Karl Jenkins: The Armed Man. Soloists; Hertfordshire Chorus; London Orchestra da Camera / David Temple. © 2024 Signum Records Ltd


Compelling Throughout

GERALD FENECH warmly recommends Karl Jenkins' 'The Armed Man'

'... the performance is one of the most moving I've heard in recent times ...'


One of the most popular British choral works of the last quarter century is undoubtedly Karl Jenkins' The Armed Man, a Mass subtitled 'A Mass for Peace'. The piece was commissioned by the Royal Armouries Museum for the millennium celebrations, to mark the museum's move from London to Leeds, and it was dedicated to the victims of the Kosovo crisis. It is essentially an anti-war piece and is based on the Catholic Mass, which Jenkins (born 1944) combines with other sources, principally the fifteenth century folk song L'homme armé in the first and last movements.

The work was composed during 1999 and premiered in London on 25 April 2000 to huge success. Indeed, The Armed Man is practically in every choir's repertoire, and performances of the work always draw packed audiences. In addition to extracts from the Ordinary of the Mass, the text incorporates words from other religious and historical sources, including the Islamic call to prayer and the Mahabharata. Writers whose words appear in the work include Rudyard Kipling, Lord Tennyson and Santichi Toge, who survived the Hiroshima bombing but died some years later of leukaemia.

The Armed Man charts the growing menace of a descent into war interspersed with moments of reflection while, at the same time, it shows the horrors that war brings. Still, it ends on a strong note of hope for peace in a new millennium.

It begins with a representation of marching feet, overlaid later by the shrill tones of a 'piccolo' impersonating the flutes of a military band with the words of L'homme armé. After the reflective pause of the Call to Prayer and the 'Kyrie', 'Save Me from Bloody Men' appeals for God's help against our enemies in words from Psalm 59.

Listen — Karl Jenkins: Save Me from Bloody Men (The Armed Man)
(SIGCD779 track 4, 0:00-0:34) ℗ 2024 Signum Records Ltd :

The 'Sanctus' has a military, menacing air, followed by Kipling's 'Hymn before Action.' 'Charge' draws on words from John Dryden's 'A Song for St Cecilia's Day' (1687) and Jonathan Swift citing Horace (Odes 3, 2 and 13), beginning with martial trumpets and song but ending in the agonized screams of the dying.

Listen — Karl Jenkins: Charge! (The Armed Man)
(SIGCD779 track 7, 4:46-5:31) ℗ 2024 Signum Records Ltd :

This is followed by the eerie silence of the battlefield after action, broken by a lone trumpet playing the 'Last Post'. 'Angry Flames' describes the horrendous scenes after the bombing of Hiroshima and 'Torches' parallels this with an excerpt from the Mahabharata describing the terror and suffering of animals dying in the burning of the Khandava Forest. 'Agnus Dei' is followed by 'Now the Guns Have Stopped', written by Guy Wilson himself as part of a Royal Armouries display of the guilt felt by some returning survivors of World War I.

Listen — Karl Jenkins: Now the Guns Have Stopped (The Armed Man)
(SIGCD779 track 11, 0:55-1:54) ℗ 2024 Signum Records Ltd :

After the 'Benedictus', 'Better is Peace' ends the Mass on a note of hope, drawing on the hard won understanding of Lancelot and Guinevere that peace is better than war, on Tennyson's poem 'Ring Out, Wild Bells' and on the text from Revelation 21:4: 'God shall wipe away all tears.'

Listen — Karl Jenkins: Better is Peace (The Armed Man)
(SIGCD779 track 13, 5:53-6:40) ℗ 2024 Signum Records Ltd :

The piece was premiered in April 2000 and by 2023 it had received nearly three thousand performances worldwide. Indeed, the three thousandth performance was held at the Royal Albert Hall on 10 March 2024 in celebration of Karl Jenkins' eightieth birthday, under the leadership of Sir Karl himself.

The mass The Armed Man is undoubtedly an impassioned advert for peace, and the music is both soul soothing and thought provoking, although purists, for some unknown reason, do tend to criticize the work as being too emotional and lacking in intellectual substance.

David Temple and his team are up against stiff competition but the performance is one of the most moving I've heard in recent times, and his dramatic emphasis of the score is compelling throughout.

Listen — Karl Jenkins: Benedictus (The Armed Man)
(SIGCD779 track 12, 0:00-0:58) ℗ 2024 Signum Records Ltd :

Although Jenkins composed this mass a quarter of a century ago, its message for these turbulent and dangerous times is all too relevant. A fine album of a masterpiece that is still crying out to be heard. Sound and presentation are top-drawer stuff. Warmly recommended.

Copyright © 7 April 2024 Gerald Fenech,
Gzira, Malta



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