Michael Tilson Thomas: From the Diary of Anne Frank

MICHAEL TILSON THOMAS

BORN: December 21, 1944. Los Angeles, California. Michael Tilson Thomas now lives in San Francisco and Miami Beach

COMPOSED: Sketched starting in late summer of 1989 and finished in the last weeks of December of that year. The work was commissioned by UNICEF

WORLD PREMIERE: March 19, 1990. The composer conducted the New World Symphony with Audrey Hepburn in Philadelphia. An ensuing tour included performances in Chicago and Houston, culminating in a performance at the General Assembly of the United Nations in New York. On May 30, 1991 the revised version was performed by Audrey Hepburn and the London Symphony Orchestra, MTT conducting

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—At these concerts

INSTRUMENTATION:  3 flutes (doubling piccolo), 2 oboes and English horn, 2 clarinets and bass clarinet, 2 bassoons and contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, vibraphone, crotales, glockenspiel, gong, suspended cymbal, snare drum, chimes, tam-tam, large and small bass drums, tambourine, marimba, xylophone, tom-tom, crash cymbals, wood block, triangle, field drum, bongos, small metal pipe, metal plate, harp, piano, and strings

DURATION: About 36 mins

THE BACKSTORY Anne Frank, at the height of her powers as a writer—journalist, novelist, poet, or all three—should now be getting ready to celebrate her ninetieth birthday in a year’s time. In fact, she died of typhus at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in February or March 1945. She was fifteen.

Anneliese Maria Frank, always called Anne, was born in Frankfurt on June 12, 1929. In November 1923, her father, Otto Frank, founded a Dutch branch of a bank his own father had founded in Frankfurt in 1885. For various reasons neither of the banks prospered, but Otto's connections with the Dutch business world made Holland the natural destination for the Franks after Hitler came to power in 1933. Otto Frank moved to Amsterdam in August of that year, having established a business for the manufacture of pectin. His wife and their older daughter Margot followed in December, and Anne joined them in March 1934.

The rest of the story is painfully familiar. The Germans invaded Holland in May 1940. The first police roundup of Jews came in February 1941. Increasingly oppressive anti-Jewish decrees were promulgated that year and the next: segregated schools, the wearing of a yellow star, and the rest. On July 5, 1942, the sixteen-year-old Margot Frank received a notice ordering her to report for deportation to the Westerbork concentration camp. The next day, the family went into hiding in an annex behind the offices and warehouse of Otto Frank's company. Word was spread that they had escaped to Switzerland. Joined by the van Pels family and some months later by a dentist, Fritz Pfeffer, the Franks lived in their “secret annex” for two years and thirty days. Five helpers brought them food and other necessaries, as well as books so that Anne could continue her education.

On August 4, 1944, the eight inhabitants of the "Achterhuis"—literally the house in back—were betrayed by one of the warehousemen and arrested. Four days later they were taken to Westerbork and on September 3 they were sent on to Auschwitz. On October 28, Anne and Margot were removed to Bergen-Belsen, where both died five months or so later. Their mother died in Auschwitz in January 1945. The three members of the van Pels family and Dr. Pfeffer died in various camps between September 1944 and May 1945. Otto Frank was freed when the Soviet army reached Auschwitz on January 27, 1945 and, by way of Odessa and Marseilles, he returned to Amsterdam that June. In 1953 he married Elfriede Geiringer, whom he had met on the journey from Auschwitz, and moved to Basel, Switzerland. He died in 1980, aged ninety-one.

On her thirteenth birthday, June 12, 1942, Anne Frank received bunches of peonies and roses, a board game called "Variety" and a jigsaw puzzle, a blue blouse and a brooch, a bottle of grape juice and a jar of ersatz coffee, several books and bookstore gift certificates, and a lot of candy and baked goods. But best of all was a blank book in a red, brown, and white plaid cover. This gift from her parents changed the historiography of World War II. That day, Anne began keeping a diary. To ease the flow of words and to allow for excursions into autobiography beyond the events of the day, she cast the entries in the form of letters to an imaginary friend, Kitty.

In hiding, Anne continued the diary in notebooks and on loose sheets. When the Germans cleaned out the Achterhuis they looked only for "valuables" and took no interest in all this paper, which was then kept safe by the Frank family's Dutch helpers for the duration of the war. Even so, a substantial portion of the diary was lost, as were all of Margot Frank's journals.

The history of the various versions of Anne's diary and of its publication, first in Dutch in 1947, then in many other languages, including English in 1952, is complicated. This is so partly because of Anne's own revisions: She was already, and rightly, taking herself seriously as an author and thought of her diary as something to be published eventually. Further revisions took place when it was prepared for press and the familiar English edition, therefore, is somewhat sanitized. The complete text is now available, along with essential and fascinating background material, in The Diary of Anne Frank: The Revised Critical Edition, published in 2003 by Doubleday.—Michael Steinberg

Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s Program Annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.

Michael Tilson Thomas has provided this note for From the Diary of Anne Frank

The work is a melodrama in the form of symphonic variations. It was written for Audrey Hepburn. Audrey had grown up in occupied Holland; she was exactly the same age as Anne Frank and identified strongly with her—and with the suffering of all children. This work was written as a vehicle for Audrey in her role as an ambassador for UNICEF. It takes its shape primarily from the diary passages that Audrey and I selected and read together. While some of the words concern tragic events, so many of them reflect the youthful, optimistic, inquisitive, and compassionate spirit of their author. Above all, we wanted these qualities to come through in the piece, and so I have derived the themes…from turns of phrases in traditional Jewish music, especially the hymn to life, Kaddish.

The work is in four sections. The first opens with a flourish (outlining the words “according to His will” in the Kaddish) and then introduces Anne's first theme, which is developed as a dance and leads to the narrator's first words—Anne's dedication on the first page of her diary. A hopeful lullaby follows, leading to Anne's explanation for writing a diary. Simpler and simpler harmonies lead to a new theme, that of her imaginary friend Kitty, to whom the diary is addressed. A wistful dance brings the section to a close.

The second section opens with opposing major and minor harmonies that entrap the themes within a twelve-tone game. Playful at first, the games become increasingly menacing, until the whole orchestra is raging. The tumult subsides as the family goes into hiding. The lullaby returns now, first as an elegiac bass trombone solo, then as a tragic procession. The movement ends with a soliloquy for Anne in the quiet night.

The third section takes up Anne's love of nature and her discovery of love. It is a series of up-tempo variations on Anne's and Kitty's themes, finally uniting them.

The fourth section serves as an epilogue to the diary. We hear Anne's vision for her future, and the world’s. At the last moment the work turns in a new direction, concluding with a somber but hopeful cast.

I now realize that so much of this work is a reflection not only of Anne Frank, but of Audrey Hepburn. Audrey's simplicity, her deeply caring nature, the ingenuous sing-song of her voice are all present in the phrase shapes of the orchestra. The work would never have existed without her, and it is dedicated to her.—Michael Tilson Thomas

More About the Music 

Recordings: From the Diary of Anne Frank is being recorded at these concerts for future release on SFS Media

Online: For more on MTT’s compositions, visit michaeltilsonthomas.com

Reading: Viva Voce, a collection of conversations between MTT and the critic Edward Seckerson (Faber and Faber)  | The Diary of Anne Frank: The Revised Critical Edition, edited by David Barnouw and Gerrold van der Stroom (Doubleday)