Joan of Arc is one of the most fascinating figures in French history. If we are to believe the stories about her, then she was responsible for a series of military victories during the Hundred Years’ War, which culminated with the coronation of Charles VII in Reims Cathedral in 1429, thus restoring France to French rule. However, she is probably best known for having been burned at the stake as a heretic at the age of nineteen.
Joan became a significant literary figure as early as the late sixteenth century, when she appears as a character in The First Part of Henry the Sixth, from William Shakepeare’s cycle of plays about the Wars of the Roses. However, attention to Joan took off prodigiously after the Catholic Church decided that she was a martyr, rather than a heretic, and canonized her as a saint in 1920. These days she is best known on the stage through George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan and on film in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc. In addition, her martyrdom became the subject of an oratorio by Arthur Honegger entitled “Jeanne d‘Arc au bûcher” (Joan of Arc at the stake), whose libretto was provided by Paul Claudel.
This project was the brain child of the ballerina Ida Rubinstein. As flamboyant as she was egocentric, this was her second encounter with sainthood, so to speak. The first had been in 1911 when she performed the title role in Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien (the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian), which brought together the talents of Michel Fokine (choreography), Léon Bakst (design of sets and costumes), Gabriele D’Annunzio (text), and Claude Debussy (music). The result was scandalous enough to anticipate the 1913 reception of the ballet “Le Sacre du printemps” (the rite of spring); but it never achieved the same attention in historical accounts of music, theater, or literature. Rubinstein’s company subsequently had frequent ups and downs, disbanding and reviving several times; and her last performance was in “Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher” in 1939.
As had been the case in Debussy’s contribution to Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien, Honegger’s score involved both speaking and singing voices (soloists and a chorus). To some extent it follows the pattern of a Passion oratorio with a principal narrator (“evangelist”); but that is about the only parallel. The work is structured in eleven scenes that alternate between the “present” of Joan’s trial and punishment and reflections on the past, all preceded by a Prologue about the plight of France, which was actually added only in 1944 as a reflection on the Nazi occupation. In addition, Claudel was particularly adept at interleaving the literal and the figurative in his libretto.
Last month hänssler CLASSIC released a recording of Honegger’s oratorio based on a 2011 broadcast from the studios of Südwestrundfunk (SWR, the national radio service for southwest Germany). Helmuth Rilling conducts the Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR, along with two choirs (one of children) and an extensive cast of both vocalists and actors. Unfortunately, this release was not packaged with a libretto. However, Honegger’s greatest asset was probably his keen sense of evocative instrumentation (think of his depiction of a steam-powered locomotive in “Pacific 231”). The listener encountering this score for the first time will probably be struck most by his use of the ondes Martenot to evoke Joan’s mental fragility in trying to reconcile the “real world” with what she presumably took to be Divine influence.
Thus, the attentive and sympathetic listener will probably have little trouble following the narrative arc through the titles of the individual scenes, reinforced by a general knowledge of history; and, because Rilling has provided as compelling an interpretation of this score as he brings to his performances of the sacred music of Johann Sebastian Bach, this is a highly satisfying recording that well represents one of the leading modernist composers of the twentieth century.