Notes from Anne Frank's Diary

A new oratorio sets to music one of the most poignant stories of the 20th century

There will be an avalanche of musical events on the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, on Thursday, but one of the most interesting will be a new oratorio based on the diary of Anne Frank. Composed by James Whitbourn, this has been masterminded by a young woman named Melanie Challenger. "I realised that, though Anne's life story had been told a million times, there wasn't a piece of music on it that young people could respond to," says the irrepressible twentysomething. "Michael Tilson Thomas had done a piece, and I knew about Hans Krasa's children's opera
Brundibar, which was written and performed in the Terezin camp. But my real influence was Britten's
War Requiem. I wanted to take that idea of something that was both secular and sacred, and apply it to what was unique about
Anne Frank's Diary."

There will be an avalanche of musical events on the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, on Thursday, but one of the most interesting will be a new oratorio based on the diary of Anne Frank. Composed by James Whitbourn, this has been masterminded by a young woman named Melanie Challenger. "I realised that, though Anne's life story had been told a million times, there wasn't a piece of music on it that young people could respond to," says the irrepressible twentysomething. "Michael Tilson Thomas had done a piece, and I knew about Hans Krasa's children's opera Brundibar, which was written and performed in the Terezin camp. But my real influence was Britten's War Requiem. I wanted to take that idea of something that was both secular and sacred, and apply it to what was unique about Anne Frank's Diary."

What was that uniqueness? "It was all about wanting to be a writer, being full of literary ambition, but also about being incarcerated for such a long time, and what that did to her consciousness." What did it do? "It fragmented and also refined it. She talks about a pure part of her self, which started to separate out from the more frenetically engaged social animal which she also was. She was like a bird in a nest, looking down at the brutality around her, and also up at the sky. That pure part lifted away in the latter part of the diary. It wasn't part of being Jewish, or middle- class, or even being a woman - it was just humanity." Challenger regards the diary genre as "the purest literary expression of human consciousness - and the nearest readers can get to being inside another individual's mind".

Indeed, she's something of an expert on them, having written her own since infancy and having recently co-edited (with the Bosnian writer Zlata Filipovic) a book created from hundreds of children's diaries from war zones. Getting permission from the Frank family was an obstacle race, which Challenger surmounted by simply not taking no for an answer. At first she thought she would write an opera libretto from it, but soon found that oratorio was a more suitable form. Having worked at Garsington and Wexford, and having briefly trained as a singer, she felt up to the job. "I know how voices work, and which vowel-sounds and what sort of language is singable," she says. She wanted the music to be accessible, though without being dumbed down, and when she went to the Jewish Music Institute for advice about composers, they propelled her toward Whitbourn. The results exactly fit her prescription.

With a large chorus and one solo singer, she has tried to retain Britten's Requiem form. "For me, it wasn't about the other people in the attic - it was just Anne and the Jewish people," she says. "The last diary entry is incredible. It talks about that contradiction - that if you look at the sky, you'll find you're still pure within; her belief that we're made to respond to the beauty of nature. And that's the note the oratorio ends on."

'Annelies', part of the Holocaust Memorial Day, is at 7pm on Thursday, BBC2

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