590 years ago, on May 30, 1431, a young French saint died at the age of 19, The Maid of Orleans, that is, virgin, as she is called by all and Friedrich Schiller in his homonyms drama of 1801: Joan of Arc.
Matching her with St Catherine of Siena, Benedict XVI defines both “two young women of the people, lay women consecrated in virginity, two committed mystics, not in the cloister, but in the midst of the most dramatic reality of the Church and the world of their time. They are perhaps the most representative of those “strong women” who, at the end of the Middle Ages, fearlessly bore the great light of the Gospel in the complex events of history.” (Benedict XVI, General Audience, January 26, 2011).
Born in 1412 in Domrémy, a village in northeastern France, illiterate, at 13 she heard the “voices” of St Michael the Archangel and other saints who committed her to a great project: to free her people from the English and to support the legitimacy of throne of the Dayphin of France, the future King Charles VII. The “Hundred Years’ War”, fought between France and England from 1339 to 1453, turns in favor of the French thanks to the prodigious military victories, starting with the liberation of Orléans, and to growing popular consensus that Joan brings back at the head of an army. The Burgundians capture her during a military action in Compiègne, imprison her and sell her to the English. In Rouen, after the iniquitous Trial of the Condemnation, between February and May 1431, she is convicted of heresy and witchcraft and burned alive. Completely rehabilitated by Pope Callixtus III, after the long Trial of Nullity of the Condemnation in 1456, she will be canonized by Pope Benedict XV in 1920.
Joan of Arc’s passion has inspired since the 15th century numerous literary, musical, cinematographic, theatrical, television works and even comic books and video games. Among the various composers it suffices to mention G. Verdi with his Giovanna d’Arco (1845), opera on libretto by T. Solera, and P. I. Tchaikovsky with his opera The Maid of Orleans (1881), both based on the aforementioned F. Schiller’s tragedy; G. Rossini, with his solo cantata Giovanna d’Arco (1832); F. Liszt with his romance dramatique Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher (1858 c.); C. Gounod with his incidental music to the drama Jeanne d’Arc by J. Bardier (1873) and M. E. Bossi with his “mystery” Giovanna d’Arco, op. 135 (1914).
“Joan is then the protagonist of the oratorio, with spoken roles, Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher [Joan of Arc at the Stake] by Arthur Honegger on text by Paul Claudel (1938). When it was represented at the San Carlo Theatre in Naples with Roberto Rossellini’s direction (on December 5, 1953, Ed.) Honegger stayed with the firefighter on duty since no one was interested in him, all following Ingrid Bergman” (P. Isotta, Giovanna d’Arco, in Il Fatto Quotidiano of December 6, 2015).
The encounter between the great French poet, dramatist and diplomat (1868-1955) and the multifaceted French-Swiss musician (1892-1955) gives life to a masterpiece and realizes what Honegger had dreamed of in 1931 in an article: “I dream of a collaboration which would succeed in being total, that the poet would think of himself as a musician and the musician as a poet, in order that the work produced from this union would not be a hazardous result of a series of approximations and concessions, but the harmonious synthesis of two aspects of one and the same thought” (A. Honegger, Pour prendre congé, in Écrits, Textes réunis et annotés par Huguette Calmel, Paris, Champion, 1992, p. 116). Who could have collaborated better than Paul Claudel, who converted while he was listening to the singing of the Magnificat on Christmas Day 1886 in the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, which he certainly hadn’t entered for reasons of faith?
Dedicated “To Ida Rubinstein” — Russian dancer, actress and impresaria who commissioned it and who appeared as Joan at the world premiere in 1938 — this “dramatic oratorio” unexpectedly combines acting and singing, voices of the earth and voices from heaven, present and past, 15th century France and that of 1935. The score is conceived for vocal soloists and reciting voices, mixed chorus, children’s choir, and a large orchestra (consisting of two flutes, second doubling piccolo, two oboes, three clarinets, bass clarinet, three bassoons, contrabassoon, three saxophones, small trumpet, three trumpets, three trombones, bass trombone or tuba, timpani, tamtam, rattle, side drum, tenor drum, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, woodblock, celesta, two pianos, onde Martenot and strings). The music is as eclectic as the composer: it ranges from atonality to the jazz of the 1920s, from military fanfares to Hollywood melodies.
About 70 minutes of music articulated in a prologue and eleven scenes entitled as follows: The Voices from Heaven; The Book; The Voices of the Earth; Joan Given up to the Beasts; Joan at the Place of Execution; The King or the Invention of the Game of Cards; Catherine and Margaret; The King sets out for Rheims; Joan’s Sword; The Folk Song; The Burning of Joan of Arc.
The drama presents the last moments of the Maid of Orleans at the stake, with recalling of her time spent in Lorraine and her trial in the castle of Rouen. “Darkness! Darkness! Darkness!” cover all of France, the chorus sings at the beginning. Joan, reciting voice, meets Brother Dominic in heaven (St. Domenic of Guzman, the Founder of the Order of Preachers, also known as Dominican Friars), a role played, who will read passages from the book of the girl’s life. “O priests of Jesus Christ! Is it true I did so much wrong? — asks the Saint — Is it true you hated poor Joan?” “No, Joan, those who judged you were not priests,” Brother Dominic reveals to her, but “wild beasts”.
The trial becomes a farce: presides the court Porcus, the pig with allusion to the last name of the bishop Pierre Cauchon, who judged Joan; sheep make up the court, the Ass is the clerk. “But I, a poor shepherd-girl from Domrémy, how have I come to this?”, asks Joan. “By means of a card game invented by a mad king,” Brother Dominic replies, referring to the great political confusion that surrounded a young illiterate peasant girl like her.
The last scene represents the burning of Joan of Arc: “Who is this Joan? The fire shall determine whether she comes from God or from Satan,” comments the chorus. At the conclusion of the drama, a kind of lullaby on a verse from the Gospel of John accompanies the dying Saint: “Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for a loved one” (15:13).
Massimo Scapin, an Italian conductor of both opera and the symphonic repertoire, composer, and pianist, holds degrees in piano and choral conducting from the State Conservatory of Music in Perugia, in orchestral conducting and composition from the National College of Music in London, and in religious science (magna cum laude) from the Pontifical Lateran University. Massimo appeared as guest conductor and pianist in Europe, Japan, Kazakhstan, Korea, and the United States. He was also a Vatican Radio commentator and entertainer. He currently serves as Director of Liturgical Music at St. John Cantius Church in Chicago.