Creative Process for Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher
The first time that Arthur Honegger and Paul Claudel ever met was through their mutual friend, Darius Milhaud. Honegger was trying to interest Claudel in a project about the life of Joan of Arc. Claudel was not interested, and that might have been the end of it.
The year was 1934, and it was one of the most prolific periods for Honegger. He was still a member of the quirky, avant-garde group, Les Six, along with his friends, Milhaud, Georges Auric, Louis Durey, Francis Poulenc and Germaine Tailleferre, but by this time they were following their own individual careers, even though the group never officially disbanded.
Honegger’s family was Swiss, but he was born in La Havre and studied at the Paris Conservatoire, staying on in the city and making his name there. In the early 1920s, Honegger had scored his first major success with the dramatic psalm, Le roi David, (“King David”), and when the vocal stage work, Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher, (“Joan of Arc at the Stake”), was first proposed about a decade later, he was the obvious choice to write the music.
The original idea for the oratorio came from the Russian dancer, mime artist, actress, and patron, Ida Rubenstein, who had danced with Nijinsky in the early days of the Ballets Russes in Paris. She was not a top tier ballerina (she had started too late for that) but she was a good actress, and had taken lessons with Sarah Bernhardt. Starting with Debussy’s Le Martyre de Saint Sebastien (“The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian”) in 1911, soon after she left the Ballets Russes, and finishing with Honegger’s Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher in 1934, she commissioned more than twenty works that featured her as a dancer, mime artist or as an actress. As she neared the end of her career she was looking for a vehicle that could be her swan song. Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher was her sixth collaboration with Honegger.
Honegger seems to have been quite a complicated personality (witness the fact that he insisted he and his wife, the pianist, Andrée Vaurbourg, should live in separate apartments) and, for whatever reason, he didn’t get along with the original librettist who had been proposed for the oratorio. Fortunately, the well-connected Ida Rubenstein was working on another collaboration at the time, which involved Darius Milhaud and the poet, dramatist and diplomat, Paul Claudel. He was the younger brother of the sculptress, Camille Claudel, who had an intense love affair with Auguste Rodin. Rubenstein suggested Claudel as the librettist for Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher, and Milhaud set up the meeting. It seemed as if it would be a good fit because Claudel always maintained that, as a poet, there had to be music in his lines. He had also admired Honegger’s original and idiosyncratic approach to setting music to words.
The meeting did not go well. Claudel was a devout Catholic, and he believed that everything that needed to be said about Joan of Arc had already been said by her. He didn’t imagine that he could create a fictional story around her historical character. But later, as if inspired by the visions that Joan of Arc had, he had a personal vision of the sign of the cross made by two linked hands. He interpreted this joining of hands as an allegory for the joining of the North and South of France through Joan. This gave him the insight about how to approach the work, and he completed the libretto in a little over two weeks.
Instead of writing the story chronologically Claudel used a technique that was new at the time; Joan’s life seen as a series of flashbacks, as she is tied to the stake. This cinematic technique was ideal for Arthur Honegger who had been composing serious film scores since 1922. Claudel gave very precise instructions about how the music should contribute to the text, and Honegger later made the observation that all the musical atmosphere stems from the libretto. In fact, the ever humble Honegger claimed that all he did was put his talents at the disposal of Claudel. This is not true, of course. His score is vividly inventive in the way it pulls together the forces of the spoken and sung voice, orchestral, jazz and electronic instruments, and wildly disparate musical styles.
The concept that Ida Rubenstein had for the dramatic oratorio was a medieval mystery play, with all the action taking place against the backdrop of Rouen Cathedral. The drama is moved along through the interaction between Joan and Brother Dominic, the two speaking roles in the piece, and the libretto juxtaposes heartrending poignancy with dark humor. Claudel demonstrated the lack of understanding that Joan’s contemporaries had for her by turning those characters into animals—the tiger, the fox and the serpent refuse to be judges, but Porcus volunteers, the assessors are sheep, and the recorder is an ass. To convey the travesty of her trial, Joan’s fate is decided by four card players: the kings of France and England, the Duke of Burgundy, and Death.
In December 1934 Paul Claudel gave an intimate reading of his libretto to his collaborators, and Honegger finished writing the score in August the following year. The first performance of Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher was at one of Ida Rubenstein’s private gatherings in Paris. It had been her wish that the first public performance would be in Paris also but, after many frustrating delays, it was Honegger’s country that had that honor. The première was given in Basel on May 12th 1938. It received a tumultuous ovation, and remains today one of Arthur Honegger’s best known and most often played compositions.
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.
<-Back to Get to Know Joan of Arc