Jeanne d’Arc as Artistic Inspiration
The story of Joan of Arc has caught the artistic imagination from the time that she was still alive, and there have been, literally, countless interpretations of her life. In 1429, a medieval poet called Christine de Pizan, who was famous for challenging stereotypes in a male-dominated culture, wrote an epic poem called Song in Honor of Joan of Arc. During the six centuries since then, people from Shakespeare to Honegger and beyond have been inspired by her story.
Writing in 1590, when the animosity between the French and the English was still bitter, Shakespeare included a character called Joan la Pucelle in Henry VI, Part 1. He used English sources from the previous century, and created a Joan of Arc who appears pious, but turns out to be a cunning witch who is rightly executed. In the 18th century, Voltaire wrote an epic poem called Maid of Oranges, poking fun at mysticism. But in 1801, the German playwright, Friedrich Schiller, wrote a play called The Maid of Orléans, which created a very sympathetic portrait of Joan of Arc. True, the history was not quite accurate. He made her a Romantic heroine, who was protected by a magic helmet until she fell in love. And he had her killed in battle, rather than being burned at the stake. Still, this is the compassionate portrayal of Joan of Arc that became the model for later versions. Tchaikovsky, for instance, used Schiller’s play as the basis for his opera, also called The Maid of Orléans, in 1878.
Even Mark Twain was fascinated by the story, and he wrote a rather uncharacteristic novel called Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc. He told the narrative from the point of view of her page and secretary; when he knew her as a youth, as a commander in the French army, and as a defendant at her trial. The book was Twain’s own personal favorite.
Joan of Arc was canonized by Pope Benedict XV in 1920, and three years later George Bernard Shaw produced his play, Saint Joan. He pored over the transcripts of her trial, and wrote a play that shows Joan as neither the cunning witch of Shakespeare nor the Romantic heroine of Schiller, but rather a religious reformer who was, in her way, as flawed as her accusers. This concentration on the trial gave a new slant to the story, and was one that Arthur Honegger and Paul Claudel would later use.
In 1930 Bertolt Brecht brought Joan of Arc down to earth still more in his play, Saint Joan of the Stockyards. He transposed her story to working-class Chicago, and turned her into a labor leader called Joan Dark. Her story was used as the basis for another political statement in Jean Anouilh’s play, L’Alouette (“The Lark”) about the collaborationist Vichy regime of World War II. When Lillian Hellman made a translation of Anouilh’s play for Broadway in the 1950’s, Leonard Bernstein wrote the score.
The music inspired by Joan of Arc doesn’t go back as far as in literature. The comic opera, Jeanne d’Arc à Orléans, by Beethoven’s friend and patron, Rudolphe Kreutzer, is one of the earlier examples. Apart from Tchaikovsky’s Maid of Orléans, there is Verdi’s opera, Giovanna d’Arco, also loosely based on Schiller’s play. But history was tampered with even more in this version because, when the opera was produced in Rome after its premiere at La Scala, it was a victim of papal censorship. The setting had to be changed to Lesbos, and Joan of Arc was turned into a heroine of Genoese descent fighting against the Turks.
Then we come to the deeply religious dramatic oratorio, Jeanne d’Arc au Bûcher, (“Joan of Arc at the Stake”), written in 1935, with music by Arthur Honegger and a libretto by Paul Claudel. Claudel was a poet, dramatist and devout catholic. At first he believed that it would be impossible to do justice to the story of the warrior maid. But then he had a vision of his own, and he was inspired to set the piece at the moment of Joan’s death in the flames, with the past, present and future converging. As she gives up her soul, the spirit of the girl returns to look at her life in a series of flashbacks.
Honegger called the piece a dramatic oratorio because of the way it combined both drama and music. The mixed media work makes use of poetry, narration, and an array of different musical styles; Gregorian chant, medieval songs from Joan’s time, folksongs, even jazz. In the instrumentation he used saxophones rather than French horns, and there is an important part for the early electronic instrument, the ondes Martenots, which gives the work an unsettling, eerie quality. The part of Joan of Arc herself is a speaking role, and Honegger drew on his experience as a pioneer of serious film scores to integrate the speech into the music. He also included five solo voices and two choruses; one is a children’s chorus, and the other a mixed voice chorus that ranges from wordless humming to whispering, from singing folk melodies to shouting accusations at Joan. The overall effect is enormous.
Honegger had begun writing film scores in the early 1920’s. In 1928, the Danish film-maker, Carl Theodor Dreyer, directed his masterpiece, La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (“The Passion of Joan of Arc”). This landmark film, focusing on Joan’s trial and execution, has an almost documentary feel because of the veracity that Dreyer brought to it. He seems not to have selected a definitive score for his silent film, but one has to think that Dreyer would not have been unpleased with the superb setting made by the American composer, Richard Einhorn, in 1994. His music, like Honegger’s, takes the form of an oratorio, called Voices of Light, and it is scored for soloists, chorus, orchestra - and bell. Look out for the Baltimore Symphony performance of Voices of Light - The Passion of Joan of Arc in March!
Judith Krummeck is the Evening Drive Time Host of WBJC-FM. She is currently enrolled in the Creative Writing and Publishing Arts MFA program at the University of Baltimore.
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