in tonal and melodic music, though, this brings a particular type of danger with it. Sometimes composers find comfort in using a language that is not widely understood. Listeners then either reject it outright or are forced to work hard in order to accept our work. When the language is familiar, though, there is a temptation for listeners - and even performers - not to work hard and to assume that the music is easy to understand or offered ‘on a plate’.

The process of making this new recording (of the chamber version, incidentally: there is also an orchestral version as yet unrecorded) showed me for certain that it does not have to be that way. The performers - Arianna Zukerman, The Westminster Williamson Voices, and The Lincoln Trio with Bharat Chandra under James Jordan - invested a profundity in their own work through analysis, research, experimentation, debate and committed musicianship, which sings through and permeates their entire performance.

The premiere recording of the chamber version of Annelies has been released on Naxos, featuring soprano Arianna Zuckerman, the Westminster Williamson Voices and The Lincoln Trio conducted by James Jordan. Listen to an excerpt on the Gramophone Player below:

James Whitbourn

James Whitbourn is a composer, conductor, producer and honorary research fellow of St Stephen’s House, Oxford. His choral works have been performed on every inhabited continent in the world, especially 'Annelies', premiered in 2005 (orchestral version) and 2008 (chamber version), and his earlier 'Son of God Mass', which is regularly performed throughout the United States, Europe and other parts of the world. His choral music has been recorded by the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge, the Oxford-based chamber choir Commotio and the Westminster Williamson Voices, on Et cetera and Naxos. He has a close association with Westminster Choir College, New Jersey, where he has been visiting artist and composer-in-residence. Since 2001, he has held an exclusive publishing agreement with Chester Music, London.

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