Music as Magnificent as the Film, The Passion of Joan of Arc. (Bastille W/O)
Written: Jul 13, 2001 (Updated Jul 14, 2001)
a Very Helpful Review
by the Epinions community
The Bottom Line: Voices of Light is an oratorio inspired by the film, The Passion of Joan of Arc. The music is quite moving, lovely, and hauntingly beautiful. 6 stars.
Voices of Light is an oratorio inspired by the film, “The Passion of Joan of Arc”. The Passion of Joan of Arc, some of you may be wondering, is an intense film about Joan of Arc, the girl hero who united the French and led them to victory against the English in the Hundreds Year war with a divine vision as her guide. She was later captured, and burned as a heretic. Only much later was she to be admitted to sainthood.
Produced by Carl Theodor Dreyer in 1928, The Passion of Joan of Arc was so great, that even the film itself mirrored the life of Joan of Arc. The film, with its negative portrayal of the Catholic Church, was initially censored; the negatives and prints for the film were then lost in a fire. Even the negatives from Dreyer’s reconstruction were lost in another fire. Fortunately, redemption came when a negative of the original print was found years later hidden away in a closet of a mental institution.
Composed by Richard Einhorn, Voices of Light is not meant to be an accompanying piece constrained by cues in the movie, rather, it is meant to be a standalone work to complement the movie.
Voices of Light pieces together the visions, writings and fantasies of mystics and feminine writers from that period pertinent in Joan’s life. Well-known mystics like St. Hildegard von Bingen, and St. Perpetua represent aspects of Joan’s life, and personality, along with select biblical passages to represent her persecutors. Note that most of the passages do not refer to Jehanne the Maid directly, they are used metaphorically to describe her spiritual, and political world, as well as her state of mind.
The opera is a masterpiece of emotion flawlessly executed by the soloists, chorus, and orchestra involved. I like the unique way voice and singing techniques are used make the opera eerily haunting, beautiful, and evocative of Joan’s tribulation. The disjointed blending of Latin, Old and Middle French texts also make it very interesting, and perhaps a nod toward Joan’s state of mind. There is a personal feel to Voices of Light. We share in Joan’s hope, and suffering; she becomes a hero to us.
The music for Voices of Light is liquid and flowing, and has a powerful emotional quality to it. Amplified violins, and gambas accompany the voices throughout much of the oratorio, but sometimes there is a fuller orchestration. The music has a definite feel of defiance in it. At times there is hope expressed in the form of a lone voice and solo violin accompaniment as if Jehanne was alone locked in a cell and contemplating her fate.
Anonymous 4 is featured here singing, in unison, the voice of Jehanne the Maid. Much of the credit also goes to the other four soloists (listed in the credits) for their various roles. There are many dramatic moments in the opera, perhaps the most dramatic are tracks 3, 6, and 15; but listening through the entire opera is thrilling enough. Here are my highlights from the Voices of Light.
Track 3, Interrogation
“Homasse!” thus begins the interrogation. “Homasse” is a medieval slur directed against women, and it means masculine woman. Perhaps “dyke” or some other modern equivalent would be a close match in meaning. The interrogation is an exchange between Jehanne and her persecutors. The texts used in this section highlight strange prophecies, duty, and feminine liberation all written by various medieval feminist writers, and mystics. Of course, strange prophecies only lead to broken taboos on women.
This section is primarily sung by the tenor and contrabass, closely followed in unison by the soprano and alto. The music lilts wistfully in the background with a few dramatic flairs matching the drama of the exchange. The chorus reflecting upon Jehanne’s liberating freedom as she pursues her duty to God. It ends with the passage from Deuteronomy 22:5 mentioning the taboo between intermixing the roles of men and women. It is sung slow and quiet.
Track 6, Torture
It is lonely, one voice against many. The soprano with a lone piccolo laments on the suffering of God reflecting on obscure passages written by female mystics. Each word is repeated over and over and over again as if savored by Jehanne, or as if describing Jehanne’s feverish state of mind, and delirium. Then “Glorioses playas” -- glorious wounds -- is fiercely sung by chorus and orchestral accompaniment. A few times “Glor” is sung, and sung in such a way as to suggest the visitation of a vision.
It all ends with a defiant, if not stinging rebuttal by Jehanne in a text written by Blessed Margarita, disciple of St. Ulmita. The passage basically reminds one to, paraphrasing, “Remember the insults, injuries, and death I suffered before you reap the rewards”.
Historically, Joan was not tortured, and this piece was not meant to describe her pain. Einhorn merely wanted to explore the medieval notion that pain brings spiritual purity.
Track 15, The Fire of the Dove
“Ah! Jehanne, Jehanne! Oh!” sings the chorus, we are the witnesses to Jehanne’s burning at the stake. “… valde beatus fuisti cum Verbum Dei te in igne columbe imbuit” (footnote 1). Fortunately the libretto gives you the translations, “… you were greatly blessed when the Word of God steeped you in the fire of the dove.” Each word is dramatically sung.
The music is quite intense consisting of violins that build and build in intensity like a ferocious all consuming fire. It feels like we are part of the mob witnessing, cheering, and lamenting the burning of Jehanne the Maid.
Footnotes: (1) St. Hildegard von Bingen.
Track Listing (as given in the libretto)
2 Victory At Orleans (Letter from Joan of Arc)
5 Pater Noster
7 Illness (Letter from Joan of Arc)
13 The Final Walk
14 The Burning
15 The Fire Of The Dove
16 Epilogue (Letter from Joan of Arc)
Richard Einhorn, composer
Ruth Cunningham, Marsha Genensky, Susan Hellauer, Johanna Rose
Susan Narucki, Soprano
Corrie Pronk, Alto
Frank Hameleers, Tenor
Henk van Heijnsbergen, Bass-Baritone
Ronald hoogeveen, solo violin and concertmaster
Naomi Hirschfeld, solo gamba
Michael feves and harm bakker, gambas
Netherlands Radio Choir (Martin Wright, Chorus Master)
Netherlands Radio Philharmonic
Steven Mercurio, conductor.
I was originally invited to the Bastille Day Write-off hosted by Pambo, but declined it thinking I wouldn’t be able to make it. Later, I wrote this, and submitted it. It’s vaguely French, and not originally intended for the write-off. I then realized, duh, French, write-off. I immediately asked Pam “Hey, sorry, but can I come crawling back?” You know how guys are. Anyway, this is presented to you with minor edits.
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Great Music to Play When: Persecuted by zealots