HONEGGER: Jeanne d'Arc au bûcher.
Time that with this strange excuse
In other words, like Yeats, Claudel is a great poet with appalling political views. In an essay written in the Thirties, Auden also lamented that the three great poets in English -- Yeats, Eliot, and Pound -- were so right-wing. Yet Claudel, at any rate, was never a Fascist (although in his early years, he breathed in the anti-Semitic atmosphere of post-Dreyfus France). Despite an ode to Pétain when Vichy came to power, he very quickly soured on that government. At great personal risk, he not only wrote against it, but used his extensive diplomatic contacts to smuggle Jews out of France.
The great fact of Claudel was his Catholicism. He always impressed me as a religious mind, rather than a political one, despite his considerable political career. Jeanne d'Arc becomes a poetic equivalent of a painting by Bosch -- phantasmagoric, richly imaginative, and in essence medieval in its outlook, especially in its view of the satanic as chaos. Jeanne takes us inside the mind of the saint before she enters the flames. We hear the cries of suffering France in a prologue, added by Claudel during the war, in 1944, to make clear the parallels between France under the English occupation and under the German occupation. Claudel introduces Joan and her "voices," then goes on to her military victories and her trial. The trial is conducted by beasts -- a brilliant section, inspired by the name of the actual judge who presided, the bishop of Beauvais, Pierre Cauchon (pig, or more fancifully, Pigge), who becomes Porcus. After the court finds her guilty, Joan's confessor explains to her the political forces that have trapped her in a surreal "Game of Cards," where the principal figures are related to the seven deadly sins. From then on, we gradually near closer and closer to heaven through the collective soul of the French common folk, until Joan enters the flames and rises triumphant.
Claudel's poetry greatly attracted Honegger. In addition to this score, he also provided the texts for Le soulier de satin (the satin shoe), Tête d'or (head of gold), and La danse des morts (dance of death). Honegger also set individual lyric poems. Jeanne d'Arc au bûcher (Joan of Arc at the stake) comes initially from 1935, although mostly (if not exclusively) do the Forties revision. From the criteria of craft and emotional force, it stands as one of Honegger's greatest works -- in my opinion, one of the best of the century, and I'm not even Catholic.
Jeanne is a hybrid work: part oratorio, part opera seria. It has appeared in churches, concert halls, and opera houses, including the Paris Opera. Unlike Honegger's earlier and more popular Le roi David, it proceeds not number by number, but scene by scene, often with symphonic power. The prologue, for example, begins in darkness as the chorus and orchestra in their lowest registers cry out, "Tenebre!" Over an eight-minute span, we move to higher and brighter realms until we arrive at the introduction of Joan. The effect reminds me a bit of Bach's cantata no. 150, "Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich," only over a much longer period. Honegger not only venerated Bach, he learned from him, seen especially in his later work. Throughout Honegger works with an extensive set of symbolic musical motives, among others: a "spira/spera" (breathe/hope); an oriental celestial riff on the flute; the Lorraine folksong "Trimazo" (Joan, of course, came from Lorraine); the chant "Aspiciens e longe et ecce video Dei potentiam venientem" (looking from afar, and behold, I see the power of God coming); a "turba" (angry crowd) theme; a "God on earth" theme; a "Joan triumphant" theme, as well as several others not easily described in words. All these themes appear in several movements, in varied form or different contexts.
Honegger carries through the drama musically with a mix of styles. We begin in a High Modern idiom, with lots of dissonance, although with a hint of the "spira/spera" theme buried within the dense texture. Joan gains her early victories to Honegger's Roi David idiom. Her trial and "The Game of Cards" combine Honegger's brief flirtation with Twenties "jazz" with the sharp musical satire of something like Weill's Mahagonny. At this point, Honegger begins to integrate more and more folk elements, most prominently "Trimazo." As Joan approaches the stake, we again hear mutterings of the "turba," gradually put aside for "Joan triumphant." Finally, representing Joan's last moments on earth, Joan, who heretofore has only spoken, sings all by herself to a very simple accompaniment the "Trimazo." It's a moment that stuns you with its simple beauty. "Joan triumphant" reasserts itself, builds to a climax, and fades, as the celestial flute riff we heard as early as the Prologue establishes both the serenity and the mystery of heaven.
Considering its rarity in the concert hall these days, the number of recorded performances surprises. Ormandy introduced me to the work. I owned the original mono LPs. I find problems with the recording. I don't believe Ormandy used Honegger's specified ondes martenot, responsible for one of the most amazing moments in the oratorio. The sound quality represents Columbia at its LP worst: cloudy, with dropouts and, at the loud parts, distortions. However, Ormandy, when he really "got" a score, was unsurpassed in bringing narrative and dramatic sweep over long spans. He fully commits to both the nightmare and the celestial visions of Honegger and Claudel. He also has a very strong cast. Much of the work requires not the most beautiful voices in the world, but good actors and communicative singers. Vera Zorina -- the ex-ballerina, ex-movie star, and then-wife of Columbia classical head Goddard Lieberson -- declaims like an actress in the French classical theater, a style that may take audiences trained in American-style naturalism and the movies some getting used to. Within that, she is very good. Charles Mathieu, who plays many bit parts in the oratorio, gets my vote as the outstanding cast member. His voice leaps out of the speakers and creates a full character strutting your mental proscenium. The trio of female saints -- Yeend, Long, and Lipton -- convey the bright clarity of heaven.
However, the problems of score silent revisions and mono sound keep Ormandy, despite its virtues, from becoming definitive. At this point, I would recommend Serge Baudo (Supraphon 110557), who always conducted Honegger as if the most important composer of the Twentieth Century. I would avoid the Ozawa version, although Marthe Keller as Joan is superb.
Praise to Pristine Classical, known for its audiophile releases of historic recordings, for re-releasing the Ormandy, under the engineering care of Mark Obert-Thorn. He has cleaned up the original LPs considerably, but not entirely, mainly because the original master recording was so poor in the first place. Still, as a former owner of those LPs, I can tell you that this CD noticeably improves on those platters. A rare gem of the LP era returns.
S.G.S. (September 2012)