By William Albright
HOUSTON — Donald Greig is a cinéaste with a University of Kent degree in film studies and, as a founding member of Britain’s acclaimed 28-year-old Orlando Consort, a scholar and performer of music written between 1050 and 1550. He must also be a bit of a clairvoyant. He was inspired to comb the archives for music written in the early 15th century to accompany Carl Theodor Dreyer’s classic 1928 silent film The Passion of Joan of Arc long before he learned that’s exactly what the Danish director had wanted.
Dreyer (1889-1968) made his wishes known in 1956, but Greig didn’t learn that until six months ago, a full year after the Consort first performed Voices Appeared: The Passion of Joan of Arc. The ensemble has since taken its a cappella pastiche and the movie it enhances to 32 cities throughout Europe and America. Da Camera, in collaboration with Houston Early Music, brought the five-member group and its fascinating project to Wortham Theater Center’s Cullen Theater on April 1.
Dreyer trimmed his film about the trial and execution of Joan of Arc (1412-1431) in response to government and church censorship, and the original negatives were thought destroyed by fire in the 1930s. But an uncut print surfaced in 1981 in the unlikely venue of a Norwegian mental asylum. This full 96-minute version was screened here in a wonderfully crisp Blu-ray edition with Danish title cards and English captions (a French release is available on YouTube). It is regularly ranked one of the best films in cinema history, thanks to Dreyer’s brilliant cinematography and the performance in the title role by Renée Jeanne Falconetti (1892-1946).
Several scores have been created to accompany The Passion using music by composers ranging from J. S. Bach to Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. Greig had the idea to use music written during Joan’s lifetime, and his “soundtrack,” almost certainly the first Passion score to employ only voices, is a veritable encyclopedia of medieval music. Guillaume Dufay and Gilles Binchois naturally figure prominently in the playlist, but Greig also mined the output of such comparatively obscure but colorfully named figures as Johannes Franchois de Gemblaco, Beltrame Ferragut, and Reginaldus Libert. (For a fascinating scene-by-scene spreadsheet that includes explanations for the choice of music, along with information about the composers and the works, go here.)
Much of the music is quiet and contemplative, but so is the film it underscores. Dreyer’s focus is on Joan’s four-month trial for heresy, here compressed into one day, and her summary execution, not on her legendary leadership as a commander of French troops in the Hundred Years’ War. Riveting close-ups, especially on Falconetti’s hauntingly expressive face, define the film’s style and drive its impact, and The Passion is often as much a portrait gallery as a motion picture. The music does get louder and more forceful and rhythmically incisive when the emotional temperature rises, however. The priests grilling Joan lose their temper when the defiant defendant refuses to sign a life-saving confession despite threats, cajoling, theological arguments, and trickery (a forged letter purportedly from the King of France urges her to trust her slippery judges). The Amen from Johannes Legrant’s Gloria suggests the agitation and frustration of the flagrantly pro-English French priests determined to convict her. And Billart’s Salve virgo virginum and Vita via veritas capture the chaos of the riot that erupts when Joan’s fellow countrymen decry her plight.
The carefully selected music can make quiet moments equally powerful. A plainchant Epistle lends a frisson to the torture chamber scene. A fauxbourdon Sanctus sounds a note of ironic tenderness when medical steps are taken to save the stricken Joan’s life so it can be officially snuffed out later. Chanting In nomine patris and Psalm 127 adds ominous solemnity to the reading of Joan’s inevitable guilty verdict. And the poignant anonymous four-part motet Gaude Dei genetrix is sung as English soldiers tie the Maid of Orléans to the stake.
The performers in Voices Appeared were Greig, Mark Dobell, Robert MacDonald, Angus Smith, and Matthew Venner. Clad in black and working with music stands and laptop computers on one side of the stage, they took turns setting the tempo of their virtually nonstop performance and discreetly beating time. They also sang with model precision and smooth, mellow sonority and even provided urgent whispers and the occasional word in an early interrogation scene. And since no pitch pipes were used, I couldn’t help but wonder whether they all have perfect pitch or were fed starting notes through the tiny earpieces they wore.
William Albright is a freelance writer in Houston who has contributed to The Los Angeles Times, The Christian Science Monitor, American Record Guide, Opera, The Opera Quarterly, and other publications.