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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 Karl 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. 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.
The armed man: 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.
Call to prayers (Adhaan): A traditional Muslim Adhaan is sung in Arabic by a muezzin from the minaret of a mosque.
Kyrie: The Kyrie eleison is usually the opening part of a mass. After a solemn orchestral introduction, the soprano soloist leads with the main theme and the choir take this up in turn. The Christe eleison that follows is in a quite different style—a piece of Renaissance counter-point marked ‘after Palestrina’. The choir then return to the Kyrie eleison.
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 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 fearful beat of a drum that dispels any feeling that all will be well.
Sanctus: 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.
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.
Charge!: 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’ in his poem Dulce et decorum est.
The words are sung as three verses 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.
Angry flames: This is a setting of words by the Japanese poet Toge Sankichi, who survived the dropping of the atomic bomb on his home city of Hiroshima on 6 August 1945. He became a leading figure in the peace movement but died in 1953, at the age of 36, at the National Hiroshima Sanatorium, from tuberculosis caused by the after-effects of the bombing. This powerful movement begins with the tolling of a bell, strings hold steady notes throughout and trumpets weave a mournful pattern, while the soloist and choir describe the effects of the atomic bomb on the innocent people caught in the horrifying scenes that followed.
Torches: The description of the effects of the bomb continues in this setting of a small part of the Hindu epic poem Mahàbhàrata, in which the fate of animals caught in the conflagration is described.
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.’
Now the guns have stopped: A lonely survivor mourns the death of a friend in the battle. The poignant words, which speak for the helplessness and sadness of all through the eyes of one individual, were written by Guy Wilson.
Benedictus: 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 and after an explosive Hosanna the mood of serenity returns.
Better is peace: The final movement opens with a return to the tune from the opening of the work. However, this time the words are those from Thomas Malory’s 15th century attribution to Lancelot and Guinevere 'better is peace than evermore war'. Tennyson’s In Memoriam then provides words of hope for a thousand wars of old to be followed by a thousand years of peace.
Finally, after the earlier descriptions of pain and suffering, the work concludes with a moving hymn of desire for a better future for the world, taking words from the Christian Book of Revelation, Chapter 21 verse 4: 'there shall be no more death, neither sorrow nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain'. The brass and percussion are suddenly silent and the beautiful melody is sung unaccompanied, gradually fading away in a heartfelt prayer of supplication.
Stuart Brown © 2024