Looking at the sheer number of artists who have produced works dedicated to Joan of Arc, we might well believe Mark Twain’s assertion that Joan of Arc “is easily and by far the most extraordinary person the human race has ever produced.” Twain wrote his own novel about the saint in 1896, and while he was surely familiar with many of the literary representations of Joan—written by everybody from Shakespeare to Voltaire to Anatole France—he was probably less familiar with her musical history. In France, however, Joan has been so popular as a musical subject that composers of the past 600 years have amassed a colossal body of works in her honor. When one French historian attempted to count all of these musical homages in 1894, he catalogued about 500 of them. Over the first half of the 20th century, the French musical mania for Joan only increased, fueled in part by Joan’s canonization in 1920 and the 500-year anniversary of her martyrdom in 1931.
This body of music is more than just some novelty subgenre of French art; these works tell us much about how the French construct their own past and how French understandings of history intersect with aesthetic considerations. They also paint a holistic portrait of Joan’s sonic world, as composers have tended to use the same compositional techniques over and over to tell her story. The world they evoke is filled with angels and demons, kings and clerics, bells and disembodied voices, and their musical interpretations reveal striking details about how the modern age looks back on the mysterious medieval world Joan inhabited.
Music about Joan encompasses nearly every familiar genre—operas, ballets, choral and vocal works, national hymns, symphonies, masses, popular tunes, keyboard repertoire—and quite a few unfamiliar ones: radio dramas, medieval style “mistères” held outdoors, light shows and pyrotechnic displays, and large-scale reenactments held in amphitheaters where her tale is mimed from horseback, all accompanied by music. We have evidence of music being composed and performed in her honor during her lifetime, and new music about her is still regularly composed today, often for the civic-religious festivals held for the saint each May in France (see images below featuring the 1931 Joan festival in Rouen and the 2013 Joan festival in Orléans).
Each one of these pieces reflects the specific socio-political context from which it sprang, often intermixed with heady doses of religion, patriotism, propaganda, or dissent. Indeed, precisely because these works so perfectly echo their various historical contexts, most of them have faded into obscurity. The only work that has become ensconced in the classical music repertoire is Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher (Joan of Arc at the Stake), a “dramatic oratorio” by composer Arthur Honegger on a text by the great French Catholic poet Paul Claudel, commissioned by dancer-actress-impresaria Ida Rubinstein. Since its first French performance in 1939, Jeanne au bûcher has received regular performances in France, and it has lately enjoyed renewed international interest because the popular French actress Marion Cotillard has taken on the title role in recent productions across the globe.
This body of music is more than just some novelty subgenre of French art; these works tell us much about how the French construct their own past and how French understandings of history intersect with aesthetic considerations. They also paint a holistic portrait of Joan’s sonic world, as composers have tended to use the same compositional techniques over and over to tell her story.
Jeanne au bûcher is a large-scale dramatic production involving vast forces: an array of vocal soloists, a full orchestra, significant speaking roles, a chorus, a children’s chorus, and even the “ondes Martenot,” an electronic instrument with an otherworldly timbre similar to the theremin. Oftentimes, these forces are piled on top of one another in a dizzying mix of speaking, singing, and playing; this short scene starring Cotillard as Joan provides a sense of this intermixture of vocal and instrumental forces. This scene takes place about halfway through the oratorio and it portrays Joan remembering the high point of her short life’s work: when she successfully fought her way through English and Burgundian-held territory in order to lead the heir to the French throne, Charles VII, to be crowned at the cathedral of Reims.
Listeners unfamiliar with the work might be surprised at the multiplicity of sonic elements they hear in this scene. On top of a muted orchestra and a recurring bell-like motive played by two pianos, Joan and her confessor, Frère Dominique, intone spoken text in time with the music. Meanwhile, the basses in the choir ominously rumble a demonic warning, “Comburatur igne” (“She is burned by fire”), barely audible. As the tinkling timbre of the celesta is layered atop the pianos’ chiming bell motive, Joan’s angelic “voices,” Saints Catherine and Margaret, enter: the former, a rich contralto, intones the “De profundis” (the mournful Psalm 130, “Out of the depths I cried”), while the latter rings out “Spera! Spira! Jésus! Marie!” (“Hope! Breathe! Jesus! Maria!”) in a bright soprano. Adding to the mix, the electronic ondes Martenot drone throughout in a subdued imitation of tolling bells, although the layering of instrumental and vocal voices makes it difficult to pick them out. The saints encourage Joan to fulfill her mission and she grows more and more impassioned as she recounts how she led the king across France, with the orchestra swelling toward a triumphant march meant to portray the king’s coronation. Although listeners might feel a bit woozy faced with so many disparate aural elements, Honegger’s skillful orchestration, timing, and thematic coherence prevent the whole from disintegrating into a sonic soup.
But perhaps the most surprising element to listeners unfamiliar with this work is that Joan does not sing, she speaks. In part, this is because the work was commissioned for performance by an actress (Ida Rubinstein) and not a singer. More significantly, however, Honegger and Claudel’s work fits squarely within the so-called johannique tradition; Joan almost never sings in these sorts of works. A quick look at a few 19th-century operas where Joan does sing goes a long way toward explaining why. Verdi’s Giovanna d’Arco (1845) and Tchaikovsky’s Maid of Orleans (1881) both attempted to shoehorn Joan’s story into the Romantic operatic tradition, casting Joan as the soprano ingénue opposite an awkward romantic partner (in Tchaikovsky’s case, a baritone knight named Lionel, and in Verdi’s, the tenor Carlo, the very king of France himself). Neither of these operas have ever gone over too well in France. Joan of Arc was famously plain-spoken, simple, and immune to sensuality, and so French listeners have found it altogether off-putting to watch her indulge in coloratura runs and trills while frolicking about the stage with a romantic partner.
Furthermore, composers have chosen to make Joan speak because it just makes sense within her story. As the historical Joan attested, her divine inspiration took the form of angelic “voices” (as she herself called them), auditory apparitions of Saints Catherine, Margaret, and Michael. Visual artists have delighted in portraying this moment of Joan’s story, when the young peasant girl first heard voices, as in Jules Bastien-Lepage’s haunting portrait of Joan at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1879). In telling her tale musically, composers have often found it useful to divide the sonic landscape into spoken voices representing the earthly world and singing voices representing the otherworldly realm of saints and angels, often augmented with ethereal timbres such as the harp, celesta, chimes, and even, as in Honegger’s case, the electronic ondes Martenot (which to 21st-century listeners sound like they belong in another unearthly realm: that of science fiction). This division of labor between speaking and singing was used in an important 19th-century precedent in the johannique repertoire: Charles Gounod’s incidental music for Jules Barbier’s stage play Jeanne d’Arc (1869), made famous in an 1890 revival version starring the great Sarah Bernhardt as Joan.
The connection between bells and saintly voices proved especially important in music about Joan, and the technique was most likely inspired by Joan’s testimony during her trial by the Inquisition.
Gounod’s music for the play crystalized an entire soundscape for Joan of Arc that had developed over the 19th century and was used over and over in the century that followed, and Honegger and Claudel’s Jeanne au bûcher was indebted to this tradition. Some of Gounod’s scenes included the same sort of intermixture of sonic elements that we saw in the Honegger scene discussed above, mingling orchestral accompaniment, declaimed speech (for Joan and other characters), choral singing (angelic choirs), and vocal solos and duets (for Joan’s voices: Saints Catherine and Margaret). Gounod’s score also included prominent passages of tolling bells in conjunction with Joan’s angelic voices, a triumphant coronation march, a doleful funeral march, borrowings from Gregorian chant, and pseudo-medieval music, elements included in many other Joan of Arc works, including Honegger’s.
This connection between bells and saintly voices proved especially important in music about Joan, and the technique was most likely inspired by Joan’s testimony during her trial by the Inquisition. Joan explained that she sometimes heard her voices right after she heard the tolling of church bells. During the trial of her rehabilitation, which occurred more than 20 years after her death and reversed the first trial’s condemnation, one of the witnesses called was the official church bell-ringer in her hometown of Domrémy. The bell-ringer’s testimony shows that Joan had a heightened interest in the sound and symbolism of bells, and she apparently bribed him with cake to ring the bells at the proper times. Composers have seized on this detail and made bells a crucial element of Joan’s soundscape, playing on the rich symbolism of church bells, which in France represent the idealized French countryside, mark the passing of time and seasons (especially liturgical seasons such as Lent, when the bells fall silent), symbolize the act of remembering the past, and announce disasters and funerals.
Gounod also used deliberately archaic-sounding music to try to plunge the audience into Joan’s time, employing some pseudo-medieval minstrel singing and a Baroque-sounding minuet, evidently unconcerned with anachronism. Likewise, Honegger’s eclectic score ranged across time, featuring real French folk songs, a parody of Baroque dances, Bachian counterpoint, and a lampoon of 19th-century grand opera. Gounod and Honegger also both included actual borrowings from Gregorian chant, an easily identifiable sonic marker of medievalism. In conjuring up Joan’s own sonic world and representing “the past,” however, it clearly was not necessary for composers to shoot for verisimilitude, and composers were more concerned with creating a generic soundscape that encapsulated French music history. But some anachronisms went too far: composer Manuel Rosenthal was roundly criticized for incorporating the “Marseillaise” in one movement of his Joan of Arc-themed work (Jeanne d’Arc, 1935), as French listeners just could not tolerate this three-century leap across time plunging Joan into the sounds of the Revolution.
Composers and audiences have preferred to imagine a Joan of Arc who inhabits a world where the diaphanous fabric between the human and divine suggests an imagined and idealized medieval realm where everyday people may find themselves in the company of angels.
Indeed, a number of these works found themselves swept up in larger conversations about what French music should sound like, in particular as opposed to the dominant German tradition and the French inferiority complex about their rival-neighbor’s art. For instance, Paul Paray’s Messe du cinquième centenaire de la mort de Jeanne d’Arc (1931), a conservative religious work in Latin, was praised by French critics for its “classicism,” a term that signaled “Frenchness” and the civilized Greco-Roman tradition in contrast to the “bombastic,” “overwrought,” “barbaric” German style. Other Joan works formed part of French government initiatives to bring “high” French art music to the masses via the radio or through popular spectacle in order to instill the population with proper French values. And still others had circuitous political histories, conveying contradictory political ideologies as their meaning shifted over time in varying contexts. For example, composer Maurice Jaubert’s socialist-inspired portrait of Joan (Jeanne d’Arc, 1937) was understood within a leftist ideology in the 1930s, but was then recycled within a far-right, nationalist context in 1942 during the German occupation of France. Honegger and Claudel’s beloved Jeanne au bûcher has frequently been interpreted postwar as evidence of Honegger’s Resistance sympathies, but many of its performances during the war were financed by Vichy (the government that collaborated with Germany), asking us to reconsider its wartime and postwar political purposes.
Music about Joan could be reinterpreted in this way because her story is eminently flexible: she has been portrayed as both a monarchist and a revolutionary, a right-wing defender of the Church and a social-justice-minded leftist hell-bent on exposing the evils of clericalism. French politicians across time and across the political spectrum have adopted her as their icon. But although her story may be open to interpretation, her sonic world—full of angelic voices, tolling bells, otherworldly tinkling, and mysterious vibrations—has been remarkably coherent. Those who have strayed from the standard musical portrayal (such as Rosenthal with his “Marseillaise”) have suffered at the hands of censorious French critics and audiences. Composers and audiences have preferred to imagine a Joan of Arc who inhabits a world where the diaphanous fabric between the human and divine suggests an imagined and idealized medieval realm where everyday people may find themselves in the company of angels.