Honegger Jeanne d'Arc au Bûcher

Author: 
Lionel Salter

Honegger Jeanne d'Arc au Bûcher

  • Jeanne d'Arc au bûcher

There are passages in some musical works that never fail to bring a lump to my throat: for one, the final pages of Ravel's L'enfant et les sortileges, with its soothing ''Il est sage...'' and the child's heartfelt cry of ''Maman!''; another is the conclusion of this 'dramatic oratorio' by Honegger, with its beatific envoi ''Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for those he loves''. I remember being overcome by this, like many others, at the first English performance (a BBC broadcast in 1947): because of the war the work had taken all but nine years to reach this country since the first performance (in Switzerland). Even so, its gestation had been protracted: the idea had been conceived by Honegger and the actress-dancer Ida Rubinstein (for whom he had already written four works) in 1933, but Paul Claudel had at first refused to write a libretto, feeling that it was not possible to put words into the mouth of a historical figure whose own words were ''engraved on everyone's memory''. Then, astonishingly, he had a vision of two hands tied and folded in the form of a cross, and in a white heat of emotion wrote his poem in two weeks: Honegger completed his score at the end of 1935.
The diversity of Claudel's partly realistic, partly symbolic treatment of the subject—almost cinematic, like a long flashback—was mirrored in the music, which incorporates all kinds of techniques and styles. Alongside purely spoken sections (neither of the chief characters, Joan and Brother Dominic, sings) there are choral singing, humming and shouting; and stylistically, besides often elaborate polyphony, the work contains folksong, Gregorian antiphon, jazz rhythms and baroque dances. The orchestra (in which horns are replaced by saxophones) includes two pianos and (famously) an Ondes Martenot which, as well as providing the ''dog howling in the night'', powerfully reinforces some climaxes—blood-curdlingly in the moments just before Joan breaks her earthly chains.
It is a work of compelling power and, in the final scenes, of almost intolerable emotional intensity, yet Honegger modestly insisted that his function had been merely to underline Claudel's precisely indicated effects: musically he was anxious to make it all ''accessible to the common man while retaining the interest of the musician''. Ozawa's reading certainly brings out the dramatic force of the whole, and except for a very occasional flaw such as is inevitable in a live performance, the forces under his control do splendidly. There are no major singing roles, but John Aler is a properly vainglorious Porcus, and mention must be made of the beautiful voice of Francoise Pollet as the Virgin. Marthe Keller (who initially might have been a trifle more strongly recorded) makes the most of the name-part and well conveys Joan's bewilderment, fervour and agony. Vast as the Basilique Saint-Denis is, the balance and clarity of the recording are mostly extremely good, calling for praise for the sound engineers.'

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