“Voices Appeared” to Dreyer’s Joan of Arc

Orlando Consort Gives Voice to the Maid and Her Voices in Live Musical Accompaniment to Silent Film Classic


The vocal begins well before images appear on the screen, just like Joan’s Voices first spoke to her years before she was ready for her mission. Sounding like both a hymn and an elegy, this gentle prelude prepares us for the story of a girl, a heroine, a martyr — A girl who did, at 17, what an army couldn’t, saving her country and her people from merciless invaders; sold to the enemy and burnt as a heretic, she would be resurrected as the national heroine, the saint, the figurehead of various modern movements. Yet as I learned in the after-symposium on Joan’s “Afterlives”, each recasts her authentic figure into the mold of their agenda, each is a “voiceover” of her true voice…

The Orlando Consort’s enterprise was different at their performance in Old Cabell Auditorium this March 30th: although literally providing a voiceover for Dreyer’s La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928), they went to great length to find vocal works from her lifetime (beginning of 15th century), to better restore the Maid her own voice — in the reverential emulation of the very Voices she heard, through what baritone and creator Donald Greig calls “the more intimate medium of five unaccompanied voices”. Subtly and omnipresently, their music would enhance the film and bring to life the character of Joan of Arc.

The vocal continues unbroken as the film opens almost immediately with Joan’s first trial. As the judges read, the tension that has been subtly building in the music develops into a tangible sense of oppression, reaching climax as the callous or sadistic faces of the officers and clerics are showcased one by one. On all but one, any trace of sympathy is absent from the old and powerful, yet visible on the young and powerless, symbolized by the contrast between the soft countertenor and the very menacing baritone, hinting at the major turn the plot will take.

The music turns into a gentle praise that slowly rises against the judges’ laughs and jeers of Joan’s claims to divine mission. As the judges ask one after another theological trick questions that would condemn her as a heretic (a.k.a. burnable), and when her answers refuse to fall for any of them, they begin to panic under a thin mask of dignity – pointedly parodied by the vocal’s irregular rhythm – and resort to denouncing what obviously strike even them as faultless…

Astonishingly, a high church dignitary openly decries the trial, calling Joan “a saint”, even to the point of prostrating at her feet! Joan is too moved to speak, but The Orlando’s Voices continue to be tense beneath a passage of majestic praise, puzzling, given the rare happy moment for Joan! But alas! The sole sympathizer is soon silenced and removed by force — replaced by a false one bearing forged letter from her King, giving her fatal hints when she is baffled by theological fine points — the warning of the musical Voices is vindicated!

Fortunately the young friar cries out a warning, and Joan reverts to her own artless answers which keep her safe from their pitfalls, driving them to utter rage; the vocal becomes clamorous as they try to force a heretic answer out of Joan by overwhelming her — we are made to taste it under the music’s greater and greater oppression, which reaches maximum aggression at the condemnation: 

You are NO daughter of God!!!

Joan does not succumb – The torture chamber enters our and Joan’s view simultaneously, foreshadowed by ominous sounds. Fear is vivid, on her face and in the music. She lost the power to react, even when they put a crown of thorns on her head as the ultimate humiliation. The judges see their chance and shoot one denouncement after another like cannonballs, aiming to confuse her mind and take away her conviction — aptly seconded by a very menacing low note that continues throughout their poisonous words, then bursts out into unbearable clamor.

Joan does not succumb – Silence. Then the tenor rings out a short but heavenly solo, mirroring the purity of her conscience. But tortures are being prepared even as the music celebrates. Now it reflects her fear, the paralyzing fear of a young girl in front of a spiked wheel about to grind over her… Joan passes out under the wheel… only impatience from her judges turned torturers and their musical shadows.  They have the heart to, when she’s barely conscious again, lure her with the Communion that is so dear to her, in exchange for her signature on an incriminating “confession”: if she signs, she will condemn herself; if she refuses, she is rejecting “the body of Christ” — which must be more painful than the spiked wheel for her — her face speaks even louder than the music.

Yet Joan does not succumb – to her, renouncing her God-sent visions would be the same as renouncing God; betraying her own God-sent-ness would be the same as betraying God. All these mental torture is amplified by the music, compelling us to not only see, but share her anguish.

All of a sudden, the musical oppression lifts– she finds the ultimate confidence in her Voices to turn the accusation against her very accusers: “It is not I who’s sent by the devil; it is you who are sent by the devil to torment me!” The high clergy jump, as if her words were an electric shock; they flee her prison cell ignominiously, as if it were the seat of Judgement. The Consort’s music (as you might expect) does not miss the irony, that the judges have less true confidence in their own standing before God than the “heretic” at their mercy.

She is carried on a lift into her execution turned circus: animals, contortionists, freaks… the biggest would be her, being burnt alive. Nearby, her grave is being dug, a forsaken skull is carelessly thrown out, with worms crawling out of its socket. The music is mournful but then becomes increasingly agitated, as her sight turns to the erected stake, and her face is transfixed with fear. The priest, customarily, seeks to “save the stray lamb” as their willpower fall at the sight of death.

Joan does … succumb! Overpowered by the “fear of being burnt”, she signs the false confession, saves her life, but sells her soul.

But she loves God too much to bear it for long. The sight of the crown of thorns, the mock suffered by Jesus himself that her judges unwittingly made her share, awakens her. She remembers her mission, a mission destined to end in martyrdom even like Christ’s own. She retracts her false confession. At her unshakable determination expressed across shaking sobs, even the most callous judge cannot suppress a tear of sympathy. The music portrays the struggle, and then the resolution, within her heart.

It celebrates the moment of her true heroism, the “grand victory” that she realizes to be her Martyrdom. She was only a heroine for France when she defeated the invaders; but by defeating the universal fear of death, she becomes a heroine for all humans. She challenges us: Can you face death for your most inalienable values? Will you stay true to yourself no matter what?


The stake. The fire.  As many in the crowds on and off screen (me included) are crying inconsolably in enforced silence, the music breaks out into a strong yet tender passage, that sings of her undying spirit even more than it mourns her death by fire. The music drives home the message of Joan’s story: her young death itself is her lasting victory. Indeed, however high the fire burned that May of 1431, it could only erase Joan the body. Joan the person, and the challenges posed by her life, remain poignant for us today, burning the conscience of all who hears her story.



Fanli Yang is a second year who likes her steaks rare, and without ketchup.