Passion and Light

On November 18 and 19, a multimedia experience in Rollins College’s Knowles Memorial Chapel will prove that Joan of Arc, the warrior saint, still has the power to inspire.

This article first appeared in the fall 2016 edition of  Winter Park Magazine. It is republished here with permission. 

Voices of Light has been performed more than 200 times, including by the Los Angeles Master Chorale and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Voices of Light has been performed more than 200 times, including by the Los Angeles Master Chorale and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. A little more than a century ago, near an old stone bridge in Redding, Connecticut, a youngster named Coley Taylor had a chance encounter with a famous neighbor taking a midday walk.

Mark Twain was in his early 70s by then. The author gruffly shrugged off the compliment when the breathless boy told him how much he had loved reading Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer.

“You shouldn’t read those books about bad boys,” Twain said. “My best book is my Recollections of Joan of Arc. Listen to an old man’s advice. You won’t understand that book now — but read it when you grow up.”

Twain, who had stumbled onto Joan’s story during an extended European visit in the 1890s, was so moved by it that he wrote an impassioned tribute about the devout French peasant girl who advised royalty, outwitted clerics, inspired troops and dressed like a knight in shining armor at a time when cross-dressing was grounds for damnation.

Jeanne d’Arc, who was born in 1412, burned at the stake in 1431 and canonized in 1920, will be the subject of an extraordinary multimedia presentation on Friday and Saturday, November 18 and 19, at Knowles Memorial Chapel on the campus of Rollins College.

Voices of Light will pair Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, a 1928 silent film masterpiece, with American composer Richard Einhorn’s 1994 oratorio inspired by Dreyer’s creation. The oratorio, which can be performed as a standalone piece, is also called Voices of Light.

The 80-minute “opera with silent film,” as Einhorn has described it, begins at 7:30 p.m. both nights. For tickets, which are priced starting at $35, visit bachfestivalflorida.org.

A Michigan critic described Voices of Light as “a powerful, touching, engaging and gut-wrenching experience.” Expect no less in Winter Park, where the film will be shown on a large screen as the oratorio is performed by the Bach Festival Society of Winter Park, with a 100-plus member choir and 25-piece orchestra.

The elevating ambiance of the chapel, with its soaring archways, stained-glass windows and ornate wooden sculptures, makes it an ideal venue; a setting that suits the spirit of the courageous figure who inspired both works.

If conquest over earthly terrain is all it takes to impress you, the likes of Hannibal, Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great and Rommel the Desert Fox will suffice.

But if you broaden your criteria to encompass the spiritual realm — then factor in her age, gender and station in life — the overachieving teenager who changed the course of the Hundred Years War deserves her place alongside the most charismatic military leaders in history.

Born in the tiny town of Domrémy in northeast France, Joan convinced a series of astonished elders, first in her village and then beyond, that she had been visited by saints and angels who instructed her to unite her chaotic country under a new king.

She coaxed a dauphin of dubious lineage into trusting her with an army, then won over his soldiers with her courage and seemingly preternatural tactical instincts in the field.

Carrying a banner in front of the troops, promising them eternal salvation if they followed, she marched with them through enemy territory, where they routed opposing forces, captured two cities and paved the way for the dauphin to be crowned Charles VII.

Her career was brilliant but brief. Two years later, abandoned by the king she championed and convicted as a heretic by the church to which she had been devoted, she was burned at the stake at the age of 19.

She had asked for no spoils, sought no titles. She preferred to be known by the simple name her soldiers always called her: la Pucelle (“the girl”).

“You can never say she was in it for herself,” says Joan of Arc expert Bonnie Wheeler, associate professor and director of medieval studies at Southern Methodist University. “She wasn’t trying to become the queen of France.”

Like Twain, Wheeler unexpectedly fell under la Pucelle’s spell, becoming obsessed with her story in mid-career. “When I ran across Joan,” she says, “I went into a rabbit hole for the next 10 years.”

Wheeler will travel from Dallas to Winter Park to take part in the events surrounding Voices of Light, which is being brought to Winter Park by Randy Robertson, a retired Winter Park sports-event marketer whose nonprofit foundation, GladdeningLight, is devoted to presenting lecturers and performing artists who explore spiritual themes.

Wheeler will deliver a lecture about the latest research into the myth and the reality of Joan of Arc at 2 p.m. on Saturday, November 19, at Bush Auditorium, which is also on the Rollins campus. The lecture is free and open to the public.

So is a panel discussion, which follows at 4 p.m. Wheeler will be joined by Einhorn as well as Henry Maldonado, film buff and president of Enzian, the Maitland art-house cinema; and John Sinclair, conductor and artistic director of the Bach Festival Society of Winter Park. The foursome will talk about the film, the oratorio and the iconic figure whose idealistic quest inspired both works.

Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in 1431. Her execution is vividly depicted in this 1843 painting by German artist Hermann Anton Stilke. Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in 1431. Her execution is vividly depicted in this 1843 painting by German artist Hermann Anton Stilke. Maldonado, who retired in 2009 as vice president and general manager of WKMG Local 6, the Orlando CBS affiliate, calls the film “a force of nature, a masterpiece at every level touched by greatness” and the oratorio “an event of sight and sound rarely seen, a seamless partnership of live music, vanguard cinema and divine inspiration.”

Voices of Light—the film and oratorio combination — has been presented more than 200 times, in settings ranging from Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts to the Sydney Opera House in Australia. That’s roughly 198 times more than Einhorn anticipated. 

“Never in my wildest dreams,” he says. “I’m still flabbergasted.”

Requests for additional performances multiplied quickly thanks to word of mouth and positive reviews, says Einhorn, whose oratorio is a compelling, contemplative powerhouse that introduces strains of modern minimalism into a majestic echo chamber with ethereal medieval overtones.

It also sparked a revival of interest in a film that Dreyer directed with ascetic, dictatorial zeal, coaxing a luminous, other-worldly performance out of his star, Renée Falconetti.

It’s no exaggeration to say that Falconetti lived the part. She suffered a nervous breakdown during the grueling shoot, and was slightly burned during the execution scene. Her performance was lauded by renowned film critic Pauline Kael as one of the greatest in the history of cinema.

The original version of the film was lost for decades after a fire destroyed the master negatives. In 1981, however, an employee of Dikemark Hospital, a mental institution in Oslo, Norway, found several film canisters labeled The Passion of Joan of Arc in a janitor’s closet.

The curious discovery was sent to the Norwegian Film Institute, where it was determined to be a copy of Dreyer’s original cut, prior to it being altered under pressure from church officials and at the hands of French government censors.

It was also in the ’80s, while he was living in New York City, that Einhorn began considering ideas for musical explorations of religion and spirituality. “It’s a subject that the artists I knew at that time just weren’t taking very seriously,” Einhorn says. “It either wasn’t being addressed, or was being addressed simplistically.”

Einhorn watched The Passion of Joan of Arc after a friend suggested that the “Maid of Orleans” would make an intriguing subject. He was so impressed by the moody exploration of Joan’s trial and execution that he decided to create a musical composition that could either stand alone or accompany the groundbreaking film, with its elaborate sets, high-contrast cinematography and unsettling close-ups.

He began by immersing himself in the medieval mindset, reading everything he could find about the mysticism and political crosscurrents of the era.

Then he pored through the two carefully preserved historical documents that provide much of what we know about Joan: riveting transcripts of both her trial and an inquiry, packed with first-person accounts, which exonerated her 15 years after her death.

The transcripts provide a contemporary account of a sweeping drama that makes Gone with the Wind look like a sitcom. France may have been in civic chaos, but its palace intrigue flourished, and its hidebound class distinctions were firmly in place.

The level of contempt and condescension is palpable in a remark made by an inquisitor, who accuses Joan of deceiving “the simple people.”

Modern psychologists have weighed in with numerous theories about mental and physical disorders that may have caused Joan to be delusional. Yet, in her responses to questions during her trial, you sense a surprisingly grounded individual; consistently frank, disarmingly direct.

Asked why she had tried (and nearly succeeded) to escape from a jail cell, leaping out of a window to the ground 30 feet below, she responds: “I’m a prisoner. That’s what prisoners do.”

The director's cut of Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer's 1928 film was thought to be lost when the master negatives were destroyed by fire. However, a copy was found in 1981. The director's cut of Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer's 1928 film was thought to be lost when the master negatives were destroyed by fire. However, a copy was found in 1981. Joan was part Chauncey Gardiner, part Eva Perón, a humble outsider with a naïve grace that exposed a hypocritical system. The trial was never really about her. It wasn’t even about religion. It was about politics. The goal was to discredit Charles VII—and Joan was a sacrificial lamb.

“It wasn’t enough for them to prove she was wrong,” says Wheeler. “They had to prove she was wicked.”

Joan’s home is now a museum. The church where she took communion and confessed her sins as a child is just a few steps away. Einhorn traveled there and recorded the sound of its bells so he could imitate their distinctive tolling in his score.

“I thought she would like that,” he says, sounding as though he’s speaking of a soul mate, a contemporary, a comrade in arms. It’s the sort of familiarity that often overtakes people who, through Joan, find something that they were seeking.

During World War I, frightened French soldiers in the trenches at the Marne, sorely in need of inspiration, thought they saw her face in the clouds and found the courage they needed. Looking up at a sky illuminated by German searchlights in the midst of battle, they were convinced that hovering above them was an image of Joan, riding to victory and urging them on. 

Einhorn, who wanted to create a work that would sidestep sentimentality and evoke the complex cross-currents of spirituality, found in her story the springboard he sought.

“I was drawn most of all to the ambiguities,” he says. “Here’s someone who hears voices on the one hand, and then is perfectly capable of commanding an army. She always slips away from you, no matter how hard you chase her. She poses more questions than answers.”

Scholars such as Wheeler see in Joan a protofeminist, challenging the social order of her day in more ways than one. Although of humble origins, she accused her royal sponsor of cowardice. She chastised battle-hardened soldiers for cursing, and refused to be cowed by an all-male legion of priestly inquisitors.

Once, during her trial, when a disbelieving cleric with a pronounced regional accent asked her if the saints who appeared to her spoke in French, she replied: “Better French than yours.” 

Her enemies called Joan a whore, but she was a virgin, having been inspected by ladies of the court and declared “intact.” Wheeler finds it darkly ironic, and more than a little symbolic, that, having failed to trick her into self-incrimination, the inquisitors could convict her only of cross-dressing.

“And the men who convicted her were wearing skirts,” Wheeler notes, referring to the flowing cassocks and robes of her adversaries.

The reality was that there was nothing in the least bit devious about Joan’s choice of attire. As a soldier and a captive fearful of rape, she found men’s clothing to be more practical — and protective.

For Robertson, the GladdeningLight founder, a film and a musical composition that revolved around a timeless spiritual figure was an ideal fit for his enterprise.

He first encountered Voices of Light three years ago, when he was in Washington, D.C., leading a tour group to see an exhibition of Byzantine art. He read that the presentation was slated for the National Cathedral and, out of curiosity, he and his group attended.

As Voices of Light concluded, Robertson recalls, there was at first a moment of stunned silence, followed by thunderous applause. “I vowed right then and there that I had to bring it to Orlando,” he says. “It taps into so many things. The power of art. The power of myth. The power of music. The power of a faith that was absolutely unshakable.”

That’s not too far afield from what Mark Twain must have had in mind long ago, when he gave a young boy some fatherly advice, along with a reading assignment that he was certain would leave a lasting impression.

“Whatever thing men call great,” Twain once said, “look for it in Joan of Arc, and there you will find it.”

Voices of Light
When: Friday and Saturday,
November 18 and 19, 7:30 p.m.
Where: Knowles Memorial Chapel
Tickets: Starting at $25.
Visit bachfestivalflorida.org.