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The Passion of Joan of Arc

           In common with many other great works of art, when Carl Theodor Dreyer’s La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc was first released its qualities weren’t immediately recognised. It opened in Copenhagen in April 1928, though it wasn’t until October in that same year that it received its second premiere in Paris, but only after changes insisted upon by the French church were made. Across the channel in England, it was banned for a year because of its depiction of the brutality of the English soldiers, which was ironic given that their real treatment of Joan was considerably worse. Of the reviewers, only Mordaunt Hall, writing in the New York Times, focused on the things for which the film is now known—its startling visual style and the central performance. Hall wrote: 

“France can well be proud of ... The Passion of Jeanne d’Arc, for while Carl Dreyer, a Dane, is responsible for the conspicuously fine and imaginative use of the camera, it is the gifted performance of Maria Falconetti as the Maid of Orléans that rises above everything in this artistic achievement.”

           An historical context informed Dreyer’s choice of Joan of Arc as his subject. She was canonised in 1920, and in 1925 Joseph Delteil published a flamboyant biography of the new Saint, the rights to which Dreyer acquired. Ultimately, he set Delteil’s text aside and instead devoted himself to his more familiar approach: research. His main source was the transcripts of the trial, edited by Jules Quicherat in the 1840s, from which all of the film’s dialogue comes.

           This commitment to authenticity extended to the design. A staggering one million francs of the seven million franc budget was given over to building the set, but Dreyer eschewed grand vistas of medieval architecture and townscapes in favour of close-ups and fast editing, reducing the art direction to mere details glimpsed in the background. 

           Much has been written about Dreyer’s visual rhetoric: the anachronistic use of irises to mask the image, a refusal to adhere to the conventions of screen direction in looks and movement, the concentration on close-ups, the exclusion of comprehensible spatial logic, and the low camera positions all produce feelings of claustrophobia and confusion. Maria Renée Falconetti’s role is counted as one of the great screen performances, but part of its power is derived from the surrounding shots. As we look with her at the austere judges or derisive soldiers, we project our own psychic discomfort onto Falconetti’s face, thereby doubling the heroine’s emotional state. 

           Music contains the same power to construct meaning. With this in mind, our initial task was to determine the emotional point of each scene and second-guess Dreyer’s intentions. Here we followed the tried and tested method of matching music to image that continues today, “spotting” the film, i.e. deciding where the music cues should begin and end and their functions in the scene. Sometimes the music we chose had a secondary relation to the scene (textual, historical, liturgical), and we have certainly not eschewed the more obvious clichés of film music where a dynamic or rhythmic motif coincides with a specific action. Our guiding principle is that at all times the performance should serve and ultimately illuminate this extraordinary film.

           Exactly what kind of music Dreyer wanted to accompany screenings of La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc is unknown, but the notion that he wanted his movie to be appreciated in chaste silence is an exaggeration. He told Eileen Bowers, film curator of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, he wasn’t happy with the scores that he had heard thus far. One only has to look at his next project, Vampyr (1932), to find a preference for a through-composed score.

           As the director, he would have had little control over the exhibition of his film, nor did he have any hand in the two scores written for its premieres. His thoughts about the 1951 version, cobbled together by Giuseppe Maria Lo Duca with music by J.S. Bach, Scarlatti, and others, are well documented. Dreyer’s musical objections were twofold: firstly, the music was from the wrong era, and secondly, the dynamic of the music was an ill-fitting fortissimo. A further criticism of the Lo Duca version was that in using religious music the soundtrack misrepresented the anti-clerical argument of the film. This point was never made by Dreyer, however, and with good reason: Joan’s own faith is never in doubt, and Dreyer argued that the priests were not so much hypocrites as misguided zealots. Hopefully our approach satisfies these specific grievances and might have even been met with Dreyer’s approval. 

           Certainly Dreyer makes the would-be composer’s task difficult. With no establishing shots and an almost schizophrenic alternation between rapid cutting (the film has 1,500 cuts in its 96 minutes) and still contemplation, the rhythm of the film poses unique problems. This makes our choice of pre-existing music quite appropriate. The tactus (beat) of this music remains broadly organic, as opposed to the hyper-precise cueing of modern scores. Our response echoes the practice of original silent-film accompaniment, though in place of a conductor we have an on-screen guide track. 

           All of the music you will hear comes from the early years of the fifteenth century, the period of Joan’s brief life, though whether Joan herself would ever have heard it is an unanswerable question. Charles VII, her king, was so short of money that he could no longer afford his own travelling choir. However, Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, was patron to Dufay and Binchois, and the Regent of France was patron to John Dunstable. It seems likely that Joan would have encountered at least some of the repertoire. An assiduous attendee of Mass, her travels took her to many large towns and cities like Orléans, Troyes, and Blois, all of which had choral foundations. 

           The early fifteenth century was a transitional period for polyphonic music. The earlier fourteenth century style is represented here by Richard Loqueville’s Sanctus and Billart’s Salve Virgo virginum. Parallel fifths, fourths, and octaves abound, as do the characteristic stark sixth-to-octave cadences. What will most strike the listener is the rhythmic interest and virtuosic flair in the upper parts that contrast with the stolid plainchant in the accompanying voices. The later, more melodic style is evinced in the secular chansons: Dufay’s Je me complains—in which we have substituted words from Christine de Pizan’s La Ditié de Jeanne d’Arc, written a year before Joan’s capture—and Gautier Libert’s haunting De Tristesse. Several other pieces display this sweeter, more consonant approach such as Johannes De Lymburgia’s Descendi in hortum meum, and several instances of fauxbourdon—an improvised system of parallel second-inversion chords—which display a fondness for thirds and sixths characteristic of English music. Though England, France, and Burgundy were almost constantly at war with each other, musical influence paid no heed to territorial boundaries. Indeed the English style—represented here by the Agincourt Carol and the anonymous O Redemptor—initiated the very transition from the earlier to the later styles. 

           It is now generally accepted that all of the music you will hear was performed by voices alone. Whatever one’s position on this musicological issue, the more intimate medium of five unaccompanied voices is particularly appropriate to the portrayal of a woman whose divine inspiration came in the form of the voices of Saint Michael, Saint Catherine, and Saint Margaret.

Program note by Donald Greig

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