L’homme arme (Armed Man!)

With two outings for the extremely popular The Armed Man by Karl Jenkins at Sheffield Cathedral almost upon us, it seems a good idea to expound on a far from new phenomena.

Should you know it or not, The Armed Man is actually over 600 years-old!

It is a secular tune and one-verse French song, L’ homme armé, by whom and written for what purpose being lost in the mists of time. Theories as to its origin/s have abounded.

Having apparently emerged from nowhere in early Renaissance days, i.e. the 1400s, it was hugely popular for over 200 years.

More precisely, the tune was, the song’s words:

The armed man should be feared.
Everywhere it has been proclaimed
That each man shall arm himself
With a coat of iron mail.
The armed man should be feared

always having being of seemingly secondary importance.

Given the content of the text it may come as something of surprise to some that the tune was extraordinarily popular as the basis with composers for settings of the Latin Mass.

It was common practice to use secular tunes and melodies as the basis for Mass settings. The tune or melody formed a fixed point, known as the Cantus Firmus, from which the composer’s polyphonic imagination took flight.

The melody, the cantus firmus of L’homme armé, overflowed with contrapuntal possibilities which lead to ‘Armed Man’ Masses appearing left, right and centre in the 16th century.

Many were penned by Franco-Flemish composers, some producing two settings. Josquin, for instance, who came up with two of the best known ‘Armed Man’ Masses.

But it was not an exclusively Gallic phenomena. A well-known contemporary Italian chap, Palestrina, was also inspired to compose two settings, for instance.

The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace, to give the Karl Jenkins anti-war work its full title, can be said to be a renewal of six-hundred year tradition, but using a resolutely different musical language and wholly different concept in presentation.

In case you hadn’t noticed it before amongst the goings on in the work, Jenkins does quote the L’homme armé song in the first and last movements of the piece.

Both performances at Sheffield Cathedral have been prompted by 2018 being the 100th anniversary of the end the First World War in November.

The first performance is imminent, this Saturday, the 27th of October at 7.15pm and is from the Waldershelf Singers in a rare performance with brass band – Stannington Brass Band, no less and its music director Derek Renshaw.
The concert also features music and verse from the First World War period.

On the 17th of November the Sheffield Bach Choir will be giving voice to the Jenkins work under the direction of its distinguished music director Simon Lindley with the excellent National Festival Orchestra in attendance.

This concert, ‘Lest We Forget’, also takes in Elgar’s three-movement The Spirit of England, written during WW1 and Mark Blatchly’s setting of Laurence Binyon’s WW1 poem For the Fallen which also crops up in the Elgar work.