Karl Jenkins' The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace
Landing at No. 1 of a 2008 top-10 list of works by living composers in the U.K. was The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace by Karl Jenkins. I was fortunate to be in the audience last fall as the Main Line’s Wayne Oratorio Society performed it in concert. I was transfixed.
Commissioned for the new millennium and premiered in 2000, The Armed Man uses the medieval French song “L’Homme Armé” (The Armed Man), the basis of innumerable 15th- and 16th-century Mass settings.
It is an immediately accessible work full of memorable, neo-Romantic melodies, but there’s more to it than that.
The Welsh Jenkins sets texts from a variety of cultures and times to express the universality of the message that war is destructive and that peace is desirable. Psalms, the Revelation, the Muslim “Call to Prayers,” a poem by a Japanese witness to the Hiroshima bombing, the Indian epic “The Mahabharata,” and English poetry all play a part. The texts form a cohesive narrative—of prayer, preparation for war, battle, death, destruction, and mourning—that evolves into a declaration of peace and an affirmation that sorrow, pain, and death will be overcome. A few sections of the traditional Catholic Mass are skillfully interwoven into the sensitive musical setting.
The success of The Armed Man lies in Jenkins’s ability to underscore the vivid and often poignant texts through effective use of uncluttered vocal lines and clear harmony. Jenkins came of age in the 1970s progressive rock band Soft Machine, and he’s not shy to employ strong rhythms and soaring melodies.
The composer conducts the London Philharmonic and the National Youth Choir of Great Britain in this convincing world premiere recording. Every word is clearly sung, the orchestral playing is tight, and the vocal and instrumental soloists are spot-on. The use of recorded effects such as a tolling church bell and falling rain adds another dimension, increasing the impact by pulling the listener into the scene.
The Armed Man is a spellbinding, moving, and immediately rewarding work with a message that’s relevant. Audiences seem to agree, as the work has been performed more than 400 times already.