The Armed Man (A Mass for Peace) - Karl Jenkins (b 1944)
Karl Jenkins was born and grew up on the Gower Peninsula, the son of a local organist and choirmaster. He studied music at Cardiff University and then at the Royal Academy of Music. Originally an oboist, he took to the saxophone and established himself early on as a jazz musician. He then introduced the oboe as a jazz instrument.
As a composer he manages to combine very different styles of music from classical to pop and to draw on different cultures from around the globe. His Adiemus: Songs of Sanctuary (1994) topped the classical album charts. His Requiem, which we sang in 2006, is enjoyed by choristers and audiences alike.
The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace was commissioned by the Royal Armouries to mark the transition from one millennium to another. It reflects on the passing of ‘the most war-torn and destructive century in human history’ and looks forward in hope to a more peaceful future. The Armed Man is dedicated to the victims of the Kosovo conflict, whose tragedy was unfolding as it was being composed. It was first performed in 2000 by the London Philharmonic Orchestra and the National Youth Choir of Great Britain, conducted by Jenkins himself.
The texts were chosen jointly by the composer and the then Master of the Royal Armouries, Guy Wilson. A framework for the work is provided by the traditional Catholic Mass and includes settings of the Kyrie, Sanctus, Agnus Dei and Benedictus, some of which have become popular self-standing pieces to be heard, for instance, on ClassicFM. But what makes the work distinctive are the lyrics drawn from many parts of the world and from diverse religions and cultures. The music too is cosmopolitan in its inspiration.
1 The Armed Man (L’Homme Armé)
The ‘mass for peace’ is introduced by a marching drumbeat and the tune of a French folk song (based on a 15th-century original) played on the flute. The choir sing the folk song, which celebrates the man of arms: the armed man is to be feared, let every man arm himself with a coat of steel.
2 Call to Prayers
A traditional Muslim Adhann is sung in Arabic by a muezzin from the minaret of a mosque. The call to prayers is preceded by the declarations: ‘Allah is the greatest; I bear witness that there is no other god but Allah; I bear witness that Muhammed is the messenger of Allah.’
The Kyrie eleison (Greek for ‘Lord have mercy on us’) is usually the opening part of a mass. After a solemn orchestral introduction, the soprano soloist leads with the main theme in a lilting waltz time and the choir take this up in turn. The Christe eleison that follows is musically an episode in a quite different style – a piece of Renaissance counter-point marked, for the learned, ‘after Palestrina’. The choir then return to the Kyrie eleison, which we hear again with some musical variation.
4 Save Me from Bloody Men
The words here are taken from Psalms 56 and 59. It is sung by the tenors and basses of the choir ‘a cappella (unaccompanied) in the style of a Gregorian Chant’. The Psalmist calls on God to be merciful and deliver him from his enemies. The final phrase, however, is interrupted by the sudden fateful beat of a drum that dispels any feeling that all will be well.
The sense of foreboding is continued into this setting of what is traditionally one of the joyful sections of the Latin Mass. Percussion and brass combine to give a sense of military build-up, quite subverting the choir’s hopeful chanting of the traditional words. In English:
Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Hosts (Armies),
Heaven and earth are full of your glory;
Hosanna in the highest!
6 Hymn Before Action
By now the people are bracing themselves for war and, in the words of Rudyard Kipling, the soldiers prepare for the ultimate sacrifice:
The earth is full of anger,
The seas are dark with wrath,
The Nations in their harness
Go up against our path:
Ere yet we loose the legions
Ere yet we draw the blade,
Jehova of the Thunders,
Lord God of Battles aid!
High lust and froward bearing,
Proud heart rebellious brow,
Deaf ear and soul uncaring,
We seek Thy mercy now!
The sinner that forswore Thee,
The fool that passed Thee by,
Our times are known before Thee,
Lord grant us strength to die!
Trumpets and drums stir up martial feelings. Most of the text is a stanza from John Dryden’s Ode for St Cecilia’s Day but this is interrupted in the middle by the words ‘How blest is he who for his country dies’. These words are a loose translation of the much-quoted patriotic sentiment of the Roman poet Horace: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. During the First World War these words became a sort of motto, referred to by the anti-war poet Wilfred Owen as ‘the old lie’.
The trumpets’ loud Clangour
Excites us to Arms.
With shrill notes of anger
And mortal alarms.
The double, double beat of the thundering drum
Cries Hark! The foes come.
Charge, ’tis too late, too late to retreat
These words are sung as three verses (the second being repeated) by the whole choir, interspersed by ‘the old lie’, sung by the sopranos and altos, who seem to be inciting the men to fight. Screams are heard at the end as battle is engaged. After a period of silence the Last Post is sounded.
8 Angry Flames
This is a setting of words by the Japanese poet Toge Sankichi, reflecting on the effects of the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima on 6th August 1945. Introduced by the tolling of bells and marked Lacrimoso, this movement, led by soloists, is mournful in mood.
Pushing up through smoke
From a world half darkened by overhanging cloud.
The shroud that mushroomed out
And struck the dome of the sky,
Black, red, blue,
Dance in the air,
Merge, scatter glittering sparks already tower
Over the whole city.
Quivering like seaweed
The mass of flames spurts forward.
Popping up in the dense smoke,
Crawling out wreathed in fire,
Countless human beings on all fours
In a heap of embers that erupt and subside,
Hair rent, rigid in death,
There smoulders a curse.
This is a setting of part of the Hindu epic the Mahabharata in which the fate of animals caught in the conflagration is described:
The animals scattered in all directions,
Screaming terrible screams.
Many were burning, others were burnt.
All were shattered and scattered mindlessly,
Their eyes bulging.
Some hugged their sons,
Others their fathers and mothers,
Unable to let them go,
And so they died.
Others leapt up in their thousands,
And were consumed by the fire,
Everywhere bodies squirming on the ground,
Wings, eyes and paws all burning.
They breathed their last as living torches.
10 Agnus Dei
After the traumas of war this movement brings the hope of peace. It is a beautiful setting of part of the Latin Mass: ‘Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world ...’.
11 Now the Guns have Stopped
A lonely survivor mourns the death of a friend in the battle. The words were written by Guy Wilson.
Silent, silent, now the guns have stopped.
I have survived all, I who knew I would not.
But now you are not here.
I shall go home, alone;
And must try to live life as before
And hide my grief.
For you, my dearest friend,
Who should be with me now,
Not cold, too soon,
And in your grave, Alone.
This movement is introduced by a serenely beautiful cello solo. The tune is taken up by the choir to words from the Latin Mass: ‘Blessed is he that comes in the name of the Lord’. Peace leads to rejoicing but after an explosive Hosanna the mood of serenity returns.
13 Better is Peace
The substantial final movement begins by returning to the music from the beginning adjusted for words expressing a totally different sentiment, taken from Thomas Malory: ‘Better is peace than always war’. The choir then return to the words l’Homme Armé presented as a short fugue before offering ‘Better is peace’ in a slightly different form. This leads by an orchestral interlude to the Millennial music set to the words of Tennyson’s new year poem:
Ring out the thousand wars of old.
Ring in the thousand years of peace.
Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring happy bells across the snow.
The year is going, let him go,
Ring out the false, ring in the true.
Ring out old shapes of foul disease.
Ring out the narrowing lust of gold.
|Had the piece ended on this note of triumph it would have been hard to go on performing it after ten years in which the blight of warfare has continued as before. The ‘mass for peace’ ends, however, on a higher plane with a hymn using words from the Book of Revelation. The brass and percussion are suddenly silent and the hymn is sung unaccompanied. ‘God shall wipe away all tears, and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow nor crying, and there shall be no more pain.’|
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