One of Liszt’s most dramatic late songs is his setting of Alexandre Dumas père’s scene Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher
, one of many works inspired by Joan of Arc’s hideous death at the age of nineteen. The peasant girl from eastern France whose victories in battle made possible the coronation of Charles VII did not become an official Catholic saint until 1920, but she was a significant figure in European culture long before then (Friedrich Schiller’s play The Maid of Orléans
is one example). Liszt had hoped to persuade first Dumas, then Gérard de Nerval, to create a Faust libretto for him, but had to settle for this shorter nugget of dramatic verse on a different subject. His music exists in several different versions, three for voice and piano, beginning in 1846 and concluding three decades later. In this final revision the song begins in slow, agonized uncertainty and then progresses to a beautifully transparent prayer whose invocation of God’s spirit (‘Votre Esprit’) impels one of Liszt’s signature arresting harmonic shifts. We hear flickering flames in the piano and rising passages as she ascends to the funeral pyre, this in turn followed by another tender prayer whose intermittent triplet figures in the left hand foreshadow the clarion trumpet calls to hold the banner of France as she goes to her death. Liszt ends this dramatic scene not with bombast but with music that tells of the saint’s ascension into heaven.
from notes by Susan Youens © 2012