ON SUNDAY, MARCH 7, a full house at the American Film Institute saw the famous silent film, "The Passion of Joan of Arc," and heard its recently rediscovered original score performed by the Colonial Singers and Players. The score and four string parts had been on the shelves of the Library of Congress since they had been deposited for copyright in June 1929. The music was by Leo Pouget and Victor Alix.
When I first saw the score on those shelves, I had not yet heard of filmmaker Carl Dreyer nor of "The Passion of Joan of Arc," nor was I even a film buff. And so I did not know that I was looking at the score for one of the most powerful silent films ever made.
I was preparing silent film scores for preservation and microfilming when I happened upon "The Passion of Joan of Arc." The melodic lines were lovely. The harmony and counterpoint were sophisticated, evocative of the 15th century but clearly in the style of early 20th-century dramatic music. The first and last pages were for chorus as well as orchestra--an unusual feature. I decided on the spot that I wanted to perform it.
Scattered throughout, over various chords, were notations in French: "Go prepare the torture," "She faints," "The first flames," "At the raising of the bridge," etc. In addition, at the beginning of 12 of the 13 sections there were timings. As I began to ready the score for performance, I looked at all these cues and clues and thought synchronizing would be simple.
Sure! We timed a copy of the film and made a list of all the titles that appeared on the screen. Six weeks later I spent my vacation by a resort pool in Arizona with pages of music draped over my legs, matching titles from the film with those in the score. That's when I realized that eight minutes of music were missing. Our score had been composed for a censored version of the film. For example, I had nothing for an entire four-minute scene that shows priests using the consecrated host to bribe Joan into admitting heresy.
In an effort to find out what had happened, I looked into the film's history. "The Passion of Joan of Arc" is the story of Joan of Arc's trial in 1431 and is based on the original transcripts. (Many of the film's titles are direct quotes). Before and during the trial, Joan of Arc claimed that her military successes against the English had been divinely inspired and that God's word, communicated directly to her through two saints and an archangel, took precedence over anything communicated by the authorities of the holy Catholic Church. She was found guilty of heresy. To save herself from death by burning, she first confessed to the charge, but then withdrew her confession and was burned at the stake. She was 19 years old.
The film premiered in Dreyer's native Denmark in mid-1928. In France, the archbishop of Paris insisted that a substantial number of minutes be cut; the significantly shortened version premiered in Paris in October 1928. In June 1929, a much restored version was presented in Paris.
"The Passion of Joan of Arc" was as startling on an intimate level as "Napoleon" had been on the epic level. Both films used dramatic new techniques, but "Joan of Arc" was dominated by close-ups. It showed the saint's suffering and martyrdom at close range and almost instantly made film history.
No one knows at what speed these original editions of the film were run, nor who restored the censored scenes in the copy most commonly seen today--that at the Museum of Modern Art. We do not know anything about the composers (except that both are dead), nor do we even know whether Dreyer worked with them. Thus, my research helped very little with the problems of synchronizing film and music.
So I counted every beat in the 80-page score and marked down all the printed tempo and metronome markings. I quickly discovered that the durations given at the beginning of each section did not accurately reflect the number of minutes in each scene. The printed tempos were not reliable, and there were a number of instances where the printed titles were in the wrong place (or the scenes in the 1929 version had had more or fewer frames than those in the print we were working with). Finally, the last 30 pages of the score had practically no printed cues or titles--20 minutes of film music without landmarks. All these discoveries were distressing to a conductor with a performance coming up (although fascinating to me as a scholar).
In the end, I had to watch this wrenching film 60 times--over and over again, beating time to the air, writing visual cues and titles into the score, working and reworking it, until it came out the same way more than twice in a row. I repeated eight minutes of music to cover the missing sections, and I discovered what conductors in the '20s probably knew by heart--hold marks over certain notes were a shorthand signal that something dramatically significant was to occur at those spots. The choral music at the end of the score, for example, starts after four such hold marks. They coincide with four of the most deeply moving titles in the whole film: "And the great victory?" "My martyrdom." "And your deliverance?" "My death." The conductor hits the held notes at exactly the moment those titles appear on the screen. In this way the music punctuates each statement.
The peformance at the AFI was deeply moving, but four strings, piano, organ and five vocalists can only suggest the power and color that a full orchestra and chorus would achieve. I have a fantasy now: We will perform the score in its full orchestral version with as beautiful a copy of the film as we had at the AFI. "The End" will flash on the screen. The final notes will die away, and, instead of applause, there will be 60 seconds of utter silence.