Article for The Guardian

Article for The Guardian by Donald Greig

Here is the text of an article written by Donald Greig which appeared on The Guardian music blog earlier this year. Our grateful thanks for permission to reproduce it here.

Tonight, in St Margaret’s church in York, and the following day in Tewkesbury Abbey, the Orlando Consort, a vocal ensemble that specialises in medieval music, will take to the stage and sing a chanson by Guillaume Dufay with lyrics by Christine de Pizan from her 1429 poem about Joan of Arc. Dressed all in black, small earpieces in our ears, the glow of two laptops casting ghostly shadows on our faces, we will look more like Kraftwerk c.1975 than an early-music group. Above our heads a silver screen will leap into life and Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 silent-movie masterpiece, The Passion of Joan of Arc, will begin to roll. Our purpose - a live accompaniment of music taken entirely from the period of Joan of Arc’s brief life – will now become apparent.

Silent movies were almost always accompanied by live music, and the two premieres of the movie, held in Copenhagen and Paris, duly featured specially composed scores, though Dreyer himself, like most directors of the time, had no say in the matter of the actual music. Since then works by a dazzling variety of musicians – from Nick Cave to JS Bach – have accompanied screenings, and the original score for the Paris premiere (by Victor Alix and Léo Pouget) is still occasionally performed.

Alongside these various approaches a contrary view has emerged: that Dreyer wanted his movie to be appreciated in chaste silence. The myth’s origins lie in a passing comment made to Eileen Bowser, the curator of Moma in New York, one year after a retrospective of his work held at the museum in 1964, and subsequently reinforced by David Bordwell in his 1981 study of the film-maker. But it transpires that what Dreyer actually said was to Bowser that he hadn’t yet heard a score of which he wholeheartedly approved. Certainly the Danish film director despised the 1952 version created by the film historian, Joseph-Marie Lo Duca (co-founder of the influential French journal Cahiers du Cinéma), not least for butchering the film’s careful framings by cropping the image on one side to provide room for the sound-strip.

Yet Dreyer’s correspondence reveals that he initially welcomed the proposal of adding a score to his film; only later did he complain that the choice of Baroque music was anachronistic. In that, at least, we may have answered Dreyer’s objection, for our soundtrack is constructed entirely of music composed or performed in the early 15th century, the exact period of Joan’s brief life. Our version is also, as far as I’m aware, the first entirely a cappella soundtrack, a particularly appropriate mode of expression given that voices instructed the proto-feminist French saint.

Meanwhile the history of Dreyer’s movie is no less chequered than that of its musical accompaniment. The original negatives were destroyed by fire in the 1930s, forever, or so it was believed, and after several attempts to recreate it, a perfect print surfaced in 1981 in the unlikely venue of a Norwegian mental asylum. Given how disturbing the movie is and how moving is Renée Maria Falconetti’s central performance, the place of discovery is strangely fitting. In the film there’s a deliberate, sometimes perverse disruption of screen space, particularly in the harrowing scenes of interrogation, where rapidly cut sequences punctuate painfully long close-ups. Moreover, the choice of genre – the courtroom drama, with its roots in theatre and its reliance on dialogue – is an odd choice for a silent movie. Yet its power is undeniable and The Passion of Joan of Arc regularly features in top 10 best film lists.

Like Robert Bresson in his 1962 film, The Trial of Joan of Arc, Dreyer wasn’t interested in Joan’s triumphs – raising the siege of Orléans, accompanying the Dauphin to Reims to see him crowned King of France – and left that story to Hollywood. Instead he focused on the show trial, the purpose of which was to prove that Joan was a heretic, and that the English had divine right to the French crown. The screenplay condenses the four-month trial and subsequent execution into a single day, and the movie states its commitment to authenticity in the opening scene, where a hand leafs through the pages of the original court records kept in the Bibliothèque Nationale.

Fully one-sixth of the enormous budget went on a complete reconstruction of the castle and courtyard in Rouen, yet the architecture all but disappears in favour of claustrophobic framings. Instead the set, built at Boulogne-Billancourt in the suburbs of Paris, became a virtual home for cast and crew so that they could immerse themselves in the experience. The film was shot in sequence, and those playing priests (including the theatrical visionary, Antonin Artaud) were tonsured. Stories circulated about Dreyer’s cruelty to his actors, but the worst that can be said that it really was Falconetti’s hair that was shorn and that it is real blood that gushes from a stunt double’s arm.

To musicians like ourselves, familiar with repertoire from the medieval period, it was but a small imaginative leap to hear the background music to several of the scenes in The Passion of Joan of Arc, music which Joan herself may have heard, notably in the scene where she is taunted and tempted by the staging of the Catholic service before it is suddenly terminated. Similarly Dreyer’s parallel between the passions of Christ and Joan immediately suggested key texts such as Ave verum corpus (Hail, true Body, born of the Virgin Mary). At the moment when Joan’s body is bled by the doctors, we are singing (in Latin) the words “whose pierced side flowed with water and blood”. As an unlikely straw crown is thrust on her head by mocking English soldiers, the audience hears the Agincourt Carol, a moment of musical triumphalism that celebrates the famous English victory some 16 years earlier. And when the crowd riots, the medieval motet – polyrhythmic and polytextual – provides the perfect underscoring of violence and confusion.

Due to the church’s careful commitment to recording and collecting manuscripts there is considerably more sacred than secular music from which we were able to choose. But many poignant, heartbreaking chansons made by the same composers survive, usually in private manuscripts, composed for wealthy patrons to honour kings or dukes. In our soundtrack, these serve as expressions of Joan’s suffering, and underline a frequent parallel in the courtly love tradition between depictions of the Virgin Mary and the perfect object of desire. However old the music, though, it is not there merely as a sonic backdrop; the music serves the film, not the other way round, and thereby follows the well established practices of most narrative film music.

Whether Dreyer would have approved of our score we will never know. But one thing is clear: it wasn’t an option available to him. The performance of medieval music is a relatively modern phenomenon, and in 1928 there were only a handful of pieces from this period that existed in modern transcriptions. Fortunately all that has changed, and there are now many pieces by French, Burgundian and English composers available in any university library. Now I wonder what they’d have made of Dreyer’s movie?

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What am I listening to?

You are listening to a commemorative motet, ‘Quis dabit capiti meo aquam’, by the composer, Heinrich Isaac (c1450-1517). Specifically, you will hear the last of the four sections of this beautiful piece, a lament on the death of Lorenzo de’ Medici in April 1492. It is one track from our latest disk, The Florentine Renaissance, produced by Hyperion records (DA68349), a rich and varied selection of secular and sacred music, an aural collage of the vibrant city of Florence in the early Renaissance.