Circumstances of composition
Joan of Arc at the stake is the result of an order from Ida Rubinstein. After seeing the Sorbonne student troupe Les Théophiliens breathe new life into medieval theatre at the beginning of 1934, she had a project for a travelling drama about Joan of Arc. The text would be entrusted to Jehanne d’Orliac and the music to Arthur Honegger, her most faithful collaborator. However, as the two artists did not reach an agreement, she proposed to Paul Claudel, who had just agreed to write La Sagesse ou la Parabole du festin for her, to compose this work. At first, he refused before having the revelation of a decisive gesture: two hands chained together making the sign of the cross. The point of view was found: it is by the stake, by the trial of sacrifice and holiness, that it was possible to conceive the drama. In the first days of December 1934, Claudel finished his text and immediately presented it to Arthur Honegger. On the 11th of June, Honegger gives the playwright a performance at Ida Rubinstein’s house to mark the beginning of his work, which he completes on the 30th of August for the piano-singing reduction. Another chamber performance is held on the 29th of October, 1935, at Ida Rubinstein’s house, while the composer finalizes his orchestration on Christmas Eve.
Dramatic and musical structure
The drama has strong analogies with The Book of Christopher Columbus: a central historical figure on trial, a drama with chorus and music, an epic structure based on a narrative presented by a spoken character accompanied by a book. Claudel will nevertheless simplify and densify the construction of his drama in relation to The Book of Christopher Columbus. He takes advantage of a known psychological phenomenon: dying people see, in a few seconds, their past life flash before their eyes. This moment has been expanded here: Jeanne, in the ordeal at the stake, has lost all understanding of her life (scene I). Saint
Dominic, called “Brother Dominic”, arrives as if he were sent from heaven to tell her the story of her life (scene II). Constructed on two levels of the stage, the work then alternates between scenes essentially spoken between Jeanne and Brother Dominic, situated on the upper level of the stage, and scenes of reconstitution of the past, on the lower level. Thus, in reverse chronological order, we see Jeanne’s death at the stake (scene III), the trial in Rouen (scene IV), her arrest in Compiègne following negotiations among powerful figures (scene VI), the coronation in Rheims (scene VIII), Jeanne’s childhood (scene IX). Having rediscovered the meaning of her life in her initial vocation and in her faith in God and in love, Jeanne will be able to relive the moment of her martyrdom at the stake and to face the flames that bring her deliverance in death and accession to holiness in a long scene that crowns the drama (scene XI).
The mandatory presence of a spoken role, that of Jeanne, and the collaboration with Arthur Honegger allowed Claudel to attempt once again the form of “music in its nascent state” (see Musical Collaborations). In fact, Honegger brilliantly exploited all forms of the encounter between speech and music in a much more flexible manner than Milhaud, using Claudel’s dramatic structure: Jeanne is in constant dialogue with the sound material that surrounds her, and the work dramatically exploits the traditional conflict between speech and music. In this sense, the work invents a new way of conceiving musical drama in the struggle of the elements, instead of the musical transposition used in the operatic tradition.