Saturday, March 31, 2012

Thoughts on Karl Jenkins' The Armed Man

In November, I sang a piece of music that I mentioned in an earlier post deserved a write-up of its own. Here is that commentary, which speaks to my conflicted feelings about a memorable and powerful work on a difficult subject.

Karl Jenkins’ The Armed Man is a haunting and terrifying piece of music, in a good way. It is based on a hodgepodge of texts related to the “glory,” destruction, and horror of war, from 15th-century poetry, to the Mahabharata, to poems written by a victim of the Hiroshima atomic bomb. Its ability to evoke horror and death in music is exquisite, managing to be beautiful and awful at the same time. Jenkins’ piece bills itself as “a prayer for peace” and is unabashedly structured as a mass, (though an inclusive one; it involves a Muslim call to prayer), but the ending seems to ignore the impact of what has come before, and its attempt to wrap up thousands of years of horror in a triumphal religious bow is also unsettling, this time less effectively.

Jenkins’ piece builds in an affecting and profound manner. We start with “L’Homme Armé,” of the duty of man to arm himself with a coat of iron mail, and the need of all else to fear him. The tune of the piece is not altered from when it was a Renaissance-era secular French song, and then later used as the setting for perhaps more Latin masses (40) than any other song, but Jenkins’ use of rhythms and horns urgently throws us into the middle of the army’s purposeful march. The theme develops almost into a round for the various voices, indicating war’s timeless and circular nature.

There are a few moments of contemplative prayer and variations on asking to be saved from “bloody men” (Book of Psalms). Things take a decidedly more menacing turn with the most military-sounding “Sanctus” I’ve ever heard, though the march also includes a hint of dance beat, indicating the discussion to come on the excitement war breeds. Kipling’s “Hymn Before Action” takes things to a more disturbing level; Jenkins’ choice to end the poem on “Lord, grant us strength to die!” both foreshadows the coming action and emphasizes the irony of having a “Lord God of Battles.” This ironic reading is supported by the report of Archibald Henderson, in his 1930 “Contemporary Immortals,” of a church choir refusing to sing “Hymn Before Action” because the director found the lyrics more fitting to be invoked by “troops of savages bent on slaughter…a primitive, unworthy conception of the Deity...”

This irony continues with “Charge!” where the army is being whipped into a frenzy with “the trumpet’s loud clangor” exciting them to arms; the band’s trumpets and brass play into this, actually exciting the singers and audience with heart-racing melodies set to words by Dryden and Swift. As we are nearly lifted off our seats in anticipation, the irony becomes clear when the horns and choir clash and dissolve in horrifying shrieks as the two armies finally “charge!” each other, deciding “’tis too late to retreat,” and meet death. The screaming and confusion of the choir, building to a dead silence, is bone-chilling, and utterly poignant in its contrast with the excitement and bombast of the piece at the beginning. Soloists, then, in “Angry Flames,” with occasional dissonant bursts from the chorus emphasizing words such as “death,” describe the aftermath of the clash, which is followed by the somber lines of repeated notes and awkward, off-balance and menacing vocal jumps in “Torches.”

Though the end features an affecting cyclical return, the denouement seems at first touching, then rushed. “Agnus Dei” is followed by “Now that the Guns Have Stopped,” a meditation on survivor’s guilt, which features a possible epiphany involving the alto soloist eulogizing a friend who didn’t live, while she was more fortunate than she had believed possible. “Benedictus” is a beautiful and quiet theme that speaks to this epiphany that “better is peace,” and I found myself wishing the piece had ended on this contemplatively beautiful note.

In the end, there is a return to the beginning theme, but instead of L’Homme Armé being the sung text, minor key becomes major, and the chorus sings, “Better is peace than always war.” We are informed that “God shall wipe away all tears…neither shall there be any more pain” (from Revelation). Though it is a pleasant and moving sentiment, the horror of the earlier segment persists to the point that, as a listener, I found myself jarred by the sensibility that it could be “wiped away.” If nothing else, the ethics surrounding war demand that we never forget; "wiping away" the tears encourages us to forget and possibly turn to war once more. It seems petulant to complain about a Deus Ex Machina at the end of a mass, and as a non-religious person, perhaps this ending is not “for” me. The brashness of the ending seemed improper, however; it reminded me of “Charge!”, but instead of the irony we saw in “Charge!”, this brashness and celebration seemed to lack irony, and I wasn’t sure whether to take it at face value. There seems to be two ways to take such pieces as “Hymn Before Action” and “Charge!” – as ironic looks at how the perceived glory of war contrasts its actual horror, or without this irony, at face value, an in-the-moment look at how people deal with war. If we enjoy the former reading, the final piece seems to lose this edge of commentary. If we take the latter reading, the ending is less out of character, but the piece seems somehow less complex without the commentary (though still honest).

The ending, featuring the lovely sentiment, “ring in the thousand years of peace,” unfortunately rings false to me. The lyrics solve our problems for us and cease to ask probing questions like “how?” Perhaps this is asking too much of what has already been a serious and thoughtful work. Again, in a Mass, and in religion in general, God is going to be the solution to all problems; but with such a man-created issue, which has always been potentially exacerbated by religion, how does “god will wipe away all tears” fix it? We should be responsible for the clean-up, or for preventing tears in the first place. I find the comfort empty (again, as a person who is not religious). This is, again, perhaps asking the piece to be what it is not; it bills itself as a prayer for peace, not as a solution or philosophical discussion. But lyrically and musically, some things about it still seem strange.

The most haunting piece, lyrically, of the entire work is the “Torches” movement, consisting of animals being turned into living torches by the thousands, many when they were unable to leave their mothers, fathers and families to burn alone. This is taken from the Mahabharata and results from not a man-made bomb, but from war involving gods, who joyously drink the melted stream of animal fat. This is conveniently not in the lyrics portion used, but the source material cannot be completely discounted. (I do not by any means consider myself an expert in this text, so it is possible I am misinterpreting.) The Mahabharata also features one of the earliest notions of the idea of “Just War” – can the suffering caused by war ever be called worthwhile? The morally suspect nature of war at any time, these ethical discussions, and their relationship to god or gods is not really included; the idea of god can similarly be viewed here as either a black-and-white saviour figure, or a name that is invoked for all sorts of suspect purposes: “grant us strength to die”/”save us from bloody men.” The latter is more interesting, but less likely, given the end. It is difficult, though, to delve into the idea of “Just War” with the attempt of the piece to represent war in a general, rather than specific, sense. Given the inclusiveness of the piece and its use of various religious texts, I also don't think it is trying to promote the sense of a "right" god.

How do we balance the notion of “hope” without giving in to the triteness of a “happy ending,” though it is aurally pleasing and comforting to do so? A reading I can see of the ending as successful is as a somewhat ironic one with an undercurrent of fear; if “L’Homme Armé” as the base of “Better is Peace” does not indicate a change, but instead indicates lack of change, and the possibility to lose ourselves in war again by just taking the music down to a minor key. Perhaps better still would be to have the music break between the two themes. A prayer, a hope for peace, are very good things, but with the successfully contemplative nature of most of the music battling the destructive bombast, a beautiful but somber ending seems more in keeping with what has gone before, as a sense of bombastic sureness is shown in the score to lead to destruction. Showing humanity’s ability to grow, change, and work together, should be weighted against showing its rescue by forces beyond its control.

In the end, beginning and ending with “L’Homme Armé” seems apt; as one war ends, the next begins (humanity’s recorded history has only marked 29 individual years without a war, according to journalist Chris Hedges). The L’Homme Armé theme at the end, then, becomes more of a question: are we going to start again, or are we going to change our tune?


1 comment:

  1. As I read your commentary, the thought keeps popping up in my head: "You are over-intellectualizing this piece." Look, it's meant to offer consolation and comfort to those who have lived through this sort of horror. This is all they had, to deal with PTSD back then. You forget, this is a guy whose generation lived through the horror of the WWI trench warfare, the blitz where Coventry and London was almost entirely burned to the ground! It's no wonder that a majority of Brits at the time supported Air Marshall Sir Arthur "Bomber" Harris when he burned Hamburg and Dresden to the ground! Jenkins is just trying to make sense of the inevitable, and trying to comfort the traumatized survivors.
    "Si Vis Pacem, para bellum" -Publius Flavius Vegetius Renatus fr: Plato.