Singing Anne Frank–A Choral Commemoration

Review by: David Vernier

Artistic Quality: 8

Sound Quality: 8

It’s remarkable that The Diary of Anne Frank has not been the subject for a major choral work until this thoughtful and often moving setting of selected texts (the original version premiered in London in 2005, conducted by Leonard Slatkin) by English composer James Whitbourn and librettist Melanie Challenger.  Material from the ultra-famous diary has been used for an oft-performed opera/mono-drama  (by Grigori Frid), a song cycle, numerous individual songs, and of course as the basis for a famous play and movie, but never for a vocal work of this form (a kind of choral-song cycle/cantata/tone poem) or scope (14 musical sections lasting a total of 70 minutes).

A convincing argument could be made that Anne Frank’s diary doesn’t need musical treatment; it works just fine on its own. Its prose (translated from Dutch to English) does not readily fall into musical phrases; neither do those phrases, beautiful as they often are, suggest handy poetic rhythms. Rather, the power of Anne Frank’s writing lies in the fact of its unadorned simplicity and heartfelt expression, which needs no embellishment or commentary. That said, Whitbourn, who is a first-rate composer for voices, has seen fit (been inspired) to attempt to enliven and enrich some of those revered words with music, and Annelies (Anne Frank’s full, original name was Annelies Marie Frank) is the result.

Whitbourn states that Annelies is “a commemorative work” both for Anne and for “those voiceless millions who shared her fate.” The intent of the librettist was to focus on Anne’s keen observations of people, of events in her immediate environment and of the world beyond, and of her own situation and longed-for destiny. The order of presentation of the text selections is not chronological (the first one is from April, 1944, only a few months before the inhabitants of the Annexe were found by the Nazis and taken away); rather the selections are organized to capture the essence of Anne’s thoughts, feelings, and character independent of time, which at some point ceased to have the same relevance for her as for those not confined as she was, separated from the normal measurements of life and progress.

Setting English prose, especially of the un-self-conscious variety, to music is not easy—it usually comes off sounding unnatural, contrived, forced. Melodies go off in weird directions, misled by irregular rhythms and jagged inflections. Britten and Menotti got it absolutely right; Whitbourn, while very often successful, doesn’t always join them. When you have to set words such as, “I started packing my important belongings. The first thing was my diary…”, or, “We arrived at the Prinsengracht, led through the long passage and up the wooden staircase to the Annexe…”, you need to think of the realization as speech, not as some remote, detached musical expression. But here, passages like this seem contrived to “fit” rather than to illuminate the thought or idea of the speaker.

One problem for me was the choice of soprano for the solo passages. Arianna Zukerman unquestionably has a beautiful voice, but her big sound and operatic style, especially in this chamber version of the work, and her somewhat detached delivery of the texts seemed at odds with the sincere, uninhibited voice of the teenage Anne. In fact, for me the best parts of the work were those featuring the chorus.

There also are some misleading contextual issues that at least on the surface seem unnecessary. One is the point in the score titled “Passing of time”, a quote from a diary entry in January, 1944. Here, the text simply says “The years went by. There’s a saying: ‘Time heals all wounds,’ that’s how it was for me.” From this we have no way of knowing that in her diary, what Anne was actually referring to was her experience of love for a boy, before the war, but in this context we’re led to believe that it was some vague reference to her endless days spent in the confined, oppressive world hiding in the Annexe. Later in the work, in lines quoted from February, 1944, we hear of Anne’s desire to “fulfill my longing at last…” But the important lines telling us what this longing is are omitted. We’re led to believe that it refers to something about spring, but actually she is talking about how she is “longing—really longing—for everything: conversation, freedom, friends, being alone.” She even longs—”to cry!”

Apart from these pointed reservations, I have to say that Whitbourn does a wonderful job finding musical contexts and expressive techniques to realize them. He uses his chamber instruments (violin, cello, piano, clarinet) well, sometimes calling them to create the sounds of traditional Jewish music, at others to paint a mood, whether of gloom or levity, contemplation or exuberance or apprehension. And his writing for unaccompanied voices, which constitutes a large part of the score,  is superb; there are so many moments of happy inspiration throughout that you easily glide past the less shining sections.

Some of the more affecting sections come near the end of the work: the beautiful hymn-like tune on “Ich danke dir für all das Gute…” (Anne included this German text, which she said at the conclusion of her prayers each night, in the diary on March 7, 1944); the eerily captivating choral/instrumental evocation of the scene of the Annexe residents’ discovery, capture, and rude departure for Westerbork and the concentration camps (“The capture and the concentration camp”); the following a cappella chorale based on verses from the Psalms and from Lamentations.

I actually wished that the work had ended there—by now it had effectively made its point, shining its light on several of this remarkable teenage girl’s all-too-briefly lived moments of insight, despair, longing, eloquence, and most of all, of hope, doomed yet more desirable, more sustaining than the alternative. At this point, it just seemed fitting to leave us to ponder the true, harsh end, enhanced by the open, bitter chords of this chorale and the final words (“The young and the old lie on the ground; the maids and young men are fallen”, from Lamentations). However, it’s also easy to understand Whitbourn and Challenger’s decision to instead leave us with the words and image of the more positive, optimistic Anne, whose spirit rose above and outlived all the evil that surrounded her: “As long as you can look fearlessly at the sky, you’ll know you’re pure within.”  These words understandably may inspire us and make us feel better (nothing wrong with that), but, as Anne’s observations should vividly remind us, we still cannot escape from who we are as humans, what we’ve done, and why these things that happened to Anne and millions of others, in one form or another, keep happening.



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