Early music and silent screen  

by
02 March 2018

Roderic Dunnett hears a rare musical feast during a classic film

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Joan of Arc

Joan of Arc

THE Chiltern Arts Festival is a new venture, founded by the enterprising young Naomi Taylor, abetted by Christopher Glynn.

It is designed to bring a new wealth of classical music over a packed nine days to an area where there was scope for something fresh, and more especially to enliven the classical-music experience of villages and towns throughout, abutting, or close to the woodland areas, intimate valleys, and escarpments of north Buckinghamshire and beyond.

As the appealingly illustrated programme shows, right from the outset the festival’s reach is broad. Churches in or close to Marlow, Amersham, Henley, Wendover, Tring, High Wycombe, Disraeli’s village of Hughenden, Beaconsfield, and even Wallingford have not been overlooked. The area is not wholly devoid of festivities (Little Missenden, Wooburn). Yet coordinating these scattered venues alone must have made ample demands on the organisers.

The calibre of its chosen performers seems equally remarkable so early in its existence. They include Tenebrae, the Brodsky Quartet, the Academy of Ancient Music, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, the City of London Sinfonia, and even its own new festival chorus and an opera company (from North Yorkshire’s Rydale Festival): this festival arrived with a bang.

One of this opening season’s more unusual offerings took place at St Mary’s, Edlesborough, situated below the history-studded Chiltern ridge. This was presented by a supremely successful vocal ensemble, the Orlando Consort. This male-voice quartet’s (or here, quintet’s) singing of music from the Renaissance period and, indeed, earlier has few rivals. But on this occasion they elected to probe back further, and for a good reason. That reason was Joan of Arc.

St Joan was canonised in 1920, a few years after her beatification, by Pope Benedict XV. In 1924, Sybil Thorndike triumphed as Joan in George Bernard Shaw’s play; and in 1925 there was a striking new biography. The time was clearly apt, and it was the Danish film director Carl Theodor Dreyer who set about committing the story of Joan’s trial to celluloid in a silent film of immense power and disturbing unease, The Passion of Joan of Arc, which he released in 1928.

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Donald Greig, the Orlando Consort’s articulate baritone, and a former film-studies expert, devised a detailed musical sequence to accompany this once famous and still heartrending view of the trial. The film is of its era. In the part of Joan Dreyer cast an actress whom he had spotted by chance in a Paris theatre, Renée Jeanne Falconetti: almost the entire intensity of the edited shots is built up from the faces, in close-up, of Falconetti and her pitiless accusers: such key figures as the Burgundian Pierre Cauchon (Eugène Sylvain) and the fearsome, dominant Jean D’Estivet (André Berley).

If the film’s manner is akin to, say, that of Fritz Lang or (later) Ingmar Bergman, the close-ups of the judges in this print, subtitled, although intermittently, in French and Danish, ominously conferring, show severely creased, shrivelled, pitted faces, severe and unrelenting. In contrast, the camera stays for much of the time on Falconetti’s Joan, at times expressive, wide-eyed, cowed, and despairing, but at others almost inexpressive, as if worn down in sheer awe and disbelief at her situation. As the story unfolds, she becomes increasingly rapt and determined to fix her eyes on Jesus and the beyond, and the hope of salvation.

The accompanying music with which the Orlando Consort’s members add character, atmosphere, and huge expressiveness to these poignant shots is, aptly, drawn from the early part of these their repertoire. Carefully paced, the conducting meticulously plotted and shared around the group, with cues needing to be perfectly attuned to the screen, the music sometimes matched exactly a passage in the text, and as often captured or underlined the atmosphere.

Just as some of the actors in the film were born as early as the 1850s or ’60s, so composers such as Dufay and the less familiar Hymbert Salinis, for instance, or Richard Loqueville, of Cambrai, were born in the late 1300s. Others, such as the influential Estienne Grossin, Johannes Le Grant, Johannes Cesaris, or Johannes Reson — names that we scarcely recognise — come from the early 15th century. Though details of some lives may be little known, they thus belong to the very period of Joan’s success and fall. Several of the sections, all contrasted, begin ‘Salve’, in appropriate appeal. Several are Marian invocations.

Each is carefully fitted to a section of the film: the start of Joan’s trial, the interrogation, her abusive mocking in her cell, and her initial reluctant confession, later retracted. There is an impressive, rapturously enunciated build-up towards the later stages: the shaving of her head, the mocking by the crowd, and the approach to the scaffold are illustrated by a remarkable growth and intensity in the music; but some of the most anguished moments are accompanied by a series of movements from the Mass or elsewhere, include the gorgeously sung Kyrie and later Agnus Dei by Grossin, and the Salve Regina and Ave Verum by Reson.

Even without Dreyer’s searing film, to hear music of this immensely early period sung with such purity, wisdom, and insight is an inspiration.

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