On a wintry Sunday, a capacity crowd at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Newburyport listened in hushed awe for 75 minutes before exploding into a much-deserved standing ovation for the Jason Iannuzzi-led Cantemus Chamber Chorus performance of James Whitbourn’s poignant Annelies (2005). The oratorio sets fragments from Annelies Marie Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl in English and Dutch, alongside contemporary news reports from the 1940s, and a German hymn. Iannuzzi’s bio is HERE, and a history of the choir (HERE). Iannuzzi’s thoughtful, detailed program notes are HERE.
The Rector of St. Paul’s, Fr. Jarred Mercer, welcomed the audience to the historic parish, which was founded as Queen Anne’s Chapel in 1711 (website HERE). He drew affecting comparisons between the work’s concerns and those of our contemporary situation, remarking:
I think the extraordinary contents of the diary of Anne Frank, the words of a girl who could have just as well been my daughter or yours, can bring home [and] personalize the violence, persecution, and atrocities of our world, of the brokenness of our humanity. […] When you put that poetry into it, the imprint on our souls is that much deeper. As we come here today, my hope is that we are able to enjoy this concert and to leave this place with that imprint on us: to live in openness, love our world, and not forget the atrocities that have happened in our world, and also not neglect those that are happening now in our own streets and in our own broken relationships.
Cantemus President Susan Nash introduced the concert, thanking the local cultural councils of Groveland, Merrimac, Newbury, Newburyport, Rowley, and Salisbury for support and Massachusetts Cultural Council for its “substantial operations budget support.” This well-balanced North Shore chamber chorus, founded in 1982, has been directed by Jason Iannuzzi for two seasons and rehearses on Tuesday evenings in South Hamilton, MA. The choir combines local singers, regional professionals, and choral interns (history of the group HERE): they conduct regular bi-annual auditions (info HERE) and currently have one opening for a high school-age bass or tenor intern. Director Jason Iannuzzi and soprano soloist Lynn Eustis were interviewed last week by Mary Jacobsen for The Morning Show (30-minute program HERE) and composer James Whitbourn has outlined the early history of his Annelies project (video HERE).
For this oratorio, librettist Melanie Challenger arranged fragments from the diary [©1991] into 13 movements [©2005], which were printed in the concert program. Boston conductor Jamie Kirsch remarked, “These words have never been set to music before, and they needed to gain the approval of the Anne Frank Fund and the family. This, in that sense, is an ‘authorized’ setting: Challenger and Whitbourn capture the spirit and meaning of Anne Frank’s words extremely well” (read the full BMInt interview HERE and an earlier review HERE). The complete texts for the oratorio, annotated with the dates that excerpts appear in Anne’s diary, may be read HERE.
Anne Frank was born in 1929 in Frankfurt and emigrated with her family to Amsterdam in 1934, after the Nazi party came to power in Germany. After Kristallnacht (November 1938), Otto Frank applied for his family to emigrate to the United States, two of Anne’s uncles (Julius and Walter Holländer) emigrated via Amsterdam to America, and Anne’s maternal grandmother moved in with the Frank family in Amsterdam. Germany invaded and occupied the Netherlands in May 1940, and a series of restrictions made it clear that normal life in the capital was no longer possible for the Franks: Jewish civil servants were dismissed (November 1940), cinemas were restricted (January 1941), Jews were required to register and then deported to Buchenwald (February 1941), summer raids resulted in deportations to Mauthausen (June 1941), and the American consulate closed, so no further interviews for visas took place (July 1941). By 1942, Jews were required to wear yellow badges, carry identity cards, and the areas where they lived were highlighted on city maps.
Anne received a diary for her 13th birthday (June 12, 1942), and her family went into hiding above Otto Frank’s Opekta [fruit pectin for jam] shop at Prinsengracht 263 on July 6th. They were joined by the Van Pels family on July 13th and local dentist Fritz Pfeffer on July 14th. Along with these seven others, Anne spent 761 days in this “Secret Annex”, and she recorded her thoughts in a personal diary (related educational videos HERE and a new “video diary” HERE) preserved by family friend Miep Gies. While in hiding, the Franks heard a radio broadcast from London: Gerrit Bolkestein, a representative of the Dutch government-in-exile, stated that after the war he would be collecting evidence, in the form of written documentation, of the oppression the Dutch people suffered at the hands of the Nazis. Anne, who by this time aspired to be a writer, set about revising portions of her diary for publication. Originally published posthumously in Holland in 1947 as Der Achterhuis [The Secret Annex], The Diary of a Young Girl was first published in the US in 1952.
The diary ends on August 1, 1944, just before the hiding place was raided (August 4th) and its occupants arrested, removed to the Westerbork transit camp (August 8th), and deported to Auschwitz. This year celebrates the 72nd anniversary of the diary’s first English-language publication, a truly monumental feat brought about her father, Otto Frank, the only member of his immediate family to survive the Holocaust: you can watch a 1967 rare interview with him HERE, from the film The Eternal Light.
“Annelies” exists in two versions: a larger version, for full symphony orchestra, and a more intimate telling, for four solo players. Both versions feature soloist and chorus, with identical vocal writing. The work was given its world premiere in its full orchestral form, on April 5, 2005, at the Cadogan Hall in London (Leonard Slatkin conducted the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the Choir of Clare College Cambridge). The U.S. premiere was given on April 28, 2007, at Westminster Choir College, in Princeton (James Jordan and James Whitbourn conducting. The full American première was recorded; it can be heard on YouTube (HERE) and on compact disc (Naxos, 8.573070, HERE).
The soprano for the American premiere was Lynn Eustis, who now serves as the Chair of Voice at Boston University (faculty bio HERE), and has become associated with the work. She sang the entire work memorized, standing below the choir at the audience level. Director Jason Iannuzzi decided to feature her in this week’s Cantemus concerts after working with her in 2016 in Lexington (he led the first complete performance of the work with a high school ensemble).
The composer (pronounced “WIT-burn”) was born in Kent, England, in 1963. A graduate of Magdalen College, Oxford, he has attained an international reputation as a composer of choral music for the concert hall, film, and television. In 2010, Naxos released an album of his choral music featuring the Oxford-based chamber choir Commotio. The album was titled “Luminosity” (Naxos 8.572103, album HERE). Last year, Naxos released an all-Whitbourn album, featuring his 9/11 memorial Living Voices, the Son of God Mass, and Requiem Canticorum (Naxos 8.572737, album HERE).
Whitbourn writes well for chorus, but often interrupts his most dramatic music (densely harmonized cries of “Westerbork!” from VII. Fear of capture and the second break-in) with silence. The choices to have one text spoken (“Prospectus and Guide to the Secret Annex: a unique facility for the temporary accommodation of Jews and other dispossessed persons” from the fifth movement) and one sung in austere, fluid Anglican chant (“On August the 4th 1944, a car pulled up at Prinsengracht”) provide eerie and effective contrasts. Cantemus provided a rich variety of textures and timbres, dominated by a confident alto section and excellent diction. Whitbourn’s music is most successful when he explores dense a cappella harmonies with doubled inner voice parts, typical of Rachmaninoff (in the first and fourth movements). During the conclusion of the fourth movement (“We’re Jews in chains, chained to one spot, without any rights, a thousand obligations…”), Iannuzzi instructed the choir to begin seated, then stand one-by-one as the rhythmic repetitions built to a powerful climax. Whitbourn’s sixth movement was sinuous and sweet, combining a German chorale-like text (the Frank family’s native tongue) with a Dutch folk tune to evoke Bach’s chorale harmonizations.
The eighth movement showcases the choir expertly contrasting the beautiful Greek (Kyrie eleison [Lord have mercy]) and Hebrew (K’ravna elenu [Be near us, Lord]) invocations through a hushed, controlled blend. Like so many young people her age, Anne wanted to be independent: Whitbourn references ragtime and waltz textures to emphasize her humorous, candid moments of self-discovery and introspection: the fifth movement (“Life in hiding”), begins with the soprano solo enjoying a childlike tune about taking a bath, only to be interrupted by a scene outside of children searching for food and shelter (“The children run around in thin shirts and wooden clogs…gnawing on a carrot to still their hunger, they walk from their cold houses through cold streets.”).
The reduced orchestration heard in Newburyport, for clarinet, violin, cello, and piano, premiered on June 12, 2009 (Anne Frank’s 80th birthday) at the German Church of the Hague, Netherlands. The four instrumental soloists featured in Newburyport played a variety of roles. Pianist Jeffrey Mead (bio HERE) played with the full force of an orchestra, thrilling the audience with rich harmonies and dense, turbulent motives. His piquant chords (V. Life in hiding”), imitating the incessant chiming of the Westerkerk tower clock every 15 minutes, underscored both the terror felt by the other seven people in hiding and the familiarity Anne developed to the sound (“The silence makes me so nervous, but the chiming of the Westertoren clock reassures me at night.”).
Violinist Elizabeth Whitfield and cellist Jane Sheena, both section leaders of the excellent Lexington Symphony, contributed soaring cantilena melodies and haunting harmonics: this is an oratorio that explores a young girl’s inner struggle to be quiet, and her fear came through in the muted, vibrato-less drones of the strings. The outstanding soloist of the performance was clarinetist Stephen Bates, longtime member of the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra. His gorgeous tone and smooth shifts between registers were crucial to the emotional continuity of movements three (“The plan to go into hiding”) and six (“Courage”).
Local conductor David Hodgkins described the popularity of the oratorio to The Boston Musical Intelligencer in 2014:
Annelies has immediately become attractive to choral groups across the country for a number of reasons. The subject matter is riveting—this is the first time the rights to set the diary to music have been granted—and the power and insight of Anne’s own words will take your breath away. Composer James Whitbourn has created a work that is heartfelt, well written, accessible, and, in the chamber version that both groups are presenting, affordable. (The original version requires a very large orchestra). While there is, perhaps, a special interest in this piece to those from the Jewish community, there also exists in Anne’s words and Whitbourn’s music a universality about the human condition that transcends religious and ethnic affiliations… most of the work is about fear, suffering, yearning, guilt, uncertainty, resolve, and hope in the face of adversity. […] There’s one movement that creates drama and fear through a series of parallel augmented triads—things of that nature—but the goal of the piece is really all about letting the emotional impact of Anne Frank’s words come through. Anne Frank herself was so direct and precise in her thoughts and emotions that setting this piece in a harmonically tortured or Avant Garde way would only obscure the words and voice of a 13-year-old girl. I guess the best way to describe it would be to say that the writing is tonal without being simplistic. (Read the full BMInt interview HERE).
This 75-minute oratorio has been enjoyed by American and English audiences for more than a decade through notable performances by Westminster Choir College with Lynn Eustis (2007), NEC (Boston premiere, 2013), Coro Allegro (2014, BMInt review HERE), Chorus pro Musica with Lynn Eustis (2014, BMInt review HERE), the Massachusetts Chapter of the ACDA (Smith College, July 2014, featuring the combined Coro Allegro and Chorus pro Musica), and Austin, Texas’s professional choir Conspirare (2016).
In Amsterdam, you can tour “the secret annex” where the Franks lived in hiding from 1942-1944, before being deported to Auschwitz in June 1944, just after D-Day. The museum contains important artifacts including Anne Frank’s original red-checked diary, restored rooms and Anne’s “picture wall” (conservation video HERE), an exhibition on the family’s early years in Frankfurt, and the swinging bookcase that hid the entrance to the “secret annex” (conservation video HERE), and upstairs attic rooms (online tour HERE).
Recent films dramatizing Anne Frank’s life include Anne Frank Remembered (1995 British documentary, info HERE), the 2009 BBC miniseries The Diary of Anne Frank (info HERE), and Hanneli Goslar’s 2021 posthumous Dutch biographical film My Best Friend Anne Frank (review HERE). The American blockbuster film Freedom Writers (2007, info HERE) depicts a Read-a-thon for Tolerance in Long Beach, California that funded a visit by Miep Gies to California.
The Franks loved music and would be pleased to know that Anne’s writing has attracted international attention, shared through James Whitbourn’s beautiful score. After nearly two years in hiding, she wrote in her diary about the effects of hearing a Mozart concert on the radio: “Beautiful music,” she said, “stirs me to the very depths of my soul.” The oratorio’s text is both intimate and imperfect, a poignant window into the mind of a teenager coming to terms with herself and her place within the larger world of 1940s Europe.