The Trial at Rouen Program Notes



PIERRE CAUCHON: She is a greater menace than she knows!
—Norman Dello Joio, The Trial at Rouen, Act II

JOAN LA PUCELLE: I prithee, give me leave to curse awhile.
—William Shakespeare, Henry VI, Part I, Act V, Scene iii

Having first encountered the story of Joan of Arc as a child in a book on the lives of the saints, creating an opera on the subject of the Maid of Orleans became an obsession for the American composer Norman Dello Joio beginning in the 1940s. Both religion and opera were part of his upbringing, and he was already searching for a scenario for a dramatic work when he came across the 1948 movie Joan of Arc, starring Ingrid Bergman as the Maid of Orleans. The evolution of Dello Joio’s musical thoughts on the subject resulted in several different works, culminating in the New York City Opera production of The Triumph of St. Joan in 1959. Dello Joio spoke of his interest in Joan to the New York Times on the occasion of the NBC television broadcast of his The Trial at Rouen in 1956: “The timelessness and universality of Joan as a symbol lay in the eternal problem of the individual’s  struggle to reconcile his personal beliefs with what he is expected to believe. Daily, for ages, she has challenged men to have her courage.”

Acknowledged as one of the most important American composers of the 20th- century, Norman Dello Joio was the son of Casimiro Dello Joio, a conservatory- trained Neapolitan immigrant, and his New York-born Italian-American wife Antoinette (née Garamone—she had been a piano student of Casimir’s). It was natural that Norman himself begin keyboard lessons with his father at an early age. By his teens, he was already filling in for his father as a church organist, taking his first professional job at age twelve. He also studied organ with his godfather, the organist and composer Pietro Yon. The family lived in Manhattan near Little Italy, so Norman grew up in an environment steeped in Italian culture both sacred and profane, “high” and “low”: in addition to being a church organist, his father Casimiro was a vocal coach for the Metropolitan Opera. The two Italian- centric influences of Catholic liturgical music, including Gregorian chant, and the Italian operatic tradition would remain the core of Dello Joio’s musical aesthetic throughout his life. Dello Joio was also constantly aware of growing up as an Italian-American: one of his other obsessions was baseball, and he even played second base for a semi-pro team in New York City.

Music inevitably won out. After a few rudderless years following high school during which he took a few courses at City College, Dello Joio enrolled in the Institute of Musical Art (later part of the Juilliard School), and then the Juilliard Graduate School. He shifted his focus from performance to composition, to his pragmatic father’s chagrin, and studied at Juilliard with Bernard Wagenaar. Already in his early twenties, it was only at this time that Dello Joio wrote his first “real” compositions, but his music was soon being performed frequently around New York. In 1941 he worked with Paul Hindemith as a student at Tanglewood and then at Yale, and over the course of the 1940s amassed performances, critical acclaim, and support. He was piano soloist in his own Three Ricercari with the New York Philharmonic in 1946; his Variations, Chaconne, and Finale (aka Three Symphonic Dances) earned the New York Critics’ Circle Award, and he received two Guggenheim Fellowships, among other recognitions. The choreographer Martha Graham took an interest in his music beginning in the middle of the decade and created dances from several of his works, including The Triumph of St. Joan Symphony.

In the second half of the 1940s, Dello Joio taught at Sarah Lawrence College, where the original operatic version of The Triumph of St. Joan was first staged. He later taught at Manhattan’s Mannes College of Music and Boston University, where he was also dean of the university’s School of Fine and Applied Arts in the 1970s. He also developed a far-reaching music education program in collaboration with the Ford Foundation.

Although Dello Joio wasn’t overtly religious, religious themes and music are a frequent component of his work, primarily for their sound and affect but also for their significance in music history. His large catalog encompassed all contemporary genres, including music for the stage, film, and television, concert pieces for orchestra, and chamber, solo, and vocal music. Dello Joio won a Pulitzer Prize in 1957 for his Meditations on Ecclesiastes for string orchestra, and an Emmy Award for his score for the television documentary The Louvre in 1965. He remains one of the most-performed American composers due to his range, directness of style, sincerity of expression, and high level of musical craft.

Joan of Arc has fascinated artists for centuries, from Shakespeare to Verdi to Otto Preminger to Patti Smith. She is the West’s purest symbol of martyrdom, transcending the realm of Christianity, and her origin, youth, and the wondrous details of her life and career remain astonishing. She was born a peasant in 1412 and was burned ostensibly for heresy in 1431. As a teenager her angelic visions and internal voices led her to declare herself to the Dauphin Charles VII as champion of his struggle for control of France against the Duke of Burgundy and his (temporary) allies, the English, in the twilight of the Hundred Years War. (The English King Henry VI, born in 1421, succeeded his father Henry V at nine months of age; he would have been nine years old at the time of Joan’s trial. Shakespeare’s play Henry VI, Part I, apparently makes him an adult. Shakespeare [and/or his collaborators] has Joan as instrumental in raising the siege at Rouen, but historically it was Orléans she helped to liberate. Further, there is a scene where she actually does call forth evil spirits, who finally refuse to help her.) Many of the English army truly believed she was possessed by demons. She was captured by the Burgundian faction in May 1430, and after several escape attempts—including a seventy-foot leap from a window, which she survived—the English paid for her to be transferred to their custody for trial at Rouen. A generation later, she was retried posthumously and her conviction reversed. She was formally canonized as a Catholic saint in May 1920 (an event that may not have escaped the attention of the young Norman Dello Joio).

As mentioned above, the trigger for Dello Joio’s fervor to write an opera about St. Joan was the 1948 Ingrid Bergman movie Joan of Arc, based on Maxwell Anderson’s play. The composer enlisted Joseph Machlis, a fellow musician and writer, to create the libretto. (Machlis is better known to music students today as the author of excellent books on music history and appreciation.) His colleagues at Sarah Lawrence College enthusiastically embraced a proposal to stage the premiere there. The production was mounted using amateur performers in a cast and crew numbering more than eighty. So crowded was the hall that the decision was made to reduce the instrumentation to just two pianos. That and the rough, unstudied performance may have been factors in Dello Joio’s decision to withdraw the work. By the following year he had created a three-movement symphonic paraphrase, The Triumph of St. Joan Symphony, which was premiered by the Louisville Orchestra in 1951 with choreography by Martha Graham. She created a second danced version in 1955 with the title Seraphic Dialogue.

The three movements of the symphony limn the main archetypes represented by Joan. In the first, “The Maid,” a stentorian introduction, foreshadowing the young woman’s destiny, gives way to a flute and oboe duet in modal contours suggesting her 15th-century milieu. Its relative simplicity illustrates Joan’s youth and innocence. These qualities disappear under an accumulation of orchestral and harmonic detail, perhaps representing the intensity of her religious and national passion. The second movement, “The Warrior,” is in three main sections of expectedly bellicose character. The opening passage, juxtaposing triplet and duple figures, seems to suggest a gathering of forces; the second section may describe a swift charge into battle, and the third the joy of victory. The final movement, “The Saint,” begins with music recalling Gregorian chant and grows through insistent concentration on a single melodic idea.

Dello Joio’s opera The Trial at Rouen, setting the composer’s own libretto, originated as a television opera for NBC (those were the days) and aired in April 1956. The NBC Television Opera Theatre program ran from 1950 through 1964. In addition to performances of such traditional works as Tales of Hoffmann and Tosca, the program commissioned and produced a number of new works, including The Trial at Rouen, Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors, and Lukas Foss’s Griffelkin. Following its TV premiere, Dello Joio revised the opera for the stage and renamed it (confusingly) The Triumph of St. Joan. It was given its stage premiere by New York City Opera in 1959. Designed to be succinct, the two-act work runs only about an hour and a quarter in performance (about the length of one act of The Magic Flute). Dello Joio made it clear that The Trial at Rouen was not a revision or rewrite of the original Triumph of St. Joan, but a brand-new work. In a New York Times article at the time of the broadcast, he wrote, “The Trial at Rouen is not a version of my first opera, but is a completely new statement, both musically and dramatically; though the temptation to use the old material was great…. Needless to say, for a contemporary American to have his work done so shortly after completion is gratifying. Yet when one thinks in terms of an audience of millions, it is also frightening.” In the live broadcast performance, soprano Elaine Malbin sang the role of Joan; baritone Hugh Thompson was Cauchon, and bass Chester Watson was Father Julien. Although there is room for arias, The Trial at Rouen is not a “number opera,” (recitatives, arias, ensembles, choruses) but is essentially through-composed and
fluid, one episode moving seamlessly to the next within a scene, as in Verdi’s Falstaff. Dello Joio’s prosody—the matching of sung rhythms to the words—is organic and natural-sounding for each voice. The orchestra is a full and nearly constant presence, frequently doubling voices and generally adding a rich, plush atmosphere for the voices. There is distinct characterization within the vocal lines for the principal characters; Father Julien, in particular, is given a restrained, major key-based melodic contour for all of his music. The orchestration, for both practical and expressive purposes, follows suit.

The opera opens with a Prelude, omitted in the television version, in which an English soldier outdoors, singing of his sweetheart at home, encounters the friendly Father Julien and briefly discusses Joan’s case. The main action begins in the dismal Rouen fortress. A chorus of men, the Inquisitors, chant offstage. Pierre Cauchon, the severe, prejudiced, English-leaning Bishop of Beauvais, speaks to the kindly Father Julien, who serves as Joan’s confessor. Here is introduced one of the central symbols of the drama, a woman’s dress, potentially representing Joan’s
capitulation to the inquisitor’s demands to recant her claim of hearing voices from Heaven. Historically, although Joan was tried for heresy, the technical charge of her conviction was for dressing as a man, an indicator of the emptiness of the English claim. Though both hope for Joan’s confession, opposition between Cauchon’s and Julien’s approaches sets up a fundamental dichotomy reflected in the music. The second part of Act I is a long scene between Julien and Joan in her prison cell. It begins as Julien interrupts the corrupt jailer’s harassment of his prisoner. Joan, outraged, reveals herself as somewhat self-righteous and proud. Julien asks that she put on the dress as a sign of her acquiescence to the inquisitors and suggests that she temper her indignation, to which she replies “I confess, my maker has not fashioned me lukewarm.” Julien eventually convinces her that her sin is pride, and her willingness to ask forgiveness leads to some of the most beautiful, lyrical music in the score as Julian and Joan express their mutual sympathy. This peace is shattered by the return of the vulgar Jailer, coming to lead Joan to trial. Left alone briefly at Julien’s request, she addresses the women’s clothing that had been left with her. Although she renews her convictions and does not don the dress, she admits a fear of the flames and wonders what her future holds.

Act II is the trial itself. A slow, weighty orchestral introduction (omitted in the television version) gives way to an “Allegro feroce” in which the People, assembled to witness the trial, anticipate the verdict and its consequences. Bells introduce the jury of inquisitors and Pierre Cauchon, who addresses first God, then the jury, telling them “She is a greater menace than she knows!” with the support of much orchestral brass. The scene continues with the three vocal sources in layers: the massed mixed chorus of the People; the small ensemble of the inquisitors’ panel, and the solo voices, primarily Cauchon, Jane, and Julien. After Cauchon’s statement, Joan is brought in, shackled, sparking a reaction in the crowd. Cauchon demands that Joan swear to the truth on a Bible; on principle, she refuses. As the interrogation continues, Cauchon grows increasingly hostile, to the point where one of the jury tries to calm him down, a temporary repose in what is a strongly forward-moving, intensely dramatic scene. The People react positively to Joan’s statements, but call on her to submit in order to save her own life. The inquisitors, in contrast, repeat that she is a heretic.

Joan’s mystical eloquence is stated in short aria-like sections emerging out of the inexorable and violent musical intensification the trial. A longer passage—“O God, why have you abandoned me?”—leads back to her fear of death—she confesses, declaring herself willing to submit to the court. Annotated by the composer “Joan finding her way to her greatness,” the succeeding passage features her heavenly voices, heard offstage, encouraging her to re-embrace the truth. She boldly recants her confession, telling Cauchon, “Light the fire.”

An orchestral passage accompanies Joan as she is led to the stake. The soldier that binds her also hands her a crude crucifix of twigs. The People sing “May you find peace, Maid of Lorraine.” Joan speaks of that peace in a long, contemplative aria (also omitted from the television version); the orchestra depicts both the heavy significance of the event and the lapping flames themselves. From among the crowd, a woman screams, “We’re burning a saint!” The orchestra has the last word, depicting first the horror of the event, then the peace Joan seems finally to have found.

© Robert Kirzinger