The Armed Man is an oratorio work which bears the secondary title A Mass for Peace. Karl Jenkins was commissioned to write it by the Royal Armouries Museum for the millennium celebrations and it is dedicated to victims of the war in Kosovo. While not a religious work in itself, The Armed Man does include excerpts from Catholic mass – the tracks Kyrie, Sanctus, Agnus Dei and Benedictus. The title The Armed Man comes from the name of the first track, which uses the 15th century French soldiers’ song L’Homme armé. This famous theme formed the basis of numerous masses from the 16th and 17th centuries.
Jenkins strove to make his opus multicultural, stressing the universal nature of a basic anti-war concept. For example, alongside the Christian prayers there is the Moslem call to prayer Allahu Akbar. Biblical texts in English are used, as is verse by Kipling, Dryden, Swift, Tennyson and other authors, among whom the verse of Sankichi Toge sounds particularly piercing; he survived Hiroshima, but later died from leukaemia. The horror of the consuming fire is expressed in the words of an ancient Japanese epos that describes the suffering of animals which perish in a fire.
The mass begins with the stomping of soldiers’ boots. The soldiers’ march is accompanied by a song, the melody of which Jenkins initially gives to the piccolo flute, imitating a military orchestra. The army draws closer and we can hear the thunder of the drums. The volume rises with each new use of the theme, collapsing at the end of the track with a triple forte. Amid the utter silence, the muezzin calls the people to prayer. Following the Moslems it is the Christians who pray. The composer stylises early church music: the polyphony of the Palestrina (in the section Christe eleison) and Gregorian chorale (psalms). But the prayers addressed to God are not always about peace: the warriors ask God to bless their victory for their nation. Jenkins shows us the image of a “noble warrior”, a romanticised warrior. But war is Hell: in the sixth track a veritable cannonade commences with cries of “Load!” then the thunder of weapons and the roar of the trumpets. This is the “apotheosis of war”, the triumph of death: the screams of the dying, full of horror, may be heard. A decisive moment comes: between the seventh and eight tracks Jenkins inserted thirty seconds of complete silence, after which the solo trumpet plays The Last Post – a melody which in Great Britain is performed at military funerals. And immediately after this an eyewitness tells of the fall of Hiroshima. The last tracks of the mass express hope for the transformation of humankind, for a life without war. We hear a familiar motif from the song L’Homme armé, but with new lyrics that bear a simple truth: “Rather peace than war.”