Sunday, July 08, 2012

In our past lies our present


Peasant girl turned warrior who became folk heroine of France and a Catholic saint – the story of Joan of Arc is common knowledge. But two other aspects of the Maid of Orleans, her supernatural powers and her appropriation by the French political right, have long fascinated me, and both feature in Jordi Savall’s CD-book Jeanne d’Arc – Batailles & Prisons. In this newly released double CD Jordi Savall uses music to evoke three contrasting sides of Joan’s character - her peasant origins are represented by popular tunes of the time by Dufay and others, her military vocation by Jordi Savall’s own development of the melody L’homme armé, and her divine voices by Dufay’s Veni Sancte Spiritus.

When the young Joan first heard voices and apparitions in 1425, she was inspired to be pious and charitable, and was also motivated to go into battle to save the “holy kingdom of France”. A central dogma of the Catholic Church is that it is the sole intermediary between God and believers, and the perceived heretical nature of Joan’s unmediated voices was the catalyst for her politically motivated imprisonment, trial and martyrdom in 1431. At a subsequent rehabilitation trial in 1455-6 her conviction was overturned and she was cleared of all heresy. But the retrial was a neat example of ecclesiastical semantics which revolved around the technical validity of her conviction for having broken a Biblical clothing law. It was Joan’s custom to wear fashionable men’s clothing, and she contended unsuccessfully at her trial that male clothing was necessary to fulfill her military destiny. At the retrial a doctrinal exception to the clothing law was discovered which allowed her conviction to be overturned, thereby conveniently avoiding any ruling on the acceptability of direct communion between God and believers.

Cinematography is a sub-text to this path, and it prompts a jump cut to an earlier path about another woman who indulged in cross-dressing from an early age. A taste for men’s clothing is not the only link between Isabelle Eberhardt and Joan of Arc - fact and fiction is confused in both their stories, both made their reputations in male dominated societies, both died too young, and both had mystical vocations. In Algeria in 1899 Isabelle was made an initiate of one of the oldest Sufi orders, an unprecedented honour for any European, male or female. Isabelle’s commitment to mystic Islam, a tradition that denies the existence of intermediaries between God and believers, provides a thought-provoking link to Joan and her direct communications with the divine - a link that also raises interesting questions about the Maid of Orleans' subsequent beatification and canonisation. Joan’s spiritual disintermediation also has links to Gnosticism and the Cathar heresy, the latter surely not by chance being the subject of another Jordi Savall project. Cathars totally rejected the entity of the established church and all its trappings; because of this they were pronounced heretics and exterminated by the Catholic church in an unprecedented act of religious genocide.


In January 2012 the then French president Nicolas Sarkozy paid homage to Joan of Arc at her birthplace in Domremy, the first occupant of the Élysée Palace to do so for ninety-two years - see photo above. As Nadia Margolis points out in her thoughtful essay in the CD-book, the president's homage was an attempt to reinvent the Maid of Orleans as an ecumenical figure of French national unity. To use current marketing parlance, Sarkozy attempted to reposition the Joan of Arc brand away from the extreme-rightism of the Le Pen family who had adopted her as a trade mark, and instead claim her as the property of the political centre-right. As subsequent events proved, Sarkozy’s attempt to win the endorsement of Saint Joan failed, and it is unlikely that his successor François Holland will be visiting Domremy in the near future.

Sarkozy’s attempt to appropriate Joan has parallels with her celebrated appearance as a political poster girl for Marshal Pétain’s infamously collaborationist Vichy regime, see below. But one pertinent misappropriation of France’s folk heroine is omitted from Nadia Margolis’ essay – traditionalist Catholics invoke her as an inspiration, and draw parallels between her fate and the excommunication in 1988 of the extreme-right Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. This minor omission notwithstanding, the inclusion of an essay titled 'Joan of Arc and the Evolution of the Right in France' once again confirms Jordi Savall's commitment to making classical music relevant to current affairs. He is praiseworthy for being one of the few contemporary musicians to do this – can you imagine an essay on human rights in Venezuela in a Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra CD booklet?


Montserrat Figueras plays a leading role in Alia Vox’s Joan of Arc project, and the CDs feature new recordings made in 2011 together with music composed and recorded by Jordi Savall in 1993 for two films by director Jacques Rivette about Joan of Arc - the 1993 material was previously released on the Astrée label. In his introductory essay Savall says his mission is to give history a spoken voice, and spoken voice transcripts in French of the powerful prose from Joan’s condemnation and rehabilitation trials dominate the discs. One of the other essays in the CD-book is by Robin Blaetz on ‘Joan of Arc and film’, and, as mentioned earlier, cinematography provides a sub-text to the project. Not only is some of the music derived from a film score, but the project’s overall shape owes more to documentary direction than music production, with the finished result being more cinema verité derived audio verité than music CD.

At first hearing the music-lite style of Jeanne d’Arc – Batailles & Prisons is disconcerting, and the subject matter does mean this is audio noir as well as audio verité. But this new CD-book cannot be judged against conventional music CDs and I have written previously about the difficulties of categorising Jordi Savall projects. For some years he has been heading for the outer reaches of the music universe and with Joan of Arc may have finally broken free of that restrictive orbit. In his essay for Nonesuch’s Steve Reich retrospective box Alex Ross describes how Reich “worked to erase the boundary between speech and music” and Jordi Savall is following Reich in that direction, a path also taken by Glenn Gould in his groundbreaking contrapuntal radio documentaries.

In their foreword to Hidden Wisdom, a book that deals with spiritual traditions including esoteric Christianity, Sufism and Gnostcism, the authors Richard Smoley and Jay Kinney write that “It is true, of course, that in our past lies our present: each of these traditions has long antecedents in our civilization, so much so that understanding them may clarify much of what otherwise seems obscure in Western history”. Despite this, today’s technology-centric society  dismisses the links between the past and present as being of little relevance, instead preferring to concentrate on projecting the present into the future. By contrast, the partnership of Montserrat Figueras and Jordi Savall was guided by their belief that in our past lies not only our present but also our future. Six centuries ago Joan of Arc was burnt at the stake for being a heretic, and the term ‘heresy’ comes from a Greek root meaning ‘to think for oneself’. Today, in classical music in particular and society in general, we are desperately short of people who think for themselves. Which is why the inspired collaborations of honorary heretics Montserrat Figueras and Jordi Savall will be so sorely missed.


Also on Facebook and Twitter. Sarkozy image credit le JDD.Jeanne d’Arc – Batailles Prisons was purchased online. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

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