The Armed Man – a mass for peace

Medieval Warrior ( stock image)

The evening of May 6, 2017, I attended a performance of Karl Jenkins’ “The Armed Man – a mass for peace”  by the Albany Pro Musica Masterworks Chorus (José Daniel Flores-Caraballo, director) and the Pro Musica Orchestra (Anne-Marie Barker-Schwarz, director). A film by Hefin Owen containing many wartime scenes, ranging from images of medieval soldiers to nuclear blasts, was played during the performance, which was  the culmination of a series of local events related to the theme of the mass.

The concert opened with the adagietto from Mahler’s 5th symphony, a wonderful composition that seemed to anticipate the rhythms and mood of Barber’s Adagio for Strings, a much later composition.

The mass began with a movement by the orchestra and chorus entitled The Armed Man:

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

Next was a haunting call to prayer by Yassine Benaissa, muezzin, in full traditional costume, followed by the Kyrie with mezzo-soprano Lucille Beer, the orchestra and chorus. The mass also featured the Capital District Youth Chorale, prepared by Diane Warner, director. Some of the elements of a requiem mass were not included, such as the Dies Irae and Gloria. Most of the movements were set to poetry from various sources, including Guy Wilson in movement 11:

“Silent, silent, now the guns have stopped.
I have survived all, I who knew I would not.
But now you are not here.”
(from notes by Paul Lamar and Stuart Brown)

Movement 12 was the Benedictus, featuring a gorgeous cello solo played by Petia Kassarova. I have linked a performance of this work by Academia Coral do Porto to illustrate this passage. It is around 53 to 54 minutes in the recording.

The Albany Pro Musica performance took place in the spectacular concert hall in EMPAC at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Close to a full house (1200 seats), the concert was delayed about half an hour as people slowly filed in.

The closely coordinated juxtaposition of the scenes in the film with the words of the mass yielded a startling and profound effect. This was superbly done: the marching feet of the soldiers in some scenes was in perfect synchrony with the music. The famous scene of Mussolini, swaggering and posturing in front of a crowd, was especially significant to me, seeming extremely apt for today. A guest commented that she kept feeling angrier at the repeated contrast between the lyrics and the violent and pitiable images. The final movement was meant to convey hope for the future. Perhaps without the vivid images, this message would have left more of an impression than it did.

I was impressed by the excellence of the production, but also worried about our own times. The long history of warfare, as portrayed in the film, is disquieting. It may be, as Steven Pinker has written, that humans are becoming less violent long term. My wife, one of the singers, felt that it seemed as if we were about to repeat the mistakes of the past. I heard others expressing similar fears. The concert provoked a lot of discussion. Beautiful though it was, this production was not like a classical mass, meant to comfort the listener. But art can and sometimes does disturb us. That certainly is the case with The Armed Man.

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