KARL JENKINS: The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace – Soloists/National
Youth Choir of Great Britain/London Philharmonic Orchestra/Jenkins –
Virgin Records 7243 8 11015.2, 67:13 *****: [Also see review of
KARL JENKINS: Requiem; In These Stones Horizons Sing – Bryn Terfel,
bass-baritone/Serendipity Choir/Choir Caerdydd & Cytgan/ Orchestra
of the Welsh National Opera/ West Kazakhstan Philharmonic
Orchestra/Jenkins – EMI Classics 7243 5 57966 2, 71 min. ****:
Welsh composer/performer Jenkins began as a jazz soloist after studies
at the Royal Academy of Music in London. Later he won awards for his
advertising music, including the catchy theme for De Beers diamonds. He
has now topped the classical charts around the world for his Adieamus
choral projects and various classical works such as these. The UK’s
Classic FM service presented him with an award for “outstanding service
to classical music,” and this year he was awarded an OBE by the Queen.
Jenkins has found a way to reach the widest possible audience with
classical music without pandering to them in any way or falling into
“light music” styles. The level of communication of much of his music
is staggering, and in The Armed Man he has fashioned a work which uses
the ancient mass structure to communicate a a powerful message of world
peace. He has combined Eastern and Western texts for some of the
movements lyrics, and draws on several different world cultures
musically as well.
The Mass was commissioned by the UK Royal Amouries with the intention
of using it in educational work. The hope was that through its
performances young people would be encouraged to give some thought to
the vital issues of war and peace. Since its premiere performance at
Royal Albert Hall in 2000, the mass has become the most popular choral
work for performance in oratorio-conscious Great Britain, and is one of
the most frequently requested recordings on Classic FM.
Many masses in the 15th and 16th centuries were based on popular songs
of the period. One of the most famous was L’Homme Armé – The Armed Man
– from the court of Charles the Bold of Burgundy around 1455. 30 masses
were written on this tune. Jenkins felt the song’s message: “the armed
man must be feared,” was painfully appropriate to our modern times. He
felt the form of the Mass was also appropriate since our time-system
derives from Christianity. But the work’s theme is multicultural and
worldwide – affecting all humans. Prose and poetry from around the
earth is interspersed between the movements.
The initial part of the Mass has a strong military cast, with the beat
of drums as the choir sings the theme tune. The menacing Sanctus has a
primitive character leading to the inevitable beginning of war. Trumpet
calls and drums bring on war and its uncontrolled destruction. There is
a poem about the Hiroshima atom bomb attack written by a poet who was
there and later died of leukemia. A passage from the Indian epic The
Mahabharata illustrates that such mass destruction is not necessarily
just a 20th century thing. The next section mourns the dead,
remembering that one death is one too many. A reading concerns the loss
and sense of guilt many survivors of the First World War felt when they
returned home but their friends did not. The Benedictus tries to heal
the wounds with faith in God and mankind, and leads to the upbeat
conclusion, but with the dire threat of the returning Armed Man theme
taking us back to the 15th century.
The four soloists are all superb, and notice must be given to the Muezzin who makes the call to prayer early in the Mass.
Jenkins’ Requiem, although a mass for the dead, actually has a more
upbeat feeling about it than The Armed Man mass. Again the composer
combines Western and Eastern texts and employs give Japanese haikus on
the subject of death. The ancient shakuhachi flute and various ethnic
drums are an important part of the score. Soprano Nicole Tibbels shines
in many of the female vocals; there is also a boy soprano and a basso.
The Latin, Japanese and English words of the 13 sections are printed in
the note booklet.
The second shorter choral work, in These Stones Horizon Sing, was
commissioned for a Royal Gala Concert at the new home of the Welsh
National Opera, and features words of three eminent Welsh poets in a
mixture of English and Welsh. Even the incomprehensible words of three
of the five movements don’t detract from the striking and often
mesmerizing melodies and harmonies spun out by Jenkins in this
optimistic and positive-sounding choral/orchestral work. In addition to
Terfel, harpist Catrin Finch and Nigel Hitchcock on soprano sax are
heard in solo capacities in the moving work.
– John Sunier