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Voices Appeared: Silent Cinema and Medieval Music

January 8, 2020

On Februray 4, Britain’s celebrated early music vocal ensemble Orlando Consort accompanies Carl Theodor Dreyer’s silent film masterpiece La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928), with a deeply moving live performance of sacred and secular 15th century choral music [LEARN MORE].

Donald Greig, baritone and founding member of the Orlando Consort, describes the process of accompanying the film with a live performance of early vocal music.  

Voices Appeared: Silent Cinema and Medieval Music — The Passion of Joan of Arc
by Donald Greig

“Voices appeared” is Jeanne d’Arc’s gnomic explanation of how St. Michael, St. Catherine and St. Margaret announced themselves to her. It aptly describes the paradox of a silent movie that is essentially a court-room drama about a woman inspired by the sound of voices, and is also the starting point for our project.

In common with many other great works of art, when Carl Theodor Dreyer’s La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc was first released, its qualities weren’t immediately recognised. It opened in Copenhagen in April 1928, though it wasn’t until October in that same year that it received its second premiere in Paris, and that only after changes insisted upon by the French church. Across the channel in England it was banned for a year because of its depiction of the brutality of the English soldier, ironic given that their real treatment of Joan was considerably worse. Of the reviewers, only Mordaunt Hall, writing in the New York Times, focused on the things for which the film is now known — its startling visual style and the central performance: “France can well be proud of…The Passion of Jeanne d’Arc, for while Carl Dreyer, a Dane, is responsible for the conspicuously fine and imaginative use of the camera, it is the gifted performance of Maria Falconetti as the Maid of Orleans that rises above everything in this artistic achievement.”

A historical context informed Dreyer’s choice of Joan of Arc as his subject. She was canonised in 1920, and in 1925, Joseph Delteil published a flamboyant biography of the new Saint, the rights to which Dreyer acquired. Ultimately, he set Delteil’s text aside and instead devoted himself to his more familiar approach — research. His main source was the transcript of the trial, specifically Pierre Champion’s edition, published in 1922. Champion acted as historical advisor and though some of the film’s dialogue comes directly from this source, the later nullification trial of 1455-6 informs a great deal of the drama. This commitment to authenticity extended to the design, and a staggering one million of the seven-million franc budget was given over to building the set. The production designer Hermann Warm had worked on the German Expressionist classic The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, but Dreyer eschewed grand vistas of medieval architecture and townscapes in favor of close-ups and fast editing, reducing the art direction to mere details glimpsed in the background. The producers were not best pleased and one can only assume Warm was considerably more irked.

Much has been written about Dreyer’s visual rhetoric. The anachronistic use of irises to mask the image, a refusal to adhere to the conventions of screen direction in looks and movement (well-established since the first decade of the 20th century), the concentration on close-ups to the exclusion of comprehensible spatial logic, and the low camera positions produce paralyzing claustrophobia and confusion. Maria Renée Falconetti’s appearance is ranked amongst the greatest of screen performances, but part of its power is due to an effect first noted by Kuleshov, the Russian film director, who demonstrated that the spectator’s reading of an actor’s emotion is contingent on the surrounding shots. Falconetti’s face here becomes a second screen onto which we project our own psychic discomfort, thereby doubling the heroine’s emotional state. 

Music, no less than montage, contains the same potential power to construct meaning. With this in mind, our initial task was to determine the emotional contours of each scene and second-guess Dreyer’s wishes. Here we followed the tried-and-tested method of matching music to image that continues today, where the director and composer “spot” the film, i.e., decide where the music cues should begin and end and its function. Sometimes the music we chose has a secondary, tangential relation to the scene — textual, historical, liturgical; and we have certainly not eschewed the more obvious clichés of film music — “mickey mousing” as it is pejoratively known — where a dynamic or rhythmic motif coincides with specific action. But our guiding principle is that at all times the musical performance should serve and ultimately illuminate this extraordinary film.

Exactly what kind of music Dreyer wanted to accompany screenings of La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc is unknown but the notion that he wanted his film to be appreciated in chaste silence is an exaggeration. He made a passing comment along such lines to Eileen Bowers, curator of film at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, but qualified it: he wasn’t happy with the scores that he had thus far heard. And one only has to look at his next project, Vampyr (1932), a very different film in many ways (not least because it was the first time he worked with sound), to note a preference for a through-composed score.

As the director, he would have had little control over the exhibition of his film, nor did he have any hand in the two scores written for its premieres. His thoughts about the 1952 version, cobbled together by Giuseppe Maria Lo Duca with music by JS Bach and Scarlatti amongst others, are well documented. Aside from what the film historian did to the careful compositions (the added sound strip involved cropping the image), Dreyer’s main objection was that the music was anachronistic. But Dreyer went further than this: why didn’t Lo Duca use music from the era of Joan’s own life? A further criticism levelled by others at the Lo Duca version was that in using religious music the soundtrack misrepresented the anti-clerical argument of the film, yet this point was never made by Dreyer, and with good reason: Joan’s own faith is never in doubt and Dreyer himself argued that the priests were not so much hypocrites as misguided zealots. Hopefully our approach answers those specific points and might even have met with Dreyer’s approval. 

Certainly Dreyer makes the would-be composer’s task difficult. With no establishing shots at all — obvious moments for musical cues — and an almost schizophrenic alternation between rapid cutting (the film has 1,500 cuts in its 96 minutes) and still contemplation, most notably of Falconetti’s face, the rhythm of the film poses specific problems. All of which makes our choice of pre-existing music surprisingly appropriate. The tactus (beat) of this music remains broadly organic, as opposed to the enslaved cueing of modern scores (where computers dictate metronome speeds measured to the second decimal place). Our response echoes the practice of original silent-film accompaniment, though instead of a conductor we use a visual guide track. Throughout the film is our emotional prompt and the fluid flexibility of ensemble singing governs our performance.

All of the music you will hear comes from the early years of the 15th century, the period of Joan’s brief life, though whether Joan herself would ever have heard it is an unanswerable question. Charles VII, her king, was so short of money that he could no longer afford his own travelling choir (given such circumstances, it is hardly surprising that so many French-born composers took up offers of employment in Italy), whereas Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, was patron to Dufay and Binchois, and the Regent of France, the Duke of Bedford, was patron to the English composer John Dunstable. It seems likely that Joan would have encountered at least some of the repertoire. An assiduous attendee of Mass, her travels took her to many large towns and cities, like Orléans, Troyes and Blois, all of which had choral foundations of one sort of another. 

The early 15th century was a transitional period for polyphonic music. The earlier style is rooted in the 14th century, represented here by Richard Loqueville’s Sanctus (used in the scene in the torture room) and Billart’s Salve Virgo virginum (for the final hectic crowd scenes). Parallel fifths, fourths and octaves abound, as do the characteristic stark sixth-to-octave cadences. What will most strike the listener is the rhythmic interest and virtuosic flair in the upper parts which contrasts with the stolid plainchant in the accompanying voices. The later, more melodic style is evinced, not surprisingly, in the secular chansons — Dufay’s Je me complains (for which we have substituted words from the contemporary chronicler Christine de Pizan’s La Ditié de Jeanne d’Arc, written a year before Joan’s capture) and Gautier Libert’s haunting De Tristesse. Several other pieces display this sweeter, more consonant approach, such as Johannes De Lymburgia’s Descendi in hortum meum, and several instances of fauxbourdon — an improvised system of parallel first-inversion chords — which display a fondness for thirds and sixths characteristic of English music. For though England, France and Burgundy were almost constantly at war with each other, musical influence paid no heed to territorial boundaries. Indeed the English style, represented here by the Agincourt Carol and the anonymous O Redemptor, initiated the very transition from the earlier to the later styles. It was described by Martin Le Franc as the Contenance Angloise in his Le Champion des Dames, a work dedicated to Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, which elsewhere in its 24,000 verses made daring reference to Jeanne d’Arc, whom Philip had sold to the English.

A final note on the performance of the music: it is now generally accepted that all of the music you will hear was performed by voices alone, even where it is untexted. Whatever one’s position on this musicological issue, the more intimate medium of five unaccompanied voices is particularly appropriate to the portrayal of a woman whose divine inspiration came in the form of saintly voices. 

© Donald Greig

A full scene breakdown with complete details of the music used and the reasons behind its selection is available HERE.