Transparent Yet Unknowable: The Fascination of Joan of Arc
By Thomas May
“The fashion in which we think changes like the fashion of our clothes,” writes George Bernard Shaw in the lengthy preface to Saint Joan, the play considered by some to be his masterpiece. Shaw adds that “it is difficult, if not impossible, for most people to think otherwise than in the fashion of their own period.”
Figures like Joan of Arc hold an enduring fascination because of this tension between their seeming closeness and their distance — a distance that isn’t measured just by history but by their difference from ordinary patterns of social expectation. And artists in particular have been keen on bridging the gap and portraying a Joan who tells us something about the human condition as we ourselves experience it, here and now. They intensify our desire to identify with her across the centuries.
Composer Richard Einhorn describes his deep admiration for the film by Carl Theodore Dreyer, The Passion of Joan of Arc, which inspired him to write Voices of Light. The film, says Einhorn, is a work of art that makes Joan uncannily present to contemporary audiences: “Watching this film, we forget we’re watching a silent film, we forget the technique and we get caught up entirely in the intensely human, passionate, tragic, yet deeply inspiring story of Joan. She truly was one of a kind.” Ultimately, he views Joan as “a woman who was both extremely transparent and utterly unknowable.”
Also responsible for the fascination with Joan of Arc is the fact that she is a personality rife with paradoxes. An illiterate teenager from Domrémy (where she was likely born in 1412), she gave advice to the beleaguered French monarch Charles VII. A deeply devout and chaste young woman (“Pucelle” in French), she succeeded for a time as a feared warrior and military strategist. Joan somehow combines the demeanor of a humble religious peasant with aspects of a charismatic leader, prophet, mystic
and even proto-feminist.
The documentation around Joan also entails a curious paradox: the historical record has been preserved to an extraordinary degree in the form of detailed transcripts of her lengthy trial, yet all this evidence has led away from a conclusive interpretation, instead providing further fuel to the creative imagination to reinterpret what Joan means, again and again.
In Joan of Arc’s story we find an archetypal scenario of the struggle between individual conscience and corrupt authority. That’s one lens, at least, with which to regard the historical events. The need to “read” the Maid of Orleans in terms of our own preoccupations is undeniably reflected in the efforts of countless artists who have refashioned Joan, each time transforming the iconic figure by viewing her from a different angle.
Even while her legend was being created, what Joan of Arc signified was viewed from diametrical ends of the spectrum. To her followers and the French patriots, she represented a miraculous messenger of God’s will; to the English enemy near the end of the Hundred Years’ War and their Burgundian allies, Joan was a dangerous force who needed to be discredited as a heretic. Her status within the Catholic Church itself traces these extremes. Initially excommunicated and burned at the stake at Rouen in 1431, Joan was exonerated in 1456, while the local officials who had condemned her and held her in a secular prison were declared to have violated Church law. Finally, in 1920, she was canonized.
Already within a few years of her death, Joan’s popularity among the French inspired religious pageant-play casting her as a divine agent. But Shakespeare, toward the end of the following century, resorted to the English propaganda about her in Henry VI, Part 1, depicting “Joan la Pucelle” as a scheming witch and “strumpet.” Even so, the Bard’s negative bias represents a distinct minority in artistic portrayals of Joan. But the various ways in which her heroism has been interpreted mirror the concerns of later ages.
Shaw himself ended up giving us an ironic (and Shavian) Joan who is a Protestant ahead of her time because she rejects ecclesiastical intervention and pursues direct, individual contact with the divine. His play, which premiered at the end of 1923, was part of a wave of renewed interest in Joan of Arc, whose sainthood had been declared just a few years before (in the wake of her “reactivation” as a significant icon during the First World War).
But when the Danish director Carl Dreyer (1889-1968) turned his attention to Joan in the same decade, he took a completely different approach. “The year of the event seemed as inessential to me as its distance from the present,” Dreyer wrote in a brief essay on The Passion of Joan of Arc. “I wanted to interpret a hymn to the triumph of the soul over life. What streams out to the possibly moved spectator in strange close-ups is not accidentally chosen… Rudolf Maté, who manned the camera, understood the demands of psychological drama in the close-ups and he gave me what I wanted, my feeling and my thought: realized mysticism.”
To embody his vision of Joan, Dreyer chose the French actress Renée Jeanne Falconetti (1892-1946), who was mostly known for her stage work in lighter fare. The result, as Roger Ebert put it, is that “you cannot know the history of silent film unless you know the face of … Falconetti.” Even the tough-as-nails Pauline Kael suggests hers “may be the finest performance ever recorded on film.”
Like Shaw, Dreyer became obsessed with the voluminous documentation of Joan’s trial. He even jettisoned the screenplay by Joseph Delteil that his French producers had organized, preferring to devise titles from the court documents. Structurally, Passion condenses the trial (which was drawn out over more than half a year) into an implicit single day and was filmed in sequence, covering the setup of the tribunal, the trial itself, and Joan’s execution.
Film aficionados are familiar with the exalted status of The Passion of Joan of Arc as an artwork that seems to transcend the era of silent film and that seems uncannily modern by virtue of its boldly innovative techniques, such as dispensing completely with make-up for the actors and its use of unrelenting close-up shots that seem at once terrifyingly intimate and alien.
Even aside from Dreyer’s tangible influence on other great directors, Einhorn has no shortage of reverence for what was achieved: “The film is timeless, immortal and it will continue to speak to people and cultures as far removed from Dreyer’s time as we are from Joan’s.” Why? “There is the ambiguous, seductive, and slightly disturbing experience of deep religious conviction, there are the gender and gender identity issues — as relevant today as they were in 1431 — and then there is the very notion of female heroism, which Joan both embodies and challenges in so many marvelous ways.”
Einhorn also praises Passion’s expert marriage of experimentalism with efficacy. “There is also another element to the film, namely its ability to be both uncompromising in its artistry and popular in its storytelling. The Passion of Joan grounds avant-garde cinema with a powerful and deeply linear narrative. It is a compelling combination which, while very often imitated since, has rarely been equaled.”
Notoriously, not long after the film’s Paris premiere in 1928, the original negatives burned in a warehouse fire. Dreyer’s reconstruction from surviving outtake footage was subsequently destroyed in yet another fire. Various mangled and mixed versions of the film circulated — including one with an added-on score comprising a potpourri of Baroque composers that infuriated the director — until a long-hidden print of the original version mysteriously surfaced in 1981. (Incredibly, it had been stashed in the closet of a mental institution in Oslo, Norway.)
Einhorn, who has also worked as a record producer for such artists as Meredith Monk and Yo-Yo Ma (winning a Grammy for the latter’s account of Bach’s complete Cello Suites), recalls being overwhelmed when he first ran into The Passion of Joan of Arc by chance in the film archives of the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1988. “I walked out of the screening room shattered, having unexpectedly seen one of the most extraordinary works of art that I know,” he recalls.
It took Einhorn six years to wrestle down and complete his own artistic reaction. Described by the composer as “an opera/oratorio inspired by Carl Dreyer’s film,” Voices of Light was created as “a meditation on the life and personality of Joan of Arc” and can be performed in at least three different settings: as a stand-alone concert work, as part of another staging, or, as we experience it this evening, as a synchronized accompaniment to a screening of the film.
The score calls for mixed chorus, vocal soloists, pairs of flutes and oboes, strings, and a digital sampler to incorporate the sound of the church bells that Einhorn recorded on a portable DAT in Domrémy. “I felt that Joan, who so loved church bells, whose voices seemed to speak to her whenever they were ringing, would appreciate the effort,” he writes. As for the Maid’s own voice, Einhorn decided not to represent this through one particular soloist but to embrace her ambiguity by depicting her as “both soprano and alto singing simultaneously.”
Much as Dreyer crafted his own screenplay from “found” materials, Einhorn constructed a libretto from primary sources in Latin and French. These include some Scriptural texts, writings by other medieval women or Joan’s own letters (taken down in dictation), and even misogynistic doggerel to indicate chauvinist medieval views of a woman who would dare to cross-dress (as Joan did for protection — one of the charges insistently brought against her by her accusers).
Overall, the libretto represents what Einhorn calls “a patchwork of visions, fantasies, and reflections assembled from various ancient sources, notably the writings of medieval female mystics. The texts may be thought of as representing the spiritual, political and metaphorical womb in which Joan was conceived.” To set these texts, he drew on practices used in early music for “the multilingual motets that I love to listen to. The notion of a work of art with simultaneous layers of text struck me as a medieval idea that was also delightfully modern.” Of course the entire score and text of Voices of Light adds yet a further layer to the edifice of Dreyer’s “silent film” and its counterpoint of facial expressions and written titles.
In terms of musical idiom, Einhorn evokes the atmosphere of the late Middle Ages by echoing plainchant and spare organum harmonies as well as through dance rhythms. But he blends this with techniques familiar from Minimalism — churning arpeggios and patterned repetitions — as well as crushing dissonances. Jean Cocteau observed that the film “seems like an historical document from an era in which the cinema did not exist.” Similarly, Einhorn’s score creates an impression of music uncannily in sync with Dreyer’s cinematic psychology, even though he wrote it decades after the director’s death.
Artistic director Grant Gershon explains that he chose Voices of Light to open the Master Chorale’s new season because it forms one of the three works connected with the idea of a musical Passion. These works are “pillars” that create a framework for this year’s programming (to be followed later in the year by Bach’s St. Matthew Passion and Tan Dun’s Water Passion). But in addition to the thematic connections, he became interested in performing a work “that opens up the concert experience” in novel ways. “From people I know who have been involved in performances of this piece, I was hearing how powerful Voices of Light is for the audience and for the musicians.”
Indeed, Einhorn has enjoyed a stunning success with Voices of Light since it was introduced two decades ago. There have been more than 250 performances around the world (though, the composer wistfully points out, not yet in Paris or Dreyer’s native Copenhagen). Given the many different interpretations he’s encountered over the years, what does Einhorn single out as the biggest challenge his score poses? “The music is deceptively simple. I spent a great deal of time removing notes and paring the texture down to the absolute essentials. As a result, Voices of Light requires musicians with tremendous focus and concentration, who are prepared to sing or play a single tone with passion and precision.”
He adds: “The best performances are those that are direct, musically accurate and expressive without being sentimental or cloying… There are a lot of different colors in Voices of Light, from chant to Baroque opera to verismo, and a good performance understands these idiomatic shifts and understands how to find the internal consistency.”
— Thomas May, program annotator for the Los Angeles Master Chorale, writes about the arts and blogs at memeteria.com.