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Arthur Honegger's Joan Of Arc For The Ages

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Arthur Honegger's Joan Of Arc For The Ages

Arthur Honegger's Joan Of Arc For The Ages

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

January 2012 is the 600th anniversary of the birth of Joan of Arc, a French peasant girl who fought English armies, said she heard voices telling her to save France, was branded a heretic and was burned at the stake at the age of 19.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "JOAN OF ARC AT THE STAKE")

(SOUNDBITE OF SINGING)

SIMON: Decades later, Joan was declared innocent and is revered as France's patron saint.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "JOAN OF ARC AT THE STAKE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (as judge) (Foreign language spoken)

(SOUNDBITE OF SINGING)

SIMON: The Swiss-French composer Arthur Honegger and poet Paul Claudel paid homage in their dramatic oratorio "Joan of Arc at the Stake." It was written in 1935. We're listening to a recording of the work as conducted by Seiji Ozawa. The piece is rarely performed, but later this month, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra will play it for audiences in Carnegie Hall, as well as their hometown. Of course, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra music director Maestro Marin Alsop joins us now from the studios of WYPR in Baltimore. Maestro, thanks so much for being with us again.

MARIN ALSOP: Great to be here, Scott. Thanks.

SIMON: Now why – and obvious as we say, news peg, 600th birthday, but why choose this particular piece? What makes it important to you?

ALSOP: It's a spectacular piece. And it's a piece that is huge in scope and in forces. It's got chorus, children's chorus, narrators, soloists, odd instrumentation, big orchestra. So it's one of those pieces that on every level is a little bit hard to convince people to give a try to in terms of mounting it as a performance. And it defies being categorized. It's not really an oratorio, it's more like a theater piece - a sung and acted theater piece.

SIMON: Bring us through it a little bit, if you could.

ALSOP: Well, it begins in the depths of the orchestra, as you can imagine, you know, telling this story, taking us back. Actually, we're going to revisit Joan's life in a series of flashbacks. The orchestra is very dark and then we hear there was a girl who was called Jeanne, and that's what you just opened up. And the words are, you know, daughter of God, go, go, go. Be on your way.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "JOAN OF ARC AT THE STAKE")

(SOUNDBITE OF SINGING IN FOREIGN LANGUAGE)

ALSOP: And this little theme, "Fille de Dieu, Va, Va, Va," this will keep recurring throughout the piece until the very end, when instead of it says go, go, go, the words are vien, vien.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "JOAN OF ARC AT THE STAKE")

(SOUNDBITE OF SINGING IN FOREIGN LANGUAGE)

ALSOP: Come. Come. And these are the voices of the saints that she heard.

SIMON: She hears voices and doesn't know what to make of them.

ALSOP: She doesn't. These are voices that are triggered by the church bells in her town of Domremy, and Honegger will simulate those bells throughout the piece. And she comes to realize that the voices are the voices of saints speaking to her and giving her not commands - I mean that's maybe too strong, but advising her that she needs to step forth and take a leadership role to save France. And the voices are of St. Catherine and St. Margaret, and they become almost her companions in a way.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "JOAN OF ARC AT THE STAKE")

(SOUNDBITE OF SINGING IN FOREIGN LANGUAGE)

ALSOP: You hear the bells, don't you? That's just this sort of...

SIMON: Yeah.

ALSOP: ...inevitability of the repetition in the background. You know, she can't escape this not only these voices that visit her, but this condemnation and, you know, which is marking the end of her life. And that's where the piece begins, really that the end, right near the end of her life. And we go back and she relives her life, starting with, you know - she's surrounded at the trial by all of these men with their pens and their notebooks and they're all madly writing things down and I think we get a real insight into Claudel's and Honegger's opinion, viewpoint on this trial by the choice of the judges and the jury for this trial. They're all made up of animals.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "JOAN OF ARC AT THE STAKE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (as judge) (Foreign language spoken)

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (as jury) (chanting)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (as judge) (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (as jury) (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (as judge) (Foreign language spoken)

ALSOP: The judges, the jury, they're all depicted as these animals sitting in judgment. I mean, the incredible absurdity and hypocrisy of the entire trial I think is manifest.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "JOAN OF ARC AT THE STAKE")

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (as judge) (Foreign language spoken)

SIMON: Well, I guess that's one of the judges saying it's me the donkey.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ALSOP: Yeah. Exactly. And then you hear right at the end there, that's this fantastic instrument, the ondes martenot, which is a sort of a cousin to the theremin, that, you know, many people think the "Star Trek" theme uses an ondes martenot. It actually uses voices, but it's that kind of wild sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF ONDES MARTENOT)

SIMON: How do they treat the end, the end of "Joan?"

ALSOP: Well, you know, rather than this sort of brutal death, which I'm sure it was, Claudel and Honegger, they focus on the transcendental message of her death. And the libretto is, you know, greater hath no man than he who would lay down his life for a friend. And I think, you know, when you look back to that point in history where the world is really becoming an extraordinarily frightening and dangerous place, mid-late 1930s, I think it has resonance there. You look back into Biblical history and it calls to mind, of course, Jesus' martyrdom. And then, you know, moving ahead to today, I think it calls us forward to stand up for what we believe in. And it's absolutely beautifully calm, serene. It's about as far from the actual death as one could get.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "JOAN OF ARC AT THE STAKE")

(SOUNDBITE OF SINGING)

SIMON: Wow.

ALSOP: Beautiful, isn't it? Yeah.

SIMON: It is just beautiful. Every work written about Jeanne d'Arc has opened up the idea that what made her heretical to the people who ruled France in those days was the idea, the people who ruled France being a religious establishment, the church, to be specific about it, is that she challenged the idea that God would speak only to them. That she opened up the idea in Western faith that put it most simply - that God uses ordinary people.

ALSOP: I think it's a fascinating concept to think that this young girl, you know, from very simple and humble upbringing would be the one to change the way people view a relationship with God. When you go back and read the transcript of the actual transcript of the trial, what struck me anyway was not a kind of erudite discourse, but rather the fact that they all were obsessed with the fact that she wore men's clothing. This seemed to be far more of a sin than any of her aspirations to have a direct relationship with God.

They kept saying well, why won't you wear women's clothes? How dare you cut your hair short. You know, and so to me it somehow, she represented I think a sense of ownership and power and rebellion that they just couldn't handle at all.

SIMON: Maestro, thank you so much.

ALSOP: Pleasure, Scott. It's always wonderful to talk to you.

SIMON: Marin Alsop, director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. And this season they're performing Arthur Honegger and Paul Claudel's "Joan of Arc at the Stake." The maestro joined us from the studios of WYPR in Baltimore.

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