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The latest content and news from the Barbican. Book tickets at barbican.org.uk

Rescoring ‘La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc’

Neil Brand considers the importance of music to Carl Theodor Dreyer’s masterpiece of early cinema

La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928) is one of the hardest films of the silent era to score – and, ironically, one of the most often scored. It has attracted music of every style and texture from every period of musical history, while having some vociferous supporters who claim it should not be scored at all but be allowed to play out in silence. Now, it has attracted a new and highly successful score that returns it to its roots in historical fact, while employing a musical instrument seldom used to underscore silent film, and almost never as the only sound we hear throughout: the human voice.

Carl Theodor Dreyer, whose masterpiece this film is, had spent the previous eight years distilling his extraordinary directorial vision down into spare, austere images that filled the frame, dispensing with extraneous detail and focussing his audience instead on the actors’s faces, bodies, costume and mannerisms. It was within this febrile, intense mise en scene that he set a dramatisation of the interrogation and execution of Joan of Arc based on the trial reports at the time, and cast a stage actress, Renée Maria Falconetti, as his doomed but saintly heroine. Hers is one of the greatest of film performances, in one of the greatest of all films.

‘The tiniest flicker of Falconetti’s eyelid has the impact of a gunshot’

The camera seldom leaves Falconetti’s face, only to roam the twisted, terrified faces of her clerical accusers and the crowd that witness her barbaric end. With such pitiless, close-up scrutiny, the tiniest flicker of Falconetti’s eyelid has the impact of a gunshot. The drama that plays out through the film’s 88 minutes is complex and multi-layered, a corkscrew of shifting undercurrents and political controls, alternating triumph and disaster for the saint-in-the-making and her tormentors.

It would be easy to overload the drama with heavy-footed music, but the beauty of the Orlando Consort’s score is two-fold. Firstly, it consists solely of voices, the haunting male a cappella of medieval liturgy. This adds a layer of shifting authenticity to what we are watching, for all the pieces incorporated into the score have come down to us from the time of Joan’s trial. Secondly, the use of such a texture makes for an austere commentary on the film’s protagonists, which is both coolly unemotional and deeply moving. The singing reminds us constantly of our shared humanity, which can simultaneously create such musical beauty and religious barbarism.

‘The score always dictates our response to the film’

Music in silent cinema is so influential that if we watch the same silent film with six different musical scores we will find ourselves watching six different movies. The score always dictates our response to the film, for better or worse. Jeanne d’Arc has been scored so often because it appears to be an open goal for inexperienced silent film musicians, a film of awesome visual power that will help carry the music. Unfortunately the opposite is true; the film’s multi-layered complexities are terrifyingly demanding of any score, that being the reason that so many modern viewers (including, at one time, Dreyer himself, although he later sanctioned scores) thought the film should be left to do its work in respectful silence.

I don’t agree with silent cinema in silence, but I do agree the film demands respect, and that is precisely what the Orlando Consort has given it, in both musical structure and tonal aesthetic. So has the Barbican in setting this experience in a church, the aural space that plainsong was created to fill. This will be a unique and unmissable experience.’

Voices Appeared takes place on Friday 29 January at LSO St Luke’s.

Originally published in the January Guide.