Jeanne d'Arc au Bûcher

Joan of Arc at the Stake

  Honegger was a Swiss composer who, I feel, has been underestimated in Britain. He wrote six masterly symphonies, and some wonderful dramatic cantatas, of which 'Joan' is probably the most ambitious. He also wrote some music for the cinema, which is interesting, because at least one cinema composer has clearly been extremely influenced by Honegger's ideas. After you have listened to Honegger's cantata 'Judith' , the famous music to the shower scene in Psycho might sound a little familiar. Click on the picture to hear it.

Arthur Honegger There are many solo roles in Jeanne d'Arc, but the two principal parts are both spoken. The chorus also plays an important part, both singing and speaking. Honegger had a particular gift for the dramatic, which he exploits to the full in this work. He also incorporates all kinds of music into what becomes a kind of collage of Joan's life. A favourite of mine is the Ass's Chorus, in which the hee-haw is incorporated into an otherwise very respectable and indeed uplifting musical texture.

Honegger also had a particular humanity and warmth in his works which is very apparent here. This, in combination with his dramatic gifts, produces a work which is overwhelming in its emotional effects. Throughout the progress of the work, Honegger steadily tightens the emotional screws using all the skillful means at his disposal.

There is also music of great beauty here; some wonderful choral and solo writing. I have included three extracts. The first, leading up to Joan's words when she is describing her sword - "Cette claire épée! Elle ne s'appelle pas la haine, elle s'appelle l'amour!" and the music rises to a climax on the last word with a wonderful swooping melody on the high strings which just manages by a hairsbreath to avoid sentimentality.

I'd originally had only two extracts on here, but I couldn't resist putting in a further one. Extract 2 is again from the latter part of the work. Joan hears her voices from Heaven, encouraging her to leave the earth. She no longer hears voices accusing her of heresy and immorality, but now they call her 'Daughter of God'

The final extract is an example of how Honegger achieves his effects. This is the penultimate scene, just before Joan is burned alive. She sings to herself a childhood song. Now we have been listening to an hour of solo and choral singing, when Joan, which is a speaking part, begins to sing in an untrained voice. At that point in the work the effect is overwhelming. However, Honegger manages to find a way to wind up the emotion even more. In the second verse of the song, Joan's voice is accompanied by the pure tones of a rising scale on the ondes martenot.

The recording is from Supraphon, and has the Prague Symphony Orchestra conducted by Baudo, in a spirited performance with Nelly Borgeaud as an excellent Joan. It is on two CDs. The number is 11 0557-2 212



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