French Connections in Gloucestershire: Satie, Messiaen, Joan of Arc

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Meurig Bowen, Erik Satie –  Memoirs of a Pear Shaped Life; David Bamber (actor), Anne Lovett (piano),  Parabola Arts Centre, Cheltenham, 2.7.2015 (RJ)

Messiaen,  Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus (selection) : Cordelia Williams (piano),  Michael Symmons Roberts  (reciter), Tewkesbury Abbey, Tewkesbury , 8.7.2015. (RJ)

Carl Theodor Dreyer, The Passion of Joan of Arc: The Orlando Consort [Matthew Venner, Mark Dobell, Angus Smith, Donald Greig, Robert MacDonald],  Tewkesbury Abbey, Tewkesbury, 8.7.2015. (RJ)

There has been a French (or more specifically, Parisian) strand to this year’s Cheltenham Music Festival with the inclusion of such composers as Poulenc, Debussy and Ravel. One of the most eccentric and puzzling of all of these is surely Erik Satie, who was the subject of an affectionate dramatised musical biography by the Festival’s director, Meurig Bowen.

David Bamber stood in at the last moment to play Satie, who looks back on his idiosyncratic life with a droll sense of humour and hints of regret. He succeeded in getting under the skin of the composer to present a sympathetic, though perplexing, portrait of him. In many respects the star of the show was pianist/actress Anne Lovett from Normandy where Satie’s home was. Wearing an enormous turquoise ribbon in her hair and a sailor suit deigned by Picasso for Satie’s 1917 ballet Parade she looked as if she had just stepped out of the Parisian streets of 100 years ago. Her most important contribution, however, was her dedicated piano playing which demonstrated that  Satie was a more versatile and rounded composer than his well known Gymnopédies might suggest.

Messiaen’s  Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jesus is regarded by some as the pinnacle of the piano repertoire; if performed without an interval, it can last over two hours. Yet it is more than just a musical work seeming to embrace Messiaen’s deeply held religious faith and the whole sum of human experience. Cordelia Williams, winner of the piano section of the BBC Young Musician 2006, has obviously recognised the extra-musical dimensions to the Vingt Regards and this has prompted her to embark on a year long project. Entitled Messiaen 15 it has involved commissioning a series of paintings by Sophie Hacker and poems by Michael Symmons Roberts inspired by the music.

The project came together at Tewkesbury Abbey. As Cordelia William played seven of the Vingt Regards with authority and commitment, Sophie Hacker’s colourful and luminous abstract paintings were projected on a screen behind her while Michael Symmons Roberts prefaced each of the contemplations with a poem. Some of these poems reflected the era during which Messiaen was composing the work – the final months of the German occupation of Paris and the subsequent liberation of the French capital.

(For details of further performances in London (St James’ Theatre, Guildhall School of Music, King’s Place), Winchester Cathedral and Bradford on Avon (Wiltshire Music Centre) see

After one multi-media event came another, a showing of  the 1928 silent film directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer based on the trial and martydom of Joan of Arc. The accompaniment (or sound track, if you prefer) was provided not by a piano or organ, but by the five members of the early music ensemble the Orlando Consort singing music from the early 15th century – the time that Joan lived.

The full-length film classic is largely static consisting of long close-ups, notably of the doomed heroine, played by Maria Falconetti whose anguished  expressions had a haunting quality which turns to radiance as she speaks of God.  Joan’s touching innocence and her firm religious beliefs put to shame the sneering, supercilious clergy who accuse her of being the devil’s daughter. They force her to sign a declaration admitting she has sinned by claiming to be the daughter of God,  but she later recants and is condemned to be burned at the stake. As she dies and cries out the name of Jesus, an elderly bystander shouts, “You have burned a saint!” and a riot breaks out.

A younger audience brought up in the modern age of action films might have become impatient at the slow pace of Dreyer’s film, though with its low angled shots creating a sense of claustrophobia there is no denying its powerful effect. It sometimes felt as if time was standing still, and this effect was reinforced by the a capella accompaniment devised by Donald Greig, a member of the Orlando Consort. Plainchant and liturgical music were interspersed with pieces by such composers as Dufay and Binchois – and the music seemed to fit the scenes of the film like a glove. As Joan is sworn in for her trial, the Consort sings Hymbert Salinis’ Salve Regina, and she is led to the stake to the strains of Veni, creator spiritus. There was even English music – the Agincourt Carol – which is used as background to the scene in which English soldiers, wearing what look like World War I helmets, make fun of the hapless girl.  Alas, hardly anyone comes out of this film with an unsullied reputation – apart from Joan herself!

The Passion of Joan of Arc (sometimes known under its French title La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc) is a remarkable film, but it was the superbly chosen musical accompaniment sung with total commitment by the heavenly Orlando Consort that transformed it into a truly mesmerising and engrossing experience.

(Details of the music used to accompany the film can be found on the Orlando Consort’s websitre –


Roger Jones

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