The Armed Man: a mass for peace – Karl Jenkins (1944-present)

This article first appeared in the January 2015 issue of our parish magazine.

Back in my twenties, when asked to name my favourite composer, I often surprised people by answering Mark Knopfler. These days, I am equally likely to surprise people by naming Karl Jenkins.

I’m not sure when I first discovered Jenkins’ music, but I definitely remember “Adiemus” being the sound track to our first skiing holiday with Thomas and Jennifer over ten years ago!

Since then I have come to know and love much of his work. For a while, during the summer term each year I would use “The Armed Man” to underpin a unit of RE work called “art in faith”. In that topic I managed to cover iconographic paintings, geometric designs, decorative sculpture, architecture, vestments, use of colour, and of course, music. All three Abrahamic faiths were considered. One of my favourite activities was to paint the music. This involved putting out a limited colour palette of paints and playing the music. The children simply painted whatever the music moved them to paint.

Interestingly, when I tried this with “Neptune” and then “Mars” from Holst’s Planets Suite, using the same colour palette each time, the resulting paintings were very different. Neptune produced swirly patterns of blues and greens with maybe a bit of yellow. The responses to Mars on the other hand were sharp stabs of red, black and orange. In all the years that I did this sort of activity, only one child couldn’t grasp how to paint music. Try it yourself – music has a profound impact on our mood, emotional well being and our responses to our surroundings. That is why it is such an integral element of worship.

The Wikipedia entry for The Armed Man tells us that on 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, the Bible (e.g. the Psalms and Revelation), and the Mahabharata. Secular writers whose words appear include Rudyard Kipling, Alfred Lord Tennyson, and Sankichi Toge.

Wikipedia continues with a description that a representation of marching feet, overlaid with the 15th-century French words of “The Armed Man” is followed by the Islamic Call to Prayer and the Kyrie. “Save Us From Bloody Men” uses words for the Book of Psalms, and precedes the Sanctus, which has a military, menacing air. Next comes Kipling’s “Hymn Before Action” and then “Charge!”, which draws on words from John Dryden and Jonathan Swift. This is followed by the eerie silence of the battlefield after action, broken by a lone trumpet playing the Last Post. “Angry Flames” and “Torches” lead into an excerpt from the Mahabharata and then the Agnus Dei and “Now the Guns have Stopped”. 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, and on the text from Revelation: “God shall wipe away all tears”.

In class, we considered what all the liturgical terms meant, translated the Latin, wrote appropriate prayers in contemporary English, and really got to grips with the place of music in Christian worship.

In my opinion, and when taught creatively, RE can be one of the most vibrant subjects in the curriculum.

Listen to part (or all) of “The Armed Man: a mass for peace” here.

Wishing you a peaceful new year,

Carol P

PS – since writing this article, I had the privilege of performing this work in full with the Manchester Chorale, accompanied by the Manchester Concert Orchestra, under the baton of Sir Karl Jenkins himself, at the Bridgewater Hall in November 2017. It is likely to  be performed many times during 2018 as we celebrate the centenary of the end of the Great War.


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