The first time composer Richard Einhorn watched “The Passion of Joan of Arc,” he felt shattered. Later, he wrote that he had “unexpectedly seen one of the most extraordinary works of art that I know.” The 1928 silent film directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer is often cited as the best piece of cinema movie goers have never heard of.
Shot in stark black-and-white and filled with dramatic closeups of the faces of actress Renee Jeanne Falconetti as Joan of Arc and her cadre of male accusers, the movie is a stark and dramatic portrait of the life and trial of the iconic French-born saint that was burned at the stake for heresy in 1431.
When Einhorn first saw the film more than 25 years ago, he was on his own quest to find a religious subject for his next composition. He recalled what motivated him to search for a religious topic: “I had read somewhere that the United States was the most religiously observant developed nation, and I was quite surprised by that, partly because in my life, the people who I knew — artists, musicians, others who I knew in New York – never discussed religion. Yet … there was a lot of religious fervor in this country then and my group of friends was completely uninterested in it.”
So, he set off on a systematic search to find a way to examine something about religion as a composer. The result, “Voices of Light,” is an original and moving oratorio accompanied by a small orchestra. In performance, the Dreyer film plays simultaneously. On Saturday evening, the National Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorale will perform the 1994 composition at the Music Center of Strathmore. “The piece does not espouse any particular religious viewpoints,” Einhorn emphasized. “I try to treat religion as a subject; that’s really what I’m interested in.”
The composer declined to share his own religious background, but noted that he didn’t want to compose a Catholic mass or any other liturgical piece. Rather, he was fascinated by how to retell a story about belief, and Joan of Arc’s travails felt like a perfect way for a contemporary audience to feel a connection to this saintly figure from the Middle Ages – whether or not they are Catholic or of any other faith.
Although the film is more than 90 years old, Einhorn was pleased by the suggestion that, in some sense, “Voices of Light” is a collaboration with the filmmaker Dreyer. “I certainly would hope that Dreyer, even if he didn’t like my music, at least he would feel that I had taken the subject of Joan of Arc as seriously as he did.”
To compose the work, the filmmaker immersed himself in the original trial transcripts, which were just published seven years before the movie premiere. And Joan of Arc, too, had just been canonized in 1920 and adopted as the patron saint of France.
Einhorn spent years studying her life. Asked about Joan of Arc, he spoke of her as if she is a friend, calling her simply Joan: “I read thousands and thousands of pages about Joan and I consulted with many, many scholars on various parts of her life.” He also traveled to France and visited her village in the southeast of France and followed in her footsteps, stopping in Orleans and Paris. Upon discovering her hometown church was still standing, he recorded its church bells. That recording is incorporated into every performance of “Voices of Light,” a small touch that connects audiences more directly in Einhorn’s mind to the brave and rebellious saint. “The recorded bells are what Joan heard.”
Einhorn found Joan of Arc’s life to be a rich and inspirational example of how to deal with religion, but not necessarily theological issues. “She’s Catholic, but doesn’t fit into the mold in the typical way that religious subjects are talked about in the United States,” he said. “Joan was perfect as a subject. No matter what you do with Joan, she completely breaks the mold — totally. You say Joan of Arc heard voices. Well, then she’s a schizophrenic. But not quite, because there aren’t that many schizophrenics who are functional enough to lead armies into battle and also plan the way that Joan planned.”
The work doesn’t set the film dialogue to music. Instead, the composer used mystical writings of contemporaneous women – nuns, saints, ordinary women of the period — in his libretto. Like his subject, Joan of Arc, these women were either considered mystics, heretics, insane or witches. Thus, the sung score is a collage of prose and poetry penned by these women during the Middle Ages. Like Joan of Arc, these mystics, heretics and rebels were finding their voices and expressing themselves at a time when women weren’t regarded as capable of independent thought or action. “They not only didn’t listen to women’s voices,” Einhorn stated, adding, “When women spoke up, they were often burnt.”
It’s hard to overlook the relevance of this 15th-century saint, who as an illiterate teenager battled an enemy army, an unyielding religious establishment, a jury of men. “The issue of women’s rights and women’s place in society became an important aspect of the piece … and it’s also part of the film,” Einhorn said.
The film depicts how cruelly Joan of Arc was treated by the male judge and jury at her trial. Einhorn elaborated: “She is clearly abused and harassed in all sorts of ways. It’s a story of her heroism under incredibly harsh circumstances. Joan’s ability to remain true to her voice, I think, is the reason she is so inspiring. That’s certainly the reason she inspires me.”
Einhorn hopes a new generation will discover Joan of Arc through “Voices of Light.” “Her life,” he said, “has been an inspiration for thousands and thousands, especially women. Today she is the ultimate prototypical example for the ‘#MeToo’ generation.”
The National Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorale will perform Richard Einhorn’s “Voices of Light,” along with the film “The Passion of Joan of Arc” at 8 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 23 at the Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda. The composer will speak at a pre-performance Q&A at 6:45 p.m. For tickets, ranging from $29 to $79, $10 for college students, free for students, ages 7 to 17, call 301-581-5100 or visit www.nationalphilharmonic.org.