BSO accompanies 'The Passion of Joan of Arc'

The BSO is providing a score to the silent film "The Passion of Joan of Arc," which starred Renee Maria Falconetti as Joan.
The BSO is providing a score to the silent film "The Passion of Joan of Arc," which starred Renee Maria Falconetti as Joan. (Handout photo, Handout photo)

Call it poetic injustice.

In 1928, Carl Theodor Dreyer made a movie called "The Passion of Joan of Arc," about the sainted maiden from Orleans who led French forces against the English and was burned at the stake for heresy in the 15th century. Shortly after its release, the original negative of the silent film was consumed, like Joan, by fire.

Dreyer tried to reconstruct "The Passion of Joan of Arc" from a few surviving prints, but that effort, too, was lost in a warehouse conflagration. The Danish director never tried again. He died in 1968.

Skip to 1981. Inside the janitor's closet of a mental institution in Oslo, a first-cut print of the movie was discovered in great condition. The resurrection of "The Passion of Joan of Arc" finally allowed film buffs to discover a cinematic masterpiece.

This weekend, that masterpiece gets a presentation from the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, which will perform a live soundtrack to it — Richard Einhorn's "Voices of Light," a 1994 work for vocal soloists, chorus and orchestra inspired by the Dreyer film.

"I hadn't known the film, but I somehow got to see it and was very moved by it," said BSO music director Marin Alsop, who will conduct the performances. "Without the music, it's incredibly intense. With Richard's music, it is even more powerful. It packs an emotional punch."

The "Passion"/"Visions" combination has had more than 100 performances around the world, including a very successful one in 2004 by the Baltimore Choral Arts Society, which will participate in the BSO's presentation. (Alsop and the BSO will include the project on its West Coast tour this month.)

The imagery in Dreyer's film has a way of burning into the viewer. That's partly because of how it was shot.

"Most of the action takes place in a room where Joan is interrogated," Alsop said. "There are so many close-ups, which are almost painful. You can see hair growing out of a guy's ear. There is little, if any, makeup. These actors become real characters. The actress playing Joan, Renee Maria Falconetti, was in her 30s when she made this, but she's very believable as a 19-year-old."

The French actress conveys in remarkably nuanced ways the depth of suffering that this charismatic peasant woman endured for her faith and her cause.

As film critic Roger Ebert has written, "You cannot know the history of silent film unless you know the face of Renee Maria Falconetti. In a medium without words, where the filmmakers believed that the camera captured the essence of characters through their faces, to see Falconetti in Dreyer's 'The Passion of Joan of Arc' is to look into eyes that will never leave you."

Einhorn's music has a way of sticking with you, too.

The style suggests a fusion of medievalism and minimalism, which easily fits with the mood of the film. For the vocal parts in the score, the composer chose a variety of texts.

"Some of them come out of letters Joan dictated during her lifetime," Alsop said. "And there is some of the misogynistic poetry of the time, which was all in vogue then."

Keeping the music in sync with the movie is not as tricky as it would be with a traditional soundtrack. Einhorn did not compose a frame-by-frame match, but rather a score that can stand on its own or complement a showing of the film.

"I try to get it all lined up," Alsop said. "I make notes in my score, like 'Joan and big eyeballs,' but that's like every 10th frame, so it doesn't help that much."

The BSO's presentation of the film coincides with the Women of the World festival the orchestra is sponsoring. Joan of Arc provides a good hook for this weekend session addressing myriad issues of particular relevance to women.

"Joan is intriguing, which is why she's endured for so long," Alsop said. "She is complicated and mysterious, which, I think, is a nice combination."


If you go

"The Passion of Joan of Arc" and "The Voices of Light" will be performed at 8 p.m. Friday and 3 p.m. Sunday at Meyerhoff Hall, 1212 Cathedral St.; 8 p.m. Saturday at Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda. Tickets are $28 to $88. Call 410-783-8000 or go to bsomusic.org.