Last weekend I was one of the many students who, thanks to the generosity of the Vassar Ticket Fund, was able to attend “Voices of Light,” a joint production by the Hudson Valley Philharmonic (HVP) and the Vassar College Choir (VCC) at the Bardavon Opera House in Poughkeepsie, NY. The production’s title is a reference to an oratorio by Richard Einhorn composed to accompany Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 silent film “The Passion of Joan of Arc,” a historical retelling of the captivity, trial and execution of the young French saint that is widely considered a cinematic masterpiece. The experience of watching the film is so difficult to describe that I have to take a moment to separate it from the music to collect my thoughts.
Told mostly through a series of closeups, the film leaves no distance between the viewer and the pockmarked, wrinkled, unpainted faces of the actors. There is not a single establishing shot with which to anchor yourself, less dialogue than I expected even for a silent film and every glimpse into Joan’s (or any) character comes with a reminder that the audience knows nothing, that the characters are guided by something just beyond our view. It seems almost allergic to storytelling—Roger Ebert points out that the director infamously forced the lead actress, Renee Maria Falconetti, to painfully kneel on the concrete set and drain all expression from her face, leaving only suppressed pain. Falconetti’s performance is indescribably nuanced and beautiful, and the role was so grueling that she never took a film role again.
Before the production began, VCC conductor and director Christine Howlett spoke with the composer about the significance of the film and his compositional process. A welcome refresher on the story of Joan of Arc for someone who knows very little about either medieval history or film history, it also served as a foreshadowing of the meticulously detailed performance I was about to witness. In order to accompany a film of such directed artistic vision, Einhorn had to plumb the same depths of historical accuracy. “The Passion of Joan of Arc” is assembled from actual court records from Joan’s trial, and the emotion is grounded by the fact that what we see onscreen reflects the horrors experienced by a real 19-year-old girl. The libretto for “Voices of Light” is similarly constructed from ancient texts but tends towards the spiritual while the film stays strictly historical. Einhorn assembles texts from a variety of medieval female mystics whose words scaffold our understanding of Joan’s spirituality, grounding her in a dismal political landscape while allowing the sublimity of her visions to shine through. More intimate texts written by Joan herself were sung by a quartet of VCC members in unison, and their performance became the focus of my attention and often kindled waves of emotion. The composer’s dedication to allowing us to see through Joan’s eyes while the film tries its best to distance us from her is impressive; while writing the piece, he traveled to Joan’s hometown in France to record the very church bells she claimed kindled the voices of angels. Those bells, when heard in the context of his composition, have much the same effect on the audience. The professional soloists elevated every text towards operatic elegance. The incredible performance of the HVP and VCC, anchored by Howlett’s meticulous direction, let the boundaries between music and film, performance and recording blur into one overwhelming presence. The musicians performed with an earnest dedication that anchored the film rhythmically and harmonically, and their work shined miraculously through.
During the pre-concert talk, Einhorn made clear his intentions not to make a soundtrack, but to make music that is “real.” What about playing music in front of a movie makes the music less real? The two arts compliment each other by virtue of existing together, occupying the same space at the same time. We trace meaning through simultaneity, allowing the sound to converse back and forth with the visuals, neither overtaking the other. Although film and music exist outside each other, after seeing “Voices of Light” I cannot imagine experiencing either in isolation. The choir standing imposingly in front of the screen, the orchestra placed delicately before them, was as impossible to ignore as the silent flaming execution playing above them. And why should we attempt to separate the two? Why attempt to taxonomize and categorize what ultimately amounts to one great experience? And what an experience it was, leaving me with an overwhelming, intimate and deeply beautiful discomfort that I haven’t completely shaken since.
This article says ‘ “The Passion of Joan of Arc” is assembled from actual court records from Joan’s trial’, which is problematic since the trial transcript is contradicted on so many important points by dozens of eyewitnesses who were at the trial, as many historians have pointed out over the years. For example, the trial bailiff, Jehan Massieu, said the guards finally maneuvered her into a “relapse” by taking away her dress and forcing her to put her soldier’s clothing (“male clothing”) back on, then the judge condemned her; whereas the transcript gives a confusing mess of a description which leaves out the crucial context. The Latin version was systematically mistranslated from the original French on certain points, as can be seen by comparing the two. Dreyer should have used more than just the transcript as the basis for his film.