Composers throughout the ages have been inspired by the saga of Joan of Arc, the teenage warrior who led French forces to victory in the Siege of Orléans. The list of music tributes begins with anonymous medieval-era works, hits a plateau in the 19th century (with operas by Pacini, Balfe, Verdi, Duprez and Tchaikovsky) and continues on to the present day.
Amy Beth Kirsten’s Savior, which will receive its world premiere in a MusicNOW concert April 2 at the Harris Theater, becomes the latest in a long line of musical and cinematic treatments based on the Maid of Orleans. Here are some of its predecessors:
Giuseppe Verdi, the opera Giovanna d’Arco (1845):
Written during the composer’s so-called galley years, the opera never received much respect, either in Verdi’s lifetime or decades later. The Metropolitan Opera has yet to stage Giovanna d’Arco, although it has been seen in concert versions in New York City and elsewhere on the East Coast. Of a 1985 concert version by the Orchestra of St. Luke’s and the New York Choral Artists (boasting a stellar cast of Margaret Price, Carlo Bergonzi and Sherrill Milnes), New York Times critic Donal Henahan dismissed the opera as “[Verdi’s] dramatically naive and musically crude version of the Joan of Arc story.” Chicago Opera Theater staged the city’s first-ever production in its 2013 season.
Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, opera The Maid of Orleans (1878-79):
Regarded by musicologists as the composer’s closest approximation to French grand opera (including a second-act ballet), the work had its world premiere in 1881 at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg. It’s rarely staged outside Russia, and has never had a full production at the Metropolitan Opera, arguably the world’s leading house.
Arthur Honegger, Jeanne d’Arc au Bûcher (1938):
Described as an oratorio with operatic interludes, the work depicts Joan’s last moments on the pyre, with flashbacks to her childhood, military campaigns and trial. Set to a text by Paul Claudel, Jeanne d’Arc au Bûcher (Joan at the Stake) ends as Joan’s judges are accused of heresy. The role of Joan, a spoken-word part, has been notably performed by French actress Marion Cotillard (Oscar winner for the 2007 film “La vie en rose”) in 2005, 2012 and 2015.
Leonard Bernstein, Choruses from The Lark (1955):
The esteemed American composer-conductor, whose centennial is being celebrated worldwide in 2018, wrote incidental music for an English translation of Jean Anouilh’s 1952 play, which depicts the trial and execution of Joan of Arc. The English adaptation, penned by American novelist Lillian Hellman, received an all-star Broadway production, with Julie Harris (as Joan), Boris Karloff, Christopher Plummer and Theodore Bikel. Harris and Karloff received Tony nominations, with Harris winning best dramatic actress honors.
Richard Einhorn, Voices of Light (1994):
Inspired by Carl Theodor Dreyer’s silent film “The Passion of Joan of Arc” (1928), it’s frequently presented alongside screenings of the film; Einhorn’s work uses sacred texts as well as texts by various medieval mystics, including Hildegard of Bingen. Memorably staged by Performing Arts Chicago at the Medinah Temple (now a Bloomingdale’s) in 1997.
“Joan the Woman” (1916):
Director Cecil B. de Mille updates the Joan of Arc legend to World War I as an English officer sees a vision of Joan (opera superstar Geraldine Ferrar) on the eve of a dangerous mission. Once thought to be lost, a version was pieced together and has been released on DVD.
“The Passion of Joan of Arc” (1928):
Universally regarded as one of the greatest movies of all time (and the best cinematic depiction of St. Joan), Carl Theodor Dreyer’s silent film has influenced generations of filmmakers. Shot mostly in close up, the film had Rudolph Maté (a future film noir specialist) as its director of photography, delivering high-contrast cinematography that emphasized realism above all.
“Joan of Arc” (1948):
For her second go-round as the Maid of Orleans, Ingrid Bergman put up her own money to help finance a Technicolor version of Maxwell Anderson’s play (Anderson co-wrote the script with Andrew Solt). Victor Fleming, best known for “Gone With the Wind” (1939), directed the RKO production, which brought Bergman a best actress nomination for her performance.
“Saint Joan” (1957):
Autocratic director Otto Preminger launched the career of then 17-year-old Jean Seberg, after choosing her from an audition pool of 18,000 hopefuls. Graham Greene adapted the screenplay based on George Bernard Shaw’s drama.
“The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc” (1999):
French writer-director Luc Besson cast his young wife, Ukrainian model-actress Milla Jovovich, as Joan, and she divorced him shortly after the film’s release.