Carl Theodor Dreyer’s silent film La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc caused quite a commotion when it was released in 1928. French nationalists were wary of a non-Catholic Danish director’s interpretation of a revered French icon; the Archbishop of Paris ordered Dreyer’s final version censored and cut. The film was banned in Britain for its unfavorable portrayal of the English soldiers who ridicule and torment the movie’s heroine. Some critics deemed it boring while others found its tight shots and decidedly unglamorous style disturbing.
Mordaunt Hall of the New York Times praised the film. In a March 31, 1929, review, Hall hailed actress Maria Falconetti’s turn as Joan of Arc “unequaled” and declared that the film “makes worthy pictures of the past look like tinsel shams. It fills one with such intense admiration that other pictures appear but trivial in comparison.”
Voices Appeared: La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc and the Orlando Consort
Old Cabell Hall, UVA
Dreyer based his film, which depicts the imprisonment, trial and death of Joan of Arc, on detailed transcripts from the 1431 trial that condemned Joan to be burned at the stake as a heretic when she was 19 years old. And while Dreyer is said to have controlled many aspects of La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc—from the elaborate (and barely visible) sets to the emotional output of his actors—he never selected a definitive score for it. Which seems odd, really, given that Joan of Arc didn’t just have visions of saints—she heard their voices, too.
Film buff, musicologist and professional early music singer Don Greig decided to design a score for the film, and although he isn’t the first to do so (everyone from composers Leo Pouget and Victor Alix to instrumental rock band Nick Cave and the Dirty Three have scored the film), his stands out because it’s crafted entirely of medieval vocal music, music that Joan of Arc likely heard alongside a few pieces that (based on the documentation of the trials) she most certainly did hear.
The world-renowned Orlando Consort medieval and renaissance vocal ensemble, of which Greig is a member and co-founder, performs that score during a screening of Dreyer’s original cut March 30 at UVA’s Old Cabell Hall. It’s a remarkable feat of vocal athleticism—the five singers will perform for 100 minutes, and they’ll sing dozens of pieces in that time.
Greig says the music—mostly motets, hymns, chants and other sacred music—is “fascinating, intellectually stimulating, but very beautiful as well.” When you hear it, he says, you’re likely to think that you’ve never heard anything quite like it before (unless you were raised Catholic…then you might recognize some of it). Still, if the consort isn’t careful, Greig says the music can feel a bit dispassionate or uninvolved, so the singers have taken extra care to make sure it plays to and enhances the emotional experience of the film. “You know the film is going to deliver, and we’ve got to live up to that standard,” Greig says.
In the torture chamber scene, for instance, the camera pans through a rapid montage of shots of various torture instruments. “It’s meant to put the fear of God into you,” Greig explains—and it works. Joan isn’t physically tortured, but she’s so overwhelmed that she faints. In accompaniment, the consort sings Richard Loqueville’s “Sanctus,” a composition that was part of the Eucharistic ritual of the time. “This hymn of praise to God comes over much more as a scary, horror film moment…” Greig says.
Near the end of the film, Joan is led and bound to the stake; it’s a slow, painful, highly emotional scene full of extended close-ups of Falconetti’s face. At the moment of immolation, a single vocalist sings, in a falsetto, the plainchant hymn “Veni Creator Spiritus” (“Come Creator Spirit”). Testimonies given in the highly documented nullification trial in the 1450s—which posthumously found Joan innocent—state that when Joan led her army to battle at Orléans in 1429, a group of priests walked before them chanting “Veni Creator Spiritus.”
“You’ve got this moment where you have the strange ambiguity of Joan, who dressed as a man; you’ve got a male singer singing in a female range; you’ve got the music, which is beautiful anyway,” says Greig. “What it suggests is her moment of greatest glory, which was when she raised the siege of Orléans, contrasted with this moment of great despair.”
Greig knows that people don’t often go to see silent films these days, nor do they go out to hear medieval music—most of his colleagues hadn’t seen a silent film before singing for this one. “Just give it a try,” he says. “You’ll be surprised—surprised by the music, surprised by the movie—and moved by both.”
Carl Theodor Dreyer based his silent film, La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc, on detailed transcripts from the 1431 trial that condemned Joan to be burned at the stake. The original negative was thought permanently lost in a studio fire in 1928, then miraculously in 1981 a print was discovered in a janitor’s closet at a Norwegian mental institution.