The Armed Man – a renaissance and a contemporary mass

Posted on December 26, 2013


In European countries we denominate the art and sciences of the 14th – 17th centuries as ‘Renaissance’, but there is no clear demarcation between the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and the Modern Era. Renaissance emerges as a distinct entity due to its increase in focus on understanding the workings of the universe and a more humanistic worldview. Still, the highest resources and aspirations of artists were channelled towards the Church. Hence the most elaborate Renaissance compositions were liturgical works, among which, the musical setting of the Roman Catholic church service or High Mass (Eucharist, Holy Communion) was the most highly esteemed.

The Medieval Mass consisted of more than 20 parts, some of them being constant parts of the service, named together the ‘Ordinary’, and others, named as the ‘Proper’, consisted of different texts applied for specific celebrations. Renaissance composers, probably starting with Guillaume de Machaut showed their highest skills by setting the Ordinary of the Mass into music, 6 parts of the entire Mass, namely the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei.

To create coherence and unity for their masses composers usually used a medieval plainchant (or otherwise known Gregorian Chant) or, less often, a secular melody as prevailing theme. There are hundreds of songs thus transported into masses, but there is one of particular significance, inspiring more than 40 masses in the last 6 centuries, the last one that I am aware of having been premiered at the dawn of the 21st century. This is the French secular song L’homme armé (The armed man) calling for men to arm themselves for war. This comes to me as no surprise, as animosity towards each other remained a constant preoccupation of humankind, including many followers of the three major Abrahamic religions. Here follows the English translation of the song and a video inclusion:

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

Listening to a Renaissance and a contemporary mass will give us some interesting insight into how music has changed in general in these centuries. For this purpose I have chosen Missa L’homme armé super voces musicales by Josquin des Pres (ca. 1450–1521) and The Armed Man by Karl Jenkins (born in 1944), as both are ‘Armed Man’ masses, concerning the topics of war versus peace in the context of humanity and spirituality.

Josquin authored three ‘Armed Man’ masses, and the ‘super voces musicales’ was probably composed sometimes between 1480 and 1500, as a demonstration of his skills as the most influential composer of his time in Europe. The Mass is composed via virtuosic contrapuntal technique for four voices, where the L’homme armé song provides a unifying theme. This melody is transposed successively to all the notes of the hexachord (C, D, E, F, G and A) in different parts of the composition. The overall structure of the mass is grounded in celestial mathematics, such the concept of the Golden Ratio, the 1:1 and 3:2 numeric relationships, as highlighted in an essay by Paul Kinsman Platonic and Pythagorean Ratios in the Formal Analysis of 15th Century Music. This way of structuring artworks is one of the main characteristics of Renaissance art in general, amply demonstrated in architecture and painting.

Josquin des Prez: L’Homme Armé, Super Voces Musicales, performed by the Tallis Scholars, conducted by Peter Phillips

What I have just described were pure theoretical considerations providing the pleasure of discovery for the hard working musicologists who analysed the score. For any other kind of audience these relationships are imperceptible, and what they experience is a pleasant, soothing stream of voices singing high Latin liturgical hymns, carefully crafted to avoid any ‘unpleasant’ dissonances and sudden skips and leaps. In addition, I was struggling to discern the L’homme armé motif by ear, though I could locate it by carefully looking at the score, and I could perhaps identify parts of it scattered around, subtly interwoven in the dense texture of the music. While I admired the ingeniously overlapping lines of the canon (beautiful pearls of prolation canon, perhaps the most complicated contrapuntal technique), it made no real connection with the vigorous call for heroic confrontation so characteristic to the original French song.

Jenkins’ mass is scored for a large choir and orchestra. It has the clearly declared purpose to promote piece, and between the usual musical elements of the Mass Ordinary (Kyrie, Sanctus etc.) we will find songs that take us through the successive stages of war, from menace, preparation, heroic fight, horror, death, resignation and new hope. The music is almost entirely homophonic, although some parts contain contrapuntal writing, such as the Agnus Dei, containing segments of interwoven imitative melodic lines.

The ‘Armed Man’ song is very clear at the beginning, and takes us in a marching tempo straight into the army preparing for battle, coloured by the sound of snared rums and the shrilling sound of the fife. Prayers of the three Abrahamic religions are presented successively – a Muslim Call for Prayers, the Christian Kyrie (Lord have mercy) and the Judaic prayer Save me from bloody men. This section is ended by an abrupt intervention by the drums and a slow, menacing, primal Sanctus follows, sounding like the unstoppable march of military boots.

Karl Jenkins: The Armed Man, performed by Oscar Fredriks Vocalis, Kammarkör and Sinfonietta

Hymn before action (a poem of Rudyard Kipling) is a slow paced song where dissonant descending passages are creating an atmosphere of gloom and deathly fear. The following section entitled Charge! (based a on verses by Jonathan Swift and John Dryden) takes us in the midst of a battle, fanfares and fifes sounding on a background of agitated string ostinato and thundering percussion. The choir sings on a high pitched, agitated voice a martial hymn that sounds distorted and grotesque, culminating in a deeply disturbing scream, then silence… only interrupted by a trumpet call and bells ringing.

The Armed Man – text

The aftermath of the battle is described in a graphical poetic vision taking the audience through the smokes of Hiroshima and the ancient battles of India described in the Mahàbhàrata, Monotonous single sounds and chanting are punctated by harsh exclamations by full orchestra or choir. Slowly, the Agnus Dei introduces an atmosphere of solemn mourning and resignation, before the words of post-war agony of survivors reflecting guilt and sorrow. In continuation, the Benedictus is a lyrical, soothing, expressive piece performed by vocals, cello solo and orchestra, introducing the germs of new hope. The ending of the mass returns to the ‘Armed Man’ theme in its melody, but this times the words calling for war are substituted with short phrases celebrating peace with ecstatic joy, like children dancing around the Christmas tree.

In comparison with Josquin’s pure hymnal  ‘Armed Man’, Jenkins’ mass comes as a complete emotional shake-up, raising unsettling questions about universal morality. I wish followers of all religions and other ideologies listened to Jenkins’ call and stopped fighting each other.

Tibor Kovacs


Burkholder, J. P., Grout, D. J., Palisca C. V. (eds.) (2005) A history of Western music. 7th ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company Inc.

Greenberg, R. (2011) How to Listen to and Understand Great Music. 3rd ed. United States of America: The Teaching Company

Lebrecht, N. (2000). The Complete Companion to 20th Century Music. 2nd ed. Great Britain: Simon & Schuster UK Ltd. 

Morgan, R. P. (1991). Twentieth-century Music: A History of Musical Style in Modern Europe and America. London: W. W. Norton & Company, Ltd.

Phillips, P. (2006) Josquin Desprez: Masses and Motets [online]. Atrium Musicologicum website. Available on: [Accessed 8th December 2013]

Wikipedia (2013) Josquin des Prez [online] Wikipedia website. Available from: [Accessed 16th December 2013]

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