ARTHUR HONEGGER (1892–1955)
Joan of Arc at the Stake (1935)
The dramatic oratorio Joan of Arc at the Stake, Arthur Honegger’s masterful setting of an inspired libretto by Claudel, tells of Joan of Arc’s last moments of life at the stake through a series of flashbacks. Her confessor, Brother Dominique, reads from the book of her life, starting with her trial and conviction of heresy and witchcraft in 1431 and, going backward to Charles VII’s coronation, the voices she heard of Saints Catherine and Margaret and her simple pastoral childhood. Though this composition is hard to categorize, Honegger’s musical invention is spectacularly diverse: the two main roles (Joan and Brother Dominique, both being speaking parts) are joined by chorus, children’s chorus, and an orchestra that includes saxophones, pianos, and the electronic ondes Martenot, and its musical mediums range from plain chant, Baroque dance, and folk song to jazz rhythms, humming, shouting, and classical music of the 1930s. Joan’s innocence, the benevolence of Brother Dominique, the corrupt clerics presiding at the sham trial, her ecstatic recollection of her youth, and her final release from earthly life combine to bring about an apotheosis of overwhelming emotion.