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Prep for Joan of Arc at the Stake: Part I

On November 19, Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra perform Honegger's Joan of Arc at the Stake. Prepare for this dramatic oratorio—performed here in its original French—depicts Joan of Arc's trial and execution with these explanatory notes.

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, trilling theme—the song of the nightingale, representing Joan's innocence and purity, which recurs 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 pervades the score. The bass and tenor soloists are the corrupt priests who condemn her in dog Latin. The ondes 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 that represents Bishop Cauchon, whose name esembles cochon, 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.

Read part two tomorrow.

© 2011 Janet E. Bedell. Used courtesy Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

Related: November 19, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra  

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