Voices of Light

WPI chorus, orchestra to perform Voices of Light to accompany The Passion of Joan of Arc silent film • It was literally lost among the ashes. For decades, it was assumed completely eradicated by not just one—but two—fires amidst the tumult of the mid-20th Century.
April 01, 2016

But then in the 1980s, tucked away in an unassuming janitor’s closet in a Norwegian hospital, an obscure version of the 1928 French film was inexplicably discovered.

In the ensuing decades, Carl Theodor Dreyer’sThe Passion of Joan of Arc has been restored as well as rescored by award-winning American composer Richard Einhorn.

On Saturday (April 2), WPI’s music department will present its own resurrection of sorts of the acclaimed silent film in a rare and unique performance melding live music and cinema.

The WPI Orchestra and Festival Chorus will perform Einhorn’sVoices of Light as live accompaniment to The Passion of Joan of Arc. The event will be held at 5 p.m. on Saturday in the sanctuary of the First Baptist Church of Worcester, at the corner of Park Avenue and Salisbury Street.

“It’s a very fun and unusual event,” says John Delorey, festival chorus director. “It’s rare that you would get to hear a live score to any movie, let alone a silent movie.”

Considered by some to be one of the best films ever made, The Passion of Joan of Arc stars Renée Falconetti as the doomed heroine, depicting the legendary figure’s captivity, trial, and execution, based on actual historical transcripts.

Thinking ahead of his time, director Dreyer made use of unusual camera angles, lighting, and close-ups.

“It is considered to be quite revolutionary,” says Delorey, also describing the film as “…evocative. The bottom line is it’s a really good movie. It’s a compelling story.”

The film debuted in 1928 in Copenhagen, and was immediately acclaimed (although it was ultimately a financial disaster). Subsequent versions were cut and re-narrated for various political, religious, and social reasons, and Dreyer’s original vision was thought to be lost when the master version and several other versions were destroyed in two separate fires.

A few years following the re-discovery of Dreyer’s original cut hidden away in an Oslo mental hospital, composer Einhorn came upon a copy in the film archives of New York’s Museum of Modern Art. After viewing it, according to his website, he was inspired to write Voices of Light, which is scored for solo voices, chorus, and orchestra.

Delorey called the piece a “perfect match” for this year’s festival chorus, what he called a group of “smart singers” who have been rehearsing it since January. The performance is vocally challenging in that it involves sustained singing throughout the film’s 1 hour and 22 minutes, he says, and there is no sound effects work (performers don’t mimic any on-screen action).

“Once it starts, it goes, that’s the nerve-wracking part of it,” says Delorey. “It exposes students to a very high level of music.”

The score serves as its own entity of sorts, starting with St. Joan’s voice even before the film begins, then weaving itself in and out of the narrative. Incorporating chanting and minimalist note patterns, it is modern but also Medieval, according to Delorey, and “energetic and beautiful.”

Douglas Weeks, director of the WPI orchestra, meanwhile, calls it “unusual,” as well as a “haunting piece for strings and organ that fit well into the church setting.”

Cost: $15 general admission, $10 for seniors or with a WPI ID, free for students with valid ID. Tickets will be available at the door.