Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher (Joan of Arc at the Stake)
Born in Le Havre, France, March 10, 1892; died in Paris, November 27, 1955
January 2012 marks the 600th anniversary of the birth of one of the most extraordinary figures in European history: Joan of Arc, an illiterate French peasant girl from the obscure village of Domremy in Lorraine who only lived to the age of 19, yet transformed the fate of a nation. Military leader of genius and a spiritual figure of such purity and faith that in 1920 she would be proclaimed a saint by the Roman Catholic Church, she united and inspired a demoralized army to launch the eviction of the occupying English armies from France and enabled Charles VII to be crowned at Rheims in 1429 as France’s rightful king. But the next year, she was captured by the soldiers of the Duke of Burgundy, who was in league with England and sold to the English forces. After a trial of shocking chicanery and injustice led by another English ally Pierre Cauchon, Bishop of Beauvais, she was condemned to death as a heretic and burned at the stake in Rouen on May 30, 1431. A few decades later, a legal review of her case overturned the conviction and declared her innocent. She is now revered as France’s patron saint and a heroine for the ages.
At these concerts, we will experience the finest musical treatment of Joan’s story, Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher, the joint creation of the Swiss-French composer Arthur Honegger and the French poet/dramatist Paul Claudel. Early in his career, Honegger was a member of the trendy group of young, iconoclastic French composers known as “Les Six,” but he was a far more serious creator and ultimately became famous for his powerful theatrical works and oratorios including Jeanne d’Arc and Le Roi David (about ancient Israel’s legendary king).
In 1934, Honegger was attending a supper party at the Parisian home of Ida Rubinstein, the aging star of the celebrated Ballets Russes and still a potent actress, for whom Honegger had already written several works. She told Honegger about her wish to commission a new work about Joan of Arc for her to perform. She also contacted Claudel to write the libretto, but was initially turned down. “Joan of Arc is an official heroine,” he wrote her. “It is difficult to accommodate a historical character inside a fictional framework. Does one gild gold or whiten lilies?” But the next day, while traveling on a train, Claudel had a vision that completely changed his mind: “Immediately, I had an unmistakable shock, the shock of conception. I saw two hands tied together, raised up and making the sign of the Cross. The work was completed, and I had only to write it down, a matter of a few days. I felt around me the presence of a desire to which I was not allowed to remain indifferent.”
Honegger was bowled over by the brilliance of Claudel’s text, which included precise instructions about how the words should be fused with music. Wrote Honegger later: “Claudel’s input was so important, I don’t regard myself really as the composer, but simply as a collaborator. If performances of the work produce any emotional effect, then it is only right to give Claudel a large part of the credit. All I did was follow his indications and put my technical know-how at his disposal, so as to try my best to realize the music he himself had imagined.” A few years later, the two collaborated again on another oratorio, La Danse de morts.
Honegger spent a year creating the music and completed the score on Christmas Eve 1935. But the mercurial Rubinstein kept creating difficulties with the premiere, and Jeanne d’Arc was finally introduced in Basel in Honegger’s native Switzerland on May 12, 1938 under the baton of Swiss conductor Paul Sacher (who became an important proponent of Honegger’s music) and with Rubinstein speaking the title role. This was a hugely successful concert performance, but the oratorio, originally intended for the Paris Opéra, has also been frequently staged. In 1956, Roberto Rossellini made it into a film starring Ingrid Berman as Joan. During World War II, Jeanne d’Arc was toured to cities throughout unoccupied France to build French resistance to the Nazis.
In fashioning his text, Claudel had the superb idea of telling Joan’s story as a cinematic flashback as she awaits her fate at the stake: an example of life flashing before one’s eyes in the moments before death. The highlights of her career in reverse order — her travesty of a trial, her leading Charles in triumph to Rheims, her communion with the voices of her saints Margaret and Catherine, her idyllic girlhood in rural Lorraine — are read to her from a book brought by her heavenly confessor Brother Dominic. Then the story returns to her terrible present and her winning her way to Heaven through the martyrdom of the flames. Claudel adds brutal social commentary in his satirical treatment of Joan’s trial as being conducted by a mob of animals and in the sixth scene’s “Game of Cards,” in which the kings and nobles of France and England play a cynical, mindless game for her life.
Honegger responded to this with music of equally cinematic visual impact; he was an experienced film composer who ultimately wrote scores for some 42 films. His eclectic music combines sounds evoking Joan’s own era — including two genuine folktunes and two plainchants known in the 15th century —as well as the contemporary edge of 1930s classical music and even jazz. What French musicologist Harry Halbreich says of Claudel’s text applies equally well to Honegger’s music: it is “by turns grandiose and boisterous, mystical, and popular.” He devised an orchestra with a unique and highly colored sound: saxophones replacing horns, two pianos, and the first use of a brand-new French instrument, the ondes martenot. Invented by Maurice Martenot in 1928, this is a windy-sounding electronic instrument, controlled by a keyboard, that specializes in great swooping glissandos; it would later be adopted by Olivier Messiaen. Since Joan was written for Ida Rubinstein, both the leading parts — Joan and Brother Dominic — are speaking parts for actors, while the more lyrical and visionary parts of the music are given to solo singers and adult and children’s choruses.
Listening to the Music
Jeanne d’Arc opens with a Prologue, which was added by Claudel and Honegger in 1944 as France was languishing under Nazi occupation. Claudel’s words are drawn from the opening chapter of Genesis and relate that state of chaos and darkness to wartime France as well as to Joan’s parallel time under English occupation. An orchestra full of murky, deep colors illustrates the repeated Latin word “tenebrae” — “shadows.” The narrator invokes the name of Joan four times.
Scene I: “The Voices of Heaven” and Scene II: “The Book.”
We hear the eerie howling of a dog, which Claudel and Honegger intended to represent the fear of torture. In opposition, the flute sings a high, trillling theme, the song of the nightingale representing Joan’s innocence and purity, which will recur throughout the work. The next scene between Joan at the stake and her confessor Brother Dominic is entirely spoken; he supports her and begins reading the book of her life.
Scene III: “The Voices of the Earth.”
In fierce rhythmic chanting, the priests and the people hurl their accusations at Joan — “Heretic, Sorceress, Relapsed” — a motive that will pervade the score. The bass and tenor soloists are the corrupt priests who condemn her in dog Latin. The odes martenot whoops up and down describing her suffering.
Scene IV: “Joan Given up to the Beasts.”
Switching to a different musical world, clarinets lead a jazz orchestra for the scene in which the Pig (a high tenor representing Bishop Cauchon, whose name resembles “cochen,” the French word for pig), the Ass, and the Sheep judge Joan and condemn her in a rump court that has no interest in the truth. As the Ass is introduced, the choral basses sing the “Donkey’s Prose,” a parody chant devised by students of the 15th century in Beauvais.
Scene V: “Joan at the Stake.”
Again we hear the dog howling in the night, as Joan returns to her present ordeal.
Scene VI: “The Kings, or the Invention of the Game of Cards.”
In another parody scene, like something out of Alice in Wonderland, the kings and nobles play three fatuous games of cards for possession of Joan; no matter how the game turns out, they will retain their power and their wealth. The three games are played to an intricately contrapuntal courtly theme, each time in a different arrangement. The outcome: Joan is awarded to the King of England.
Scene VII: “Catherine and Margaret.”
Now we return to the sounds of Heaven as Joan hears again the voices of her beloved saints, singing a bell theme that is another of the oratorio’s prominent ideas. Another recurring theme is their summons to her to fight for France: “Fille de Dieu, va, va, va” — “Daughter of God, go, go, go.”
Scene VIII: “The King Who Goes Forth to Rheims.”
This resplendent panoramic scene of Charles’ coronation procession to Rheims, led by the victorious Joan, is one of Jeanne d’Arc’s musical highpoints. First, we hear the chorus singing a French folksong “Voulez-vous manger des cesses?” (“Do you want to eat pancakes?”), and then a joyous folksong of Honegger’s own invention greets the reunion of Heurtebise (a windmill figure representing the wheat fields of Northern France) and the “Mother of Barrels,” representing the wine groves of Southern France. Then the flute introduces the lovely, melismatic melody of the medieval plainchant “Aspiciens a longe,” and the chorus sings this song of the people of Israel longing for the coming of the messiah. A grand processional march, brilliantly scored, accompanies the King’s arrival in Rheims.
Scene IX: “The Sword of Joan.”
In this most beautiful scene, accompanied by the voices of her saints, Joan recalls her girlhood in the village of Domremy, where she was a shepherdess. The woodwinds and the children’s chorus introduce the traditional springtime folksong of Lorraine, “Trimazo.” As Joan speaks of the dark time of winter and the joy of the sudden coming of spring, we hear the lovely ascending theme of Hope, introduced by the bass soloist. As she cries that the name of her sword is not Hate, but Love, the strings soar ecstatically in the closely related theme of Love. These themes, joined by the saint’s “Fille de Dieu,” combine in an apotheosis of faith.
Scene X: “Trimazo” and Scene XI: “Joan of Arc in the Flames.”
The reading of the book has finished, and Brother Dominic has departed. Joan is left alone to suffer in the flames. Now the high soprano voice of the Virgin Mary has come to support her struggle. The basses sing a hymn to fire drawn from one of St. Francis of Assisi’s canticles. A great upward whoop of the ondes martenot heralds the release of her soul from her anguished body. She has broken her chains, both literally and spiritually, and ascended to God. The saints and chorus salute her sacrifice for the people of France in a noble chorale, and the flute’s nightingale song adds a quiet benediction.
Notes by Janet E. Bedell, copyright 2011
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