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Prep for Joan of Arc at the Stake: Part II

In advance of Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's performance of the piece on November 19, continue reading our explanatory notes on Honegger's Joan of Arc at the Stake.

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's 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 folk song, "Voulez-vous manger des cesses?" ("Do you want to eat pancakes?"), and then a joyous folk song of Honegger's own invention greets the reunion of Heurtebise (a windmill figure that represents 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 beautiful scene, accompanied by the voices of her saints, Joan recalls her girlhood in the village of Domrémy, where she was a shepherdess. The woodwinds and the children's chorus introduce the traditional springtime folk song 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.

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

Read part one here.

Related: November 19, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra  

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