Reliving our Own Time with Voices of Light

An Interview with Composer Richard Einhorn

In Richard Einhorn’s music, the rhythms and harmonies flit from Bach to Stravinsky, all the while pulsing with a modern sensibility. For the December Selection of the Month on GRAND PIANO PASSION™, I have chosen his oratorio of the story of Joan of Arc, called Voices of Light (Sony Classical, 1995). I wanted to share this music’s ethereal beauty, disturbing cynicism, and startling violence, but perhaps most of all, its joyful musical ambiguity. My interview with Richard includes MP3 clips from Voices of Light.

The oratorio opens with Joan of Arc—and she calls herself la Pucelle, the Maid—announcing she has chased the English from the banks of Loire in just one week. You had four women sing the part of Joan, is that right?

It’s kind of an inside joke. We know an awful lot about Joan of Arc, but we have no idea of how she looked. So I also realized we had no idea how she sounded. Did she have a soprano or an alto voice? Rather than being “rangist” and say oh, she’s a soprano, or oh, she’s an alto, I decided to make her both.

Hah! Being “rangist,” that’s great. In the Exclamavit, while Joan promises she will take possession of all the cities that belong to her realm, I marveled at how the four women singing the part of Joan were so integrated that they sounded like one. Let’s listen to the first bit; it was beautifully smooth.

This is the group Anonymous 4, and they’re one of the best singing groups in the world today. They sing like that with all their music. I had their sound in mind when I was composing this piece. When they did get a chance to sing it, they nailed it. They sing it absolutely perfectly.

Their voices are gorgeous. Let’s jump a few sections forward in your oratorio, to when the French imprison Joan of Arc despite her victory at Orleans. The jailers taunt her—“Who loves and trusts mad womankind; Damns soul and body, wastes his time”—they are incredibly misogynistic, all to the background of plucked strings:

That’s actually an entire string orchestra, violins, violas, celli, and bass, and they’ve all put down their bows and they’re plucking their instruments, using a technique called pizzicato. The sound that I was looking for was comical and menacing at the same time. The rhythms are complicated, there are a lot of cross-rhythms going on in there. Meanwhile, the two jailers are a tenor and baritone, singing at the same time, saying these evil, misogynistic things. So, they are kind of the anti-Joan.

How about when the jailers return, and they chant, “On the outside she’s religious; on the inside keen and venomous”? That was a particularly choice line!

The jailers are very nasty people.

So after Joan is shown the instruments of torture, you have a beautiful section called Sacrament, in which she takes communion. The opening is very pure and reverent:

Could you tell us, particularly since this music is so simple, what makes it so beautiful?

I don’t know. Believe me, I don’t. There are only two chords in this entire first section, C major and an A minor, and the melody is only two notes, C and E basically. So the whole thing is very hushed and compressed into almost no material at all. Yet there’s something about the rocking back and forth and the change to major, which is very rare in Voices of Light. There’s this very compressed intensity with the music, it just kind of turns in this very small melodic area, in combination with the words. This is one of the spots that the words are very beautiful and evocative: “Oh feminine form . . . how glorious you are.” I remember feeling great fondness for this section while I wrote it.

The music floats.

It’s a bit like pointing to your favorite child, of course.

Is there another favorite child you’d like to point out?

Yes, there’s a movement called Relapse, which begins with a solo violin.

The Relapse is when Joan of Arc wavers in her faith, and renounces her voices, which she later regrets?

Yes, the movement begins with a solo violin that is almost like a country fiddle. But the context is very different. It suddenly becomes a virtuoso violin solo, and then it becomes a violin concerto, and then it becomes almost an aria from a Puccini opera.

I remember when I listened to it the first time being aware of the shifts but not quite understanding how they occurred:

Here I’m constantly shifting styles and situations. I’m starting off with the most simple peasant music, in the sense that Joan of Arc was a peasant, and then suddenly shifting to very high-art music of a violin concerto and then shifting again to stage music, to dramatic music, to opera. That was my intention in this particular section. The juxtaposition of different styles can be very powerful if you can find the musical elements that they share. You’re not even aware that you’re shifting styles until you dip into the next one.

When I listened to the end of the violin solo, how I felt my body soaring with the operatic moment. It was really nice.

Thank you.

Let’s jump to the final section, The Fire of the Dove, which felt especially modern to me. There’s a real urgency in the music:

Joan of Arc has just been burned at the stake, she has died, and there’s a riot in protest of her burning. At the same time, her spirit is ascending up to heaven. This music expresses both of those at the same time. I wanted it to be brutal and intense and terrifying and also rather beautiful and transcendent all at the same time.

I think you definitely accomplished that. I had a rhythmic experience of a dance club but it was an entirely different setting, of this moment after Joan is burned at the stake.

You’re absolutely right because this music has a back-beat to it. There’s a definite accent on the second beat and the fourth beat of every measure and that’s what’s modern about it. Older concert music—Classical music, Romantic music—has its main accents on the first beat of the measure, and this is a lot like pop music or jazz or rock ‘n’ roll. One of the things that I like to do is to take those elements that are definitely of our time and put them in the context where you don’t expect them. In a sense, we have to relive our own time. We can never escape it.

Richard Einhorn is an American composer of opera, orchestral and chamber music, song cycles, film music, and dance scores. In addition to the oratorio Voices of Light, he has composed The Origin, an opera/oratorio based on the work and life of Charles Darwin. MP3 tracks by permission from Voices of Light, © 1995 by Richard Einhorn. All rights reserved.

Copyright © 2018 Nancy M. Williams. All Rights Reserved.

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