Herstory III for mezzo or soprano & piano

Herstory III: Jehanne de Lorraine
for mezzo or soprano & piano (1986)
American Composers Alliance
 & Owl CD, 25 minutes

“The most powerful work I know by a woman on a feminist theme” (Washington Post)
“This extraordinary work would be a wonderful second half for any vocal recital.” (The NATS Journal)
“Vercoe produces powerful and disturbing imagery in Herstory III.” (Boston Globe)
“Herstory III is imaginative and descriptive…a tour-de-force for Mabry.” (Fanfare)

Herstory III is a staged monodrama on the life of Joan of Arc. The music was commissioned by Austin Peay State University in Tennessee for premiere by mezzo-soprano Sharon Mabry in 1986. It has also been performed at the Women’s Music Festival in Alaska, sung by soprano Karol Bennett during a Russian-American composer exchange, performed in Vienna and Poland by soprano Kristin Nordeval, broadcast on various radio stations, published by Arsis Press, and recorded on an Owl compact disc.

The piece is not intended as a concert piece but rather as a dramatic performance with lighting and costume. Opening in darkness with the whispered words of Francois Villon, the piece continues with twelve sections ranging from spoken dialogue to an extended dramatic scene based on historical and poetic materials compiled by the composer. There are set pieces, combinations of speech and music, some special effects (gong, finger cymbals, woodblock and use of mallets or fingers directly on the piano strings) and a return to the spare simplicity of the beginning in the concluding prayer.


Et Jehanne la bonne Lorraine                      And Jehanne, the good Lorrainian
Qu’Englois brulerent a Rouan;                     Whom the English burned at Rouen
Ou est-elle, ou, Vierge souvraine?               Where is she, where, sovereign Virgin?
Mais ou sont les neiges d’antan?               But where are the snows of yesteryear?
–François Villon (ca. 1431-1463)

I have labored sore and suffered death,
And now I rest and draw my breath;
But I shall come and call right soon
Heaven and earth and hell to doom;
And then shall know both devil and man
What I was and what I am.
–Anonymous (medieval)

They call me Jenny in Lorraine. In France I am Joan. The soldiers call me The Maid.

When I was thirteen I saw a most strange thing, for I saw a white shadow come slowly gliding along the grass, and the whiteness of the shadow was not like any other whiteness that we know, except it be the whiteness of the lightnings. My breath grew faint with the terror and the awe.

And with the shadow came speech, several saints, and they spoke to me. (They are very dear to me–my voices.)

And the voices told me that I, Joan, must go away, and that I must come to France and that my father must know nothing of my leaving, that I should find soldiers and that I should lift the siege on the city of Orléans, and that I should lead the Dauphin to crown him King of France in the city of Reims and that I should drive the English from French soil.

I was a child and I was afraid. But St. Michael told me to come to the aid of the king. And he told me the pity that was in the kingdom of France.
–Mark Twain, Recollections of Joan of Arc(1896)

Look on thy country, look on fertile France,
And see the cities and the towns defac’d
By wasting ruin of the cruel foe!
As looks the mother on her lovely babe
When death doth close his tender dying eyes,
See, see the pining malady of France.
–William Shakespeare, Henry VI, Part I

La France nous appelle,                                France is calling us.
Sachons vaincre ou sachons périr;             Let us vanquish or let us perish;
Un Français doit vivre pour elle,                  A Frenchman must live for her,
Pour elle un Français doit mourir.               For her a Frenchman must die.
–Joseph Chénier (1794)

I am a soldier.
I will never take a husband.
I do not want to be thought of as a woman.
I will not dress as a woman.
I do not care for the things women care for.
They dream of lovers and money.
I dream of leading a charge, and of placing the big guns.
I am not a daredevil: I am a servant of God.
My sword is sacred and I may not strike a blow with it.
My heart is full of courage, not of anger.
–George Bernard Shaw, St. Joan
Used by permission of Samuel French Inc.

Gentle little Dauphin–Come, come from behind:
I know thee well, though never seen before.
I have a message to thee from God.
And thou must listen to it, though thy heart break with the terror of it.

I am sent to drive the English away from Orléans and from France
and to crown thee king in the cathedral of Reims.
One thousand like me can stop the English;
Ten like me can stop them with God on our side.

Ask me what questions thou canst
And I will answer unpremeditated.
My courage try by combat if thou dar’st
And thou shalt find that I exceed my sex.

Now lift up thy head, give me men-at-arms, and let me get about my work.

You wish to have me examined first by theologians at Poitiers?
I, who am come to be the English scourge?

Oh very well. (to audience)
They would know if my voices are God’s or Satan’s.

I willingly tell them anything, not all, that I know. But it is most tiresome. One Brother Séguin asked many nagging questions such as, “Did my voices speak good French?” Mon Dieu! I answered the sour little man speaking in his bastard Limousin tongue, “As to that, I believe I
cannot say. Still it was an improvement on yours.”

Then they asked how St. Michael looked when he appeared to me. I said I saw no crown and remember nothing of his clothes. Pressed to say if he was naked, I retorted, “Do you think God cannot afford to clothe him?”

These wearisome questions! And while the clerics ponder, Orléans starves and the English prevail.
–Shakespeare, Henry VI, Part I
–Twain, Recollections of Joan of Arc

The rats were devouring the house, but instead of examining the cat’s teeth and the cat’s claws, they only concerned themselves to find out if it was a holy cat, a pious cat, a moral cat…
–Twain, Recollections of Joan of Arc

N’appercevez-vous, gent avugle,                         Do you not see God’s hand in this,
Que Dieu a icy la main mise?                               you blind people?
Et qui ne le voit est bien bugle,                            And who does not is right dumb.
Car comment seroit en tel guise                         For how else could The Maid
Ceste Pucelle ca tramise                                      Fell all of you sent against us?
Qui tous mors vous fait jus abatre?                    –Your force does not suffice!
–Ne force n’avez qui souffise!                              Would you fight against God?
Voulez-vous contre Dieu combatre?
–Christine de Pisan, Ditié de Jehanne d’Arc (1429)

Sound, sound the alarm! we will rush on them.
Now for the honour of the forlorn French!
–Shakespeare, Henry VI, Part I

Hee! Quel honneur au femenin Sexe!
–Christine de Pisan, Ditié de Jehanne d’Arc (1429)

Ah, faith, we had many victories. In fourteen-hundred-and-twenty-nine the sun indeed did begin to shine again, first with Orléans free and then with town after town swearing allegiance to our newly crowned King Charles, admittedly shy of battle and still very young (almost as young as I), but growing in wisdom and faith.

And following these triumphs, I had every intention to go further. By my martin I would go and see Paris closer than I have seen it!

But it was not to be. The English were enraged and desperate to put a stop to our renewed hopes. Thus, in Easter week, being upon the moat at Melun, it was told me by the voices of St. Catherine and St. Margaret that I should be taken prisoner before St. John’s Day, that so it was meant to be. And so it was.

Soon after the treacherous Burgundians seized me, I heard they had sold me to the English. When I heard the English were coming for me, I was very wroth and leapt from the tower of my prison at Beaurevoir, commending myself to God. I was only injured in that leap to freedom, but I would rather have died than fall into English hands.

For I knew the English would put me to death. They thought after my death to win all France, But were they a hundred thousand more, they would not prevail.

Thus, I was taken.
And thus, the Inquisition began.

Five long months it lasted. I ask my voices if I shall be burnt and they answer, “Trust in the Lord.”

Near the end, my resolve weakened. (to the court) I cannot read nor write, but if you advise me to sign this confession, I will do so. (aside, bitterly) I would rather sign than be burnt.

With the eye of the heart
I see my wrongs.
I forswear the carrying of arms;
I forswear the dress of a man;
I forswear the shorn hair of a man;
I forswear the pretense of apparitions and revelations.
I have erred from the faith.
I renounce my crimes and errors
And I submit myself to the judgment of the Church.

My voices! My voices rebuke me!
They say I did a great injury in confessing.
All that I said, I revoke, all that I said that Thursday.
I did it only for fear of the fire.

Alas! Do they treat me thus cruelly that this body, clean and whole
and uncorrupted, must be this day consumed and reduced to ashes.

–Based on documents from the trial in Régine Pernoud’s Joan of Arc
Used with the permission of Stein and Day Publishers.

God be in my head,
And in my understanding;

God be in my eyes,
And in my looking;

God be in my mouth,
And in my speaking;

God be in my heart,
And in my thinking;

God be at my end,
And at my departing.
Sarum Primer (1558)