Special Events

The Best Silent Film Ever Now Has a Just-As-Eerie Live Score

Donald Greig of the Orlando Consort, like so many others, hasn’t been able to get La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc (The Passion of Joan of Arc) out of his mind. The 1928 film, a silent-movie masterwork directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer and featuring Renée Maria Falconetti in her one and only movie appearance, is filmed entirely in close-up and medium shots.

“The film is very strange in many ways, but it undoubtedly packs an enormous emotional punch. People come out of it dazed and moved, surprised that a silent movie can be so powerful,” says Greig, of the United Kingdom-based early-music choral group. “It’s a psychological movie first and foremost, and by the end, our support for Joan means that we really feel her sorrow and feel ashamed for the way she was treated.”

In addition to his singing prowess, which includes know-how in medieval music, Greig has a film studies background, and created a monster sound track for the 110-minute French film piloted by Dreyer, a Danish director who’s often anointed as one of the all-time best.

“It was an enormous amount of work. First of all, I had to investigate all the music that might be suitable for the film, i.e., music from that specific period. That took many days in libraries, studying manuscripts, imagining it in performance, thinking if it would work for the combination of voices (five male singers) I would have at my disposal,” says Greig. “I then studied the film, breaking it down into scenes, designating the important moments, seeing which pieces might fit and at what pitch and tempo.”

“Having found thematic, liturgical or textual links, and then chosen the music, every beat and every cue had to then be transcribed onto our version of the movie (the one we work off in performance, synched with what the audience sees) so that we would be working exactly in tandem with the film.”

As Joan is interrogated, shamed, tormented and eventually burned alive/dead, the all-male, five-member Orlando Consort sing close to 50 excerpts of plainsong and early-15th-century music, ranging from Guillaume Dufay and Johannes Cesaris to Gilles Binchois and a handful of anonymously composed pieces.

As a professional singer, Greig thinks the black-and-white film’s cinematography lends itself to a powerful sonic commentary.

“Particularly towards the end of the movie, there are some bravura camera movements and rapid editing, which means that the final ten minutes pass by in a blur. In contrast to the slow, languorous close-ups, which were particularly suited to gentle, slow, contemplative music, such sequences allowed me to score harsh, strident compositions,” says Greig.

“The ecclesiastical setting – Joan was tried by the Bishop and his cronies – lent itself to sacred music, of which there’s a great deal from which to choose, and made for a darkly ironic underscore. And the orchestration – five voices – was obviously apt to a subject, Joan, who heard and was inspired by saintly voices.”

At 8 p.m. Friday, April 1, Da Camera and Houston Early Music present a screening of The Passion of Joan of Arc and a live film score performance by the Orlando Consort at Cullen Theater at Wortham Theater Center, 500 Texas. Tickets cost $30 to $65. Call 713-524-5050 or visit dacamera.com.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Steve Jansen is a contributing writer for the Houston Press.
Contact: Steve Jansen