Saturday 1 December 2012

The Armed Man - A Mass For Peace

Karl Jenkins is a contemporary Welsh composer, arguably the most popular living composer specializing in large-scale choral works.  "The Armed Man: A Mass For Peace" is his most popular work, and has been performed over 1,000 times.


The Catholic Mass is a traditional vehicle for choral composers.  At one time, the Church, and Church-based events, were the primary source of commissions for choral works, both large-scale and small.  Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn, even Berlioz and Verdi all composed high masses of great renown.  Today, the Mass - in fact the whole body of high-church liturgy - is still a go-to setting for the serious choral composer, simply because, like the symphony, it is a standard musical form where the composer can exercise his chops without alienating the potential audience with an unfamiliar framework.

Karl Jenkins writes in the so-called "crossover" style, where the flowing melody lines and friendly harmonic structures of popular music replace the dissonance, atonality, and temporal chaos of many schools of 20th Century composition.  Crossover composers are often dismissed contemptuously within the academic circles of musical intellectuals, but audiences can seldom be found for works where it is hard to tell when the tuning-up has finished and the performance commenced, whereas composers like Jenkins, John Rutter, and John Williams routinely fill the concert halls.  Those of you old enough may remember the Jazz-Rock fusion group "Nucleus" of the early 1970's.  Jenkins was in the band, playing keyboards and saxophone.  He also played for many years with the prog-rock band "Soft Machine".

"The Armed Man: A Mass For Peace" is a terrifically accessible work, yet for all its clean lines, traditional structure and tonal beauty it still brings something new for the skeptical listener.  Here we have - what? - a traditional Islamic "call to prayers" to kick off a Catholic Mass!  We also hear texts from Indian Hindu and Japanese Shinto sources, as well as verses by Kipling, Tennyson, and even the Master of the Royal Armories of Great Britain (actually, the Royal Armories commissioned the work).  It all comes together with great cohesion.  The concluding track "Better is Peace (than all that war)" is one that you will find yourself whistling for a long time.

Jenkins dedicated the work to the victims of the genocide in Kosovo.  Although it was written in 2000, it will of course be listened to in the context of the post 9/11 world and its need to find functioning social philosophies in the face of apparently irreconcilable forces of religious - and, yes, political - fundamentalism.  "The Armed Man: A Mass For Peace" can only give us hope.