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James Whitbourn – Remembering Annelies

 
How on earth does an artist respond to a subject like the Holocaust? The sheer statistics are so mind-numbing that expressions of personal grief, horror or indignation – especially from those who weren’t personally involved – can seem miserably inadequate. But writer Melanie Challenger and composer James Whitbourn have together produced something that may prove to be a significant exception. Annelies: The Anne Frank Passion, which was given its complete premiere on April 5 2005 in Cadogan Hall in London under the direction of Leonard Slatkin, takes one – albeit very famous – individual story, and through it paints a picture of the greatest single atrocity in history that also raises
wider questions about how human beings
treat each other and endure terrible suffering.

In any case it would be wrong to say that Challenger has had absolutely no contact with mass atrocity. Though only in her mid-twenties, she has already spearheaded a project that brought together children in post-war Bosnia and her Oxfordshire home. ‘We set up an internet link, and the children worked together on a fairy-tale opera with names and themes from the city of Mostar (devastated during the war). The Bosnian children were doing a play about Anne Frank at the same time as the children in Oxfordshire were starting to read Anne Frank’s Diary. Both groups ended up thinking about what happened to their grandparents during the war, and about the similarity of the experiences in Bosnia to the fate of the Jews in the Second World War. It made me realize how much Anne’s Diary still speaks directly to young people today.’

Soon Challenger was thinking of how to create a musical work based on the Diary, something approachable for young people. She contacted the Jewish Music Institute, and they agreed to give her starter funds. Then came one of those inspiring coincidences that can make you feel perhaps you really are on the right track. ‘The Insititute’s Director, Geraldine Auerbach had been working with James [Whitbourn] on a Pentecost piece for the BBC, and when I said I wanted something both sacred and secular from a composer who could write beautifully for chorus and solo voice, she said he was the man for me. I got in touch with Chester Music who sent me a CD of his music, and the first thing on the disc was a mass-setting I’d heard on TV several years earlier and absolutely loved! I remember thinking, “I wonder who wrote that?” and there it was! So that was that.’

Challenger soon came to feel that this instant, instinct-led decision was ‘inspired’. She and Whitbourn talked about the form of the piece – how Anne Frank’s Diary would form the basis of the work, but that it would be necessary to incorporate other textual elements. They also included a poignant German folk song: Challenger felt that it was necessary to ‘reclaim’ the German language – which after all was Anne’s native tongue, and that of the vast majority of educated, ‘assimilated’ Central European Jews in her time. Challenger and Whitbourn also felt the need to include an element of formal, ritualized mourning – in this Challenger was influenced by Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, which movingly interleaves poems by Wilfred Owen with the words of the Latin Mass for the Dead. ‘I wondered about using Hebrew texts, but Anne wasn’t an Orthodox Jew and she didn’t speak Hebrew. Also many Jews at the time were professing Christians. So I went to texts of formal mourning from the Old Testament – appropriate to Jews and Christians, with universal messages – especially the Psalms and the Book of Lamentations. I simplified the language to make it singable. For me that’s one of the most exquisite parts of the piece. I can imagine it being sung by choirs in excerpts. James has written quite traditional choral music here but it provides this wonderful still moment of contemplation.’

Was Whitbourn conscious of contriving different styles to suit the different kinds of text in the libretto – Anne’s Diary extracts, the German folk-song, the Biblical words? ‘I did find I used different styles. It wasn’t that I sat down and though “this must sound like a German chorale”, but that’s how it turned out. Some of it sounds quite classical German, some – I’m told – sound very English, other passages have Jewish element. I wasn’t always sure at first that this was how I wanted it, but the more I lived with it the more it seemed to have just the right mood for that particular section’. But what about the whole business of the emotional response? Isn’t there a danger for a composer of being exploitative or sensationalist – of trying too hard to make the audience feel certain reactions? ‘I certainly didn’t try to stir up particular emotions’, says Whitbourn. ‘It’s more a case of writing music and seeing what happens expressively. I either keep it or throw it away, depending on what my internal gauge tells me.’ But as Whitbourn worked, not only with Challenger on the text, but with Anne Frank’s surviving relatives and friends, it became much clearer to him what he had to do. ‘You begin to feel a real closeness to her through them – she’s a real person and not just a symbolic being who has become a kind of international property. That’s why we used the original form of her name, Annelies, rather than the familiar nickname Anne. And through the diary you begin to see through her eyes and respond more to the philosophical elements – as she looks up to the skies from her hiding place and downwards to the terrible things below. That’s very much the centre of the piece. But I also thought that in a way it’s like selecting music for a memorial service. People aren’t looking for something avant-garde, “cutting-edge”. If you’re thinking of reading a poem at a memorial service you wouldn’t read it in Chinese if no-one there was a Chinese speaker. So first and foremost I tried to create something that everyone will understand.’


This article is taken from the Spring 2005 issue of
The Full Score, the magazine of the Music Sales Group classical companies. For more information about Annelies and the music of James Whitbourn contact promotion@musicsales.co.uk


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