Saturday, 24 November 2012

Braunfels Berlin Jeanne d'Arc

Currently on at the Deutsche Oper, Berlin,  Walter Braunfels Jeanne d'Arc, Szenen aus dem Leben der heiligen Johanna.  (Scenes from the life of St Joan).  (more HERE with production shots). Braunfels is a fascinating composer because he doesn't fit easy categories. He's been posthumously castrated as soft-centred ultra-romantic. But listen to his music without an agenda, and think about the man behind the music, and a much deeper Braunfels emerges.

Braunfel's Joan of Arc is not a comic book retelling of the historic Joan of Arc. To suggest that it's religious is beside the point,  except in a sense that any contemplation on the nature of evil involves ethical thought.  Absolutely not a drama to be staged as comic book piety!

Braunfels places much more emphasis on the male authority figures, and how they deal with violence, faith and evil. Braunfels was a front-line soldier in the First World War. The experience traumatized him. He became passionately anti-militarist.  Szenen aus dem Leben der heiligen Johanna was written between 1938 and 1943, when Europe once again descended into war. The madness was happening all over again. "We are like castaways on a desert island, around which the hurricane continues to rage", he wrote.

By connecting to medieval Christian Europe, Braunfels eschews both totalitarian anti-religion and the kind of nationalism that causes war. Braunfels's libretto, which he wrote himself after reading about Joan's trial, places the context firmly in  a time of crisis. A chorus of villagers cry in panic, Hilfe, Hilfe! As Joan's father later says "An Himmel lohnt drer Brand von tausend Höfen". Johanna, however, is sitting by a tree from which a strange light is shining. Voices tell her that she has a mission. She';s so child-like that she sings a ditty, complete with tra la las. "Denn ein Kreiger, ein Kreiger, soll ich werden".

Braunfels's music is pointedly pure and simple. Single instrumental groups, often solo instruments, swathes of strings and winds suggest flowing movement not decoration for its own sake. Even in the scenes in the royal court, textures are clean, texts conversational. King and knights, portrayed as ordinary men. When Saint Michael appears, he's almost one of their own. For the faithful like Johanna, (and Braunfels), saints are as natural as normal people.

For a more detailed analysis of Braunfel's  Jeanne d'Arc, Szenen aus dem Leben der heiligen Johanna. and its music,please read what I wrote about it last year HERE.  Lots more on other portrayals of Joan of Arc in music (use labels)

If you can't get to Berlin, there is an excellent recording.  It's conducted by Manfred Honeck, with Juliane Banse as Jeanne. Terje Stensvold sings Gilles des Rais, Günter Missenhardt the Herzog de la Trémouille.

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