James Whitbourn

On telling the story of Anne Frank in music

James WhitbournAnne Frank's diary has been translated into over 60 languages and read by millions. But very few artists have been allowed to use the text in their own work. Composer James Whitbourn is one of them. In 2005, his work Annelies had its world premiere at the National Holocaust Memorial event in London. The piece is the first major choral setting of the text of the diary, and to mark this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day – on 27 January 2013 – Naxos has released a recording of the work. Whitbourn spoke to us about the unique challenges posed by setting one of the world's best-known texts to music.

How did the work come about?
I’ve been aware of the diary of Anne Frank for as long as I can remember, but the project came about 10 years ago when I was approached by the poet Melanie Challenger. She’d been working with children in Bosnia and had seen the healing effects of music and she had this idea of doing something with the story of Anne Frank.

Tell us about the texts you use in Annelies.
The more we thought about the project it became apparent that we really needed access to the diary of Anne Frank, rather than just her story. I didn’t realise this at the time, but that’s something that is very closely guarded – all those Broadway plays and other exploitations don’t actually quote from the diary at all, they simply use other sources. When that permission eventually came through that had a transforming effect on the project, it made it something that was very personal and added to what was already a weight of responsibility.

It’s not just Anne’s words, though. What other texts did you choose to include?
We use the words ‘Kyrie Eleison’ in one movement alongside text from the diary. We wanted to point to the fact that her story and the events of the holocaust are not just the story of an individual or indeed of a race or nation – it’s something that involved many people from all religions. That universal cry of mercy is a deliberately non-Jewish insertion. We also wanted to make sure that the piece was in no way anti-German. We know that Anne’s mother read prayers and poems to Anne in German from a Lutheran prayer book that they had, so that text was included.

Anne’s words were never meant to be set to music – what difficulties did that present?
Actually they are very singable words and although Melanie provided a new translation with a light touch, there aren’t significant changes. But working with this text did have quite an effect on me, you become very personally involved in the story – and it’s no coincidence that the next piece I wrote was very contrasting and extremely jolly.

You’re not Jewish yourself; how did that affect the project?
There’s a religious side to being Jewish and there’s also a cultural side. I remember Arianna Zukerman who sings the soprano solo part on the recording, described herself as ‘Jew-ish’ and I guess that’s about where the Frank family might have placed themselves. They were culturally Jewish and they followed many aspects of religious Jewish life, but they also celebrated Christmas. So I don’t feel that, because I wasn't brought up in a Jewish family, I was wanting in that way.

A recording of James Whitbourn’s 'Annelies' is out now on Naxos, performed by soprano Arianna Zukerman, Westminster Williamson Voices, The Lincoln Trio and conducted by James Jordan.

Holocaust Memorial Day is on 27 January.