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I sing of the Maiden: Joan of Arc in Musicals and Opera

By Murray Dahm

As historians, much can be gained by listening and watching productions of medieval themed music and opera – not necessarily to see what those productions get right or wrong (there is often a great deal of the latter), but instead to explore how the medieval world has inspired creative minds to build drama and musical sound worlds out of the stories and characters from the varied history of the middle ages. In some cases (just as in film soundtracks) this sound world may be ‘just right’ for the characters and stories as they appeal to us. In other cases, the music might not reflect every nuance we have of a particular character or situation, or, in the worst case, it may be ‘all wrong’ to our ears. Many medieval figures and periods are treated in musical and opera and these works offer various insights into the approaches, reputation and reception of medieval history – today, we’re going to look at Joan of Arc.

When examining medieval film (as I usually do), it does not take long to come across films depicting Joan of Arc (Jeanne d’Arc in French). There have been more than 30 films of the Maid of Orleans from the beginnings of the film industry in 1898 until today (2019 saw Bruno Dumont’s Joan of Arc premiere at Cannes). Some of these Joan films are very highly regarded (such as Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) and have inspired other creative minds themselves. Wearing one of my many hats, I am also a historian of opera and, in addition to the remarkable range of films which have explored the story of Joan of Arc, she has also been the subject of a remarkable series of musical works, and for an even longer period of time, from 1789 onwards.

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The world of opera has made great and varied use of the Maid of Orleans over the last 230 years and there are very interesting connections between Joan of Arc operas and the world at large; connections worth talking about, since those operas are not at the top of opera companies’ to do lists. What is more, Joan of Arc has remained an inspiring story across that whole period, one which saw dramatic changes in musical taste and structure, from Classical to Romantic and into 20th century music. In most cases, stories which inspired composers in the classical period fell out of favour in the Romantic era and the 20th century (the reverse is also true – stories which were to inspire Romantics were not considered desirable at earlier periods). Yet Joan of Arc transcends such patterns and she continued to inspire composers of every period, as she continues to do. That in itself is remarkable.

Perhaps the best known Joan of Arc opera is Giuseppe Verdi’s Giovanna D’Arco from 1845. If you haven’t heard, or heard of, that work then many of the others we’ll explore here will come as a surprise to you. We’re going to examine several of the operatic and music-theatre works dedicated to Joan and what they offer for the medievalist. In the links provided you’ll see and hear how Joan’s thoughts and deeds have inspired composers in terms of melody as well as orchestral texture and colour to tell aspects of Joan’s story across a wide span of years (1832-2017). It is also interesting where the story depicted on stage alters what we know of actual history, although operas and musicals are tied to historical accuracy far less than film is.

The worlds of film and opera also intersect since they both frequently adapt another genre which has taken Joan of Arc as its subject particularly often, and that is the world of the spoken theatre. From Shakespeare and through Schiller, George Bernard Shaw and beyond, Joan of Arc has presented the theatre of the spoken word with many great works (most of which came through source material from Joan herself, her letters and the transcript of her 1431 trial). Before we go too much further, however, I thought I would give you a quick ‘Joan of Arc Refresher’, just in case you need it.

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The Story of Joan

Joan of Arc, the Maid of Orléans, was born in Domrémy in around 1412. We are surprisingly well informed regarding Joan’s biography since she included it in her testimony at her trial. The transcript from her trial has survived along with several other sources. From around the age of 13 Joan claimed that she had had visions of the Archangel Michael, Saint Margaret and Saint Catherine, all urging her to assist the future King, the Dauphin Charles VII, and drive the English out of France. She was eventually welcomed by the Dauphin and the Court as a miraculous figure and provided an inspiring boost for French morale during a bad time for French forces during the Hundred Years War.

Joan assisted in lifting the siege of Orléans in 1429, inspiring and leading the troops; the siege was broken only nine days after her arrival. She was involved in tactical discussions and her successes sealed her military reputation. It is clear she inspired the army (and the people of Orléans) to great feats although her military prowess is debated (almost none of the attacks she suggested went ahead or went to plan). She inspired several more campaigns including victories in the Loire valley, culminating in the recapture of Reims where she, as she had said she would, crowned Charles king.

Joan was captured by Burgundian forces at the siege of Compiègne in 1430 who then handed her over to their English allies. She was put on trial in Rouen (the main English city in France) by the English in early 1431. There she faced a variety of charges including dressing as a man, which she had done as a precaution when crossing enemy territory to join the French army. It was this breach of Biblical law which led to her condemnation. She was found guilty and burned at the stake on May 30, 1431 at the age of 19. A re-trial was held at the behest of the Pope and in 1456 she was found innocent and declared a martyr. She became a heroine of France and a symbol of the Spirit of France especially for the Catholic League and then Napoleon Bonaparte. Beatified in 1909, she became a saint in 1920.

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Recent works

The number of operas written about Joan of Arc is remarkably large with about 25 separate works beginning in 1789 and continuing until today (Bruno Dumont’s  2017 musical film Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc (the 2019 film is its sequel although not a musical itself). This 2017 film was reviewed at Cannes as a bizarre musical and one which won’t have your toes tapping. It is noteworthy that the Joan of this film remains a child (since several sequels were planned there was no need to age Joan into adulthood). Using a child to reflect Joan (who only died at 19) has presented constant problems since most actresses who portray her on stage and on film are significantly older (and certainly the singers cast as Joan are all older). Otto Preminger selected an untried Jean Seberg as his Joan in 1957 (from 18,000 actresses tested) because she was the age of the Joan herself.

2017 also saw a Joan of Arc musical composed by David Byrne (of Talking Heads fame): Joan of Arc: Into the Fire. This was, apparently, going to be called Saint Joan but that is the title of George Bernard Shaw’s 1923 play (and Preminger’s film) which has had several recent acclaimed revivals. Byrne’s musical got poor reviews (unlike his Imelda Marcos musical a few years prior) and folded quickly but excerpts can be found on Youtube. Interestingly, the Joan here is a much more masculine figure, clad in black and with partially shaved head – one of the fascinating aspects of Joan depictions on stage and screen has been how to portray her inspiration to those around her (most have chosen ethereal ‘heavenly’ beauty). Another problematic aspect of Joan is how to portray her visions without veering too far into the realms of psychosis or portraying an otherwise unhinged character (more than one review has used the term ‘madwoman’ which no creator can have wanted). The Joan of Arc haircut is another (surprising) part of her legacy, perhaps leading to the ‘bob’ in 1909 and, at various other times a ‘boyish’ short hairstyle has been associated with Joan and aspects of her (perceived) rebellion against male authority (of course, cutting her hair short was part of the evidence in her conviction).

Another Joan of Arc musical in French – Jeanne le Pucelle written in 1997 by Canadian Vincent de Tourdonnet – can also be found in part on Youtube. Joan of Arc has also inspired multiple composers of popular music and lyricists and you can music about her from a whole raft of performers from Leonard Cohen to Madonna. Some of these are actually quite catchy and the lyrics insightful – but I digress.

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Composers who have written operas on Joan of Arc include Kreutzer (1790), Carafa (1821), Nicolini (1825), Vaccai (1827) and Pacini (1830), William Balfe (1837), Duprez (1865) and many more. Most of these works have not been recorded in part or full. Even the recordings of the English company Opera Rara who have specialised in the lesser known operas of the early 19th century have not recorded any arias or ensembles from the Joan of Arc operas.

Verdi

The most ‘well known’ Joan of Arc opera, Giuseppe Verdi’s 1845 work Giovanna D’Arco, still languishes in the depths of relatively unknown and unperformed Verdi. It was Verdi’s seventh opera and several productions were presented in 2013, during the 200th anniversary celebrations of Verdi’s birth. The work also had a 2014 recording with Russian soprano Anna Netrebko as the heroine. One possible reason for Verdi’s opera not being more popular is the seriously altered version of her history that it gives where she dies on stage having been wounded in battle, rather than burned at the stake after an English/Burgundian trial. This element was inherited from the opera’s ultimate source; Friedrich von Schiller’s 1801 play Die Jungfrau von Orleans – one of his most popular plays of the 19th century. Verdi’s librettist, Temistocle Solera, claimed the opera was entirely original but his claim, it seems, was less than honest. Some critics regard the music of Giovanna as uneven and not showing Verdi at his best. Nonetheless, the music Verdi conjures for this final scene is among the most powerful in the opera.

Verdi seems to have thought relatively highly of the work and was inspired by the voices Joan hears (although they are both angelic (encouraging Joan to avoid worldly desires and seek reward in the kingdom of heaven) and demonic (encouraging her to seek the pleasures of the flesh)). These voices are performed by the chorus although the other characters on stage cannot hear them. This, in itself, is an unusual take on Joan – usually her purity and innocence are assumed even as she is persecuted. The impresario of La Scala, where Giovanna D’Arco was premiered, Bartolomeo Merelli, so offended Verdi that he did not premiere another opera at the theatre for 36 years.

Verdi’s opera has been recorded several times but, until 1989 it remained unfilmed (there are now several options). The first production which was filmed, starring the soprano Susan Dunn as Giovanna, was directed by the renowned film director Werner Herzog at the Teatro Comunale in Bologna. One reviewer saw in Joan a thread common in many other Herzog films (and perhaps the reason he wanted to direct Verdi’s opera in particular) – that of the character who takes on gargantuan spiritual tasks (like Aguirre or Fitzcaraldo). Herzog was not the first film director to be inspired by Joan of Arc operas, however. The opera singer Geraldine Farrar did not sing the role of Joan but her portrayal of Carmen inspired Cecil B. DeMille to cast her as Carmen in 1915 and as his Joan the following year in Joan the Woman (she made two more films both for DeMille in between) – the short hairstyles of Farrar’s fans, the ‘Gerry-flappers’ may also have had a part to play.

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In 1953 Roberto Rossellini directed a stage version of the 1938 Arthur Honegger oratorio Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher (Joan of Arc at the Stake) in an Italian translation at the San Carlo opera house in Naples with his wife Ingrid Bergman as Joan. She had already been Joan in Victor Flemming’s 1948 film. The production was an immense success and moved to La Scala then (in French) to the Paris Opera. The Naples performances were filmed and released as the film Giovanna D’Arco al rogo in 1954. The soundtrack was also released as an LP.

Unfortunately, the film did not succeed and the French performances which were also filmed were never released. And before you say, ‘I didn’t know Ingrid Bergman could sing’, the role of Joan in Honegger’s work is a spoken role with all of the singing taking place around her as she burns at the stake (see below).

Interestingly, the production of Verdi’s Giovanna D’Arco starring Anna Netrebko at La Scala in 2014/5, seems to have taken Honegger’s Jeanne D’Arc as part of its inspiration. In the production, Joan spends much of the time on her funeral pyre while the other action of her life takes place (is remembered?) around her. She is not tied to her stake throughout but able to roam on the platform of her pyre and occasionally dismount from it. In this way the opera is a memory and setting it at the stake attempts to mitigate Verdi’s (and Schiller’s) ‘mistake’ of making Joan die on the battlefield.

Tchaikovsky

In the 1870s the French opera composer Charles Gounod supplied incidental music for a new Joan of Arc play by Jules Barbier, better known as an opera librettist (he’d supplied Gounod the libretti for Faust and Roméo et Juliette, and later for Jacques Offenbach’s Les contes d’Hoffmann). Barbier’s play, Jeanne d’Arc, was the basis for another operatic adaptation, the four act Orleanskaja deva (The Maid of Orleans) by Pytor Ilyich Tchaikovsky written in 1878-9 and premiered in 1881.

Tchaikovsky’s opera also used a Russian translation of Schiller’s play as one of its sources and was Tchaikovsky’s closest approach to French Grand opera. Orleanskaja deva was the opera Tchaikovsky turned to after Eugene Onegin, his greatest operatic success. The genre of Grand Opera usually placed an intimate story against a vast historical tableau and the story of Joan within the Hundred Years War fitted that bill perfectly. The work is Tchaikovsky’s second longest opera but The Maid of Orleans languishes in the less performed works of his operatic output. We can hear in Joan’s farewell to the hills and fields of her youth in Act I, however, the depth of feeling Tchaikovsky assigned to her and attempted to convey.

Rossini

One of opera’s greatest mysteries is why Gioachino Rossini stopped composing operas after Guillaume Tell (William Tell) in 1829. He lived for another 39 years but never composed another opera. William Tell is also sometimes credited with the title of the first Grand Opera, a genre which would come to dominate French opera for the remainder of the century. The one project that might have tempted Rossini out of operatic retirement seems to have been Joan of Arc. One of Rossini’s Péchés de vieillesse (Sins of Old Age) is the Cantata (Rossini calls it a ‘Great Scene’) Giovanna D’Arco written for contralto and piano in 1832.

It was ‘expressly composed for’ / dedicated to Olympe Pélissier, the French artist’s model and courtesan whom Rossini had met in 1832. She would become his second wife in 1846 although when they met, Rossini had already separated from his first wife, the soprano Isabella Colbran, and Olympe looked after him during several illnesses and later managed his business affairs. Colbran, one of the greatest sopranos of her day, had inspired many of Rossini’s greatest female heroines including Desdemona, Armida, Ermione, Elena, and Semiramide and so, perhaps, Rossini’s seeking out and dedicating of another strong heroine to Olympe is understandable. There may have been something of the inspiration Olympe herself provided in the dedication of a work on Joan. She was a courtesan and had the lover and artist’s model for Émile Vernet (most famously as his Judith in Judith and Holofernes (1830)) and Alfred d’Orsay. The Italian opera composer Vincenzo Bellini also became a lover as did writers Eugène Sue and Honoré de Balzac who was deeply enamoured of her beauty until she spurned him.

The Cantata is in the form of two arias, both preceded by recitative. In the first, Joan contemplates her family and her mission before singing an aria to her mother. In the second recitative, Joan’s thoughts turn to war and these develop into the (contrasting) second aria and its cabaletta. It is interesting to note how different these various musical takes on Joan of Arc are relative to when they were composed – the depth of feeling conveyed in Rossini (might) seem lightweight in comparison to Verdi and Tchaikovsky (at least they do to my ear) and the approach of Honegger later, using a spoken Joan takes on an entirely different feel. All of these approaches were, however, inspired by the intricacies of the Joan story.

The author of Rossini’s text remains anonymous nor do we know the date it was premiered. It is probable that it was performed soon after its composition although we know that Rossini himself accompanied a performance of it at the piano in 1859 at his house in Paris. It is possible that Rossini wanted to make a return to the opera stage with an opera on Joan of Arc. The libretti sent to him, however, and there may have been as many as three, did not satisfy him and the opera did not eventuate. If Rossini ever did contemplate a return to the stage, it was Giovanna d’Arco alone and all the passion and drama that the story entailed that tempted him. His interest may even have been re-awakened by Verdi’s opera – Rossini was living in Milan at the time and Verdi’s work (which premiered in February 1845 and had 17 performances) may have ignited Rossini’s continuing interest. Perhaps he thought he would have done it differently (or perhaps done the subject greater justice). Verdi even visited the Rossinis in Paris, where they re-established themselves in 1855 holding legendary musical soirées and perhaps heard the 1859 performance accompanied by Rossini himself.

Voices of Light

Before we come to our next theatrical treatment of Joan of Arc we need to contemplate very briefly what is considered by many to be one of the greatest silent films ever made, if not one of greatest films period – Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, filmed in 1928. Now, as we know, ‘silent’ films were, in point of fact, never silent – all sorts of musical performances were contrived to accompany screenings of films in the ‘silent’ era – the 1915 Carmen directed by DeMille even had a quartet of live singers to sing selections from Bizet’s opera Carmen (even though the film was of the story of Prosper Mérimée’s novella and not the opera based on it which differs markedly from its source).

Coming full circle, therefore, we now have a musical stage work inspired by a film (rather than the other way around), and a silent film at that. Viewing Dreyer’s film, Richard Einhorn was inspired to create an operatic Cantata, Voices of Light, in 1994 to accompany screenings of the film. The Cantata is based on Joan’s letters (she was illiterate but had a scribe) as well as the writings of other ancient and medieval female mystics such as Hildegard of Bingen and Christine de Pisan. Ironically, as a film maker, Dreyer did not like music to intrude upon the realism of his scenes (he also rejected make-up). Still, the original performances of the film in Paris in 1928 had musical accompaniment, which was, of course, the norm (and Dreyer’s wishes were disregarded).

The original score, composed by Leo Pouget and Victor Alix (who were both operetta composers), unusually survives and has been performed in recent years. Dreyer’s film ran into several censorship issues and various different cuts of the film were shown for the rest of Dreyer’s lifetime. The original cut was considered lost until an original, uncensored, version of the film was discovered in an Oslo asylum in 1981 (how it got there is still a mystery). The various versions in circulation had different musical accompaniments including works by Vivaldi, Albinoni, and Bach. All of these different musical accompaniments alter the way the film effects the viewer. Since the discovery of the original print, at least 20 composers have provided music for a soundtrack to the film. These include Einhorn’s Voices of Light. Einhorn had already begun to think about an oratorio on Joan of Arc when he saw a single still of the Dreyer film and then tracked down the whole film as part of his research. Watching the complete film, Einhorn’s inspiration was complete. Even though it was conceived of as an oratorio, its premiere was at a Massachusetts screening of the film. It has also been performed as a stand alone piece without the film to give the performance context. Reviews of Voices of Light spoke of it being ‘overwhelming’ and a ‘masterpiece of contemporary music.’ The cantata was well received to the extent that when a special edition of Dreyer’s film was released in 1999, the cantata was included as the (alternative) soundtrack.

Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher (Joan of Arc at the Stake) was produced by Arthur Honegger in Basel in 1938. It was written as a dramatic oratorio and was an immediate and immense success. The work begins with Joan already at the stake and recalling her younger days and trial. We’ve already seen the film/opera cross over of Honegger’s oratorio as performed by Ingrid Bergman. The role of Joan is spoken and danced in Honegger’s work allowing for actresses to be cast in the role. In recent years, French actress Marion Cotillard starred in several live performances of the oratorio between 2005 and 2015.

Honegger’s work has garnered high praise as gaining ‘the perfect cohesion between words and music.’ The role of Joan here is therefore consistent with the original concept of ‘melodrama’ – heightened speech to a musical accompaniment where the music informs the emotional context of the spoken word (the role many film soundtracks have taken on). There are several alternative performances of Honegger’s oratorio available on Youtube.

Between 1938 and 1943 Walter Braunfels was inspired by Joan of Arc to write Szenen aus dem Leben der Heiligen Johanna, an opera in three acts. Braunfels never heard the work performed in his lifetime (he died in 1953) and said that not hearing this opera performed was the greatest disappointment of his life. The first performance actually came in Stockholm in 2001 after revivals and renewed interest in several of Braunfels’ other works. The 2001 performance was recorded and finally released by Decca in 2010 although tracking a copy down is immensely difficult and you can see that the production used scenes from DeMille’s 1916 film, Joan the Woman.

Norman Dello Joio

Even more complicated than the gestation of Braunfels’ opera is the tortured route of Norman Dello Joio’s work. Dello Joio was seemingly obsessed with the Joan of Arc story, setting it at least four times. Originally, he conceived The Triumph of St Joan as an opera which premiered in 1950. Although a success, Dello Joio refused to sanction any further performances. Part of the opera’s music became a part of his symphony with the same name in 1951.

This symphony was eventually renamed the Seraphic Ode. In 1955, Dello Joio was then commissioned to write a 75-minute opera for television and he again turned to Joan of Arc. The opera with a new libretto and new music was called The Trial at Rouen. It premiered on NBC in 1956 and in 2017 a Boston company performed that work on stage for the first time.

Dello Joio then expanded this work (incorporating music from his original 1950 Joan opera) and entitled it, once again, The Triumph of Saint Joan. This work premiered at the New York City Opera in 1959. Of all these iterations, you will only find recordings of the Triumph of Saint Joan symphony although the Boston company, Odyssey Opera, has placed a small excerpt of The Trial of Rouen on Youtube – but an excerpt which makes you want for more.

This is a complicated group of musical treatments of Joan of Arc, their own cluster chord. Not every one of them will appeal to the eye and ear of each viewer. But different ones may appeal to different historians. One of the reasons for that may be because that a particular composer or performer strikes a chord for that historian – that specific music or performance encapsulates for them something of Joan of Arc’s journey. That in itself is worth reflecting on and contemplating for other figures of medieval history. We can be more conscious of such an approach to a sung work (musical or opera) than we might be to one spoken on stage or screen (and even to the effects of a film or play soundtrack). Even in play or film some of us will think an actor’s performance is ideal whereas a colleague may find fault.

None of these opera or musical works about Joan of Arc are what you might call historically accurate (but then, none of the 30 films are either) despite most being based on the same historical source. Instead, the composers explore the nature of inspiration and how Joan was received and persecuted. In most she is a figure of great beauty, usually ethereal or heavenly, persecuted more out of fear and misunderstanding (or for effect and inspiration of the French) rather than for her message. In some there is misogyny at play (although most were composed or written by men). As a historian, there is a great deal worthwhile to be found and explored while listening and watching these musical works of Joan of Arc – how she is portrayed and what music her story in all its facets inspired gives us much to think about. Happy viewing (and listening).

Murray Dahm is the new movie columnist for Medievalists.net. You can find more of his research on Academia.edu or follow him on Twitter @murray_dahm

Click here to read more of Murray Dahm’s articles

Top Image: Poster for a Joan of Arc opera in Paris in 2018. Photo by Peter Konieczny

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