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‘Voices appeared’: Silent cinema and medieval sound – La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc and The Orlando Consort

June 11, 2014

The Orlando Consort, the medieval vocal ensemble with which I perform, are about to embark on a new project, an imaginative and intriguing crossover between early music and early film. The movie in question is Carl-Theodor Dreyer’s acclaimed masterpiece,  La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc, released in 1928, a movie that often is included in critics’ lists of the top ten films of all time. It features what is generally accepted as one of the finest performances on film, by Renée Jeanne Falconetti in the title role.

From its very first screening, various forms of music have accompanied this silent movie; works by composers as diverse as Nick Cave and J S Bach have been yoked to the director’s arresting images. Surprisingly though, for a film that takes its duty to history so seriously – the film spends its opening minutes insisting in its authenticity, describing how the dialogue is taken from the actual transcripts of the trial, while Dreyer was also painstaking in his recreation of the locations – no-one has provided a soundtrack of music of the period that the film depicts, namely the early fifteenth century.

The narrative focuses on the trial and execution of Joan of Arc by French clerics between 1429 and 1431. Dressed in men’s clothing, Joan had led the French to victory over the English.

 An uneducated shepherd’s daughter from Donrémy, she was either a visionary or delusional, depending on your reading of history. Certainly at the time that the film was made, she was very much the former, particularly in French eyes. She had been canonised only as recently as 1920 and supplanted the countries other patron saints in the popular imagination.

Dreyer condenses events into a single day and the film unfolds as a series of confrontations between Joan and her tormentors. We as spectators are unsure where we stand, not least in relation to narrative space itself, the style almost self-conscious, embracing its status as art movie. The film refuses the usual comforts of spatial orientation, throwing the actors against abstract background shapes – arches, crooked windows, the set designed by Hermann Warm, the art director on the Expressionist  Cabinet of Dr Caligari – their bodies flattened and distorted by odd framings that refuse the laws of perspective. But it is Joan herself who is treated the harshest, inviting our sympathy and understanding. Her face is stripped of make-up, her body bled, her hair shorn with us very much as witnesses (this was no trick effect), the camera unflinching in its relentless investigation of her suffering. Unsurprisingly, the iconic image from the movie is that of Falconnetti’s face, wearing the pained innocence of the martyr.


Our task will be to enhance the experience for the audience while eschewing any inclination to draw too much attention to ourselves. We will be shrouded in darkness below the screen, much like cinema orchestras were in the past. The music, though, will not be the familiar late romantic style, or a compilation of clichéd cues (William Tell overture for the chase, solo violin for the love theme, etc.). The function of music that accompanies a live screening is very different from that that is written for the sound movie. There music is carefully ‘spotted’ by composer and director, moments chosen where music will fulfill various functions. Someone like a Steiner, for example, would carefully hone particular themes and link them to characters or situations; a genius like Herrmann went his own way, with an emphasis on quirky combinations of instruments. The presence of the performers who create the music for a live screening means that immediately the music is far more of a commentary on the film than an integral part of it, a relay between spectator and screen which undoubtedly fulfils some of the same functions of emotional underscoring, but stands a little way distant from it. Rather like Dreyer does in relation to his subjects.

And voices are the perfect vehicle. Joan claimed to be guided by three angels – Michael, Catherine and Margaret – and though the film doesn’t depict these visions, her own voice is continually silenced by the hectoring clerics who have put her on trial. Conflicting discourses, alternately cajoling and condemnatory, stage an unheard aural polyphony that finds an echo in medieval motets, antiphons,  plainsong and discant, and it will be fascinating for us to assemble this collage for a modern-day audience of cinephiles and music lovers alike.

The repertoire will be drawn from a very specific period, namely the first thirty-one years of the fifteenth century. Joan was a French prisoner of the Burgundian Court at the behest of the English Crown, and each of those three powers had its own rich musical tradition: Philip the Good of Burgundy was one of the great musical patrons of the medieval period, bringing luminaries such as Binchois and Dufay to his court; Philip’s sister, Anne, was married to John, Duke of Bedford, uncle to Henry VI of England and, at the time of Joan’s trial, governor of Normandy; Bedford was the fortunate patron of the most famous and influential composer of the fifteenth century, John Dunstable; Henry VI, like his father before him, was a keen student of music, founder of Kings College, Cambridge and Eton school, both with their famous chapels (and thus instigator of two musical establishments that still exist today).

In the coming weeks we’ll be developing the soundtrack, experimenting by trying different pieces against the same sections of film, gauging its impact, and working out the (very) specific tempi that we will have to follow. I’ll share my thoughts here.

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