Albany Pro Musica, Jenkins “The Armed Man”: Better is Peace than always war

Armed-Man-20177:30 pm • Saturday, May 6th 2017
EMPAC at RPI • Troy, NY

May is National Chamber Music Month, and in an unusual turn of events for the region this May opens with quite a bit of chamber music happening along our Hudson shores. For those who know of my proclivity for chamber music, it may be a bit of a surprise (or not) that the most compelling concert of the weekend ahead is Albany Pro Musica’s presentation of Sir Karl JenkinsThe Armed Man: A Mass for Peace.

While I love to plug chamber music throughout the month of May, The Armed Man (1999) remains—unfortunately—relevant globally and timely with regard to our national scene. Albany Pro Musica, no doubt with its musical “chops” brought to the forefront with all its forces, has chosen to incorporate the visual element of film to highlight the cautionary wallop inherent in Sir Kenkins’ intriguing and dramatic composition. Thus, this performance goes into the “must experience” category.

For those not familiar with the Welsh composer Sir Karl Jenkins’ work, it was a UK Millennium commission by the Royal Armouries to mark the transition from one millennium to another and dedicated to the victims of the Kosovo conflict. While subtitled “A Mass for Peace,” Jenkins—similar to Benjamin Britten’ juxtaposition of Wilfred Owen’s poetry with the traditional text and framework of the Roman Catholic Mass for the Dead in his War Requiem—intersperses iconic Latin sacred texts from the traditional Mass, but proceeds further by incorporating other “influences, text, instrumentation, and inspiration from other cultures”* that are secular, non Christian and non European. Examples include the wonderfully placed and pace changing Muslim Adhaan (Call to Prayers), the elegiac poetry of Guy Wilson, former Master of the UK Armouries entitled “ Now the guns have stopped” evoking the feelings of loss and guilt that so many of the survivors of the World War I felt when they came home, but their friends did not; and the excerpt from “Angry Flames,” a poem about the horrors of the atom bomb attack on Hiroshima written by a poet who was there at the time and died in 1953 of leukemia brought on by exposure to radiation.*

At the root of this work, however, is the French secular Renaissance song of one verse, L’homme armé (The Armed Man):


The melody is set in the Dorian mode and a bit of an ear-worm. While its origin or who composed it is not really known for sure, it emerged in the middle of the 15th century and became very popular. So much so that it was incorporated by many composers into their Masses as the cantus firmus, or musical setting. From the period, over 40 separate compositions entitled Missa L’Homme armé have survived. Perhaps the most well-known today are by Josquin des Prez, Guillaume Du Fay, and Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina. There are other more recent settings as well such as Peter Maxwell Davies’ parody mass Missa super l’homme armé (1968/1971) and Mark Alburger’s Deploration Passacaglias (1992).

Karl Jenkins draws upon it immediately in his opening as a familiar tune, but more importantly to hasten us back quite a number of millennia. Following the Benedictus, Jenkins brings us back ‘round several centuries later with an upbeat version of the melody as, perhaps, a cautionary reminder, yet with the words “And better is peace than evermore war” along with an affirmation from the Book of Revelations that change is possible. May we have the faith, strength, and wisdom to make it so.

As previously mentioned Albany Pro Musica is presenting Sir Karl Jenkins’ The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace with a backdrop of footage of the frightful consequences of war and terrorism in a film that was directed specifically for use with the choral work by eminent film maker Hefin Owen. In addition Albany Pro Musica’s Masterworks Chorus is joined by the Capital District Youth Chorale and Orchestra Pro Musica. Featured soloists are Capital Region favorite mezzo-soprano Lucille Beer and and Muezzin Yassine Benaissa.

Do take a listen to Albany Pro Musica’s Artistic Director and Conductor José Daniel Flores-Caraballo talk about the work, its worldwide popularity, and APM’s performance in interviews with WAMC’s Brian Shields (click here to listen to that) and WMHT’s Rob Brown (below).

This is a performance I do hope you can attend. Note it is taking at EMPAC on the RPI campus (not Troy Savings Bank Music Hall). It should be a most terrific journey in the many meanings of the word. The music is poignant, often reflecting Jenkins advertising and film work, accessible and memorable. The choices of text are well selected and well placed. Regardless of what performance(s) you are able to attend this weekend, I wish you happy musicking.

And … while the armed man should be feared, may peace be with you.

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