If I had to describe [my music], I would say that it sounds like nothing else, which is very
satisfying. Much of classical music is still very isolated and narrow.1
Karl Jenkins was born and grew up in the South Wales village Gower of Penclawdd, situated
along an estuary where the villagers rake in phenomenal quantities of cockles for export to
Europe. His great luck was in having a father who, as schoolteacher, organist, and choirmaster, gave his son music lessons. Jenkins received classical music training at Wales’ Cardiff University and at the London Royal Academy of Music.2 He went on to gain broad experience as composer, arranger, jazz performer, and band leader, acquiring knowledge of music spanning many centuries and traditions.
Jenkins first made his mark in jazz. On keyboard and oboe, he was a founding member of
Nucleus, a pioneering prize-winning jazz-rock band. He later joined the psychedelic progressive rock and jazz fusion band Soft Machine, which was influential in the 1970s.
In the 1980s, Jenkins turned to a composing career in the field of advertising music, winning
awards for music he created for many well-known companies, such as Levi’s, British Airways,
Renault, De Beers, and Delta Airlines. In the mid-1990s, he entered mainstream music with the Adiemus project, which began as an experimentation with various vocal and instrumental sounds. The first three albums of the Adiemus series won phenomenal global recognition, topping both classical and popular music charts and winning 15 gold and platinum awards. World-class singers, such as Kiri Te Kanawa and Bryn Terfel, have recorded some of his vocal music. Jenkins has received many commissions from such prestigious sources as the Royal Ballet, the London Symphony, and HRH the Prince of Wales. His scoring of the documentaries “The Celts” and “Testament” has won him British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) gongs, the British equivalent of Academy Awards statuettes.
Classic FM, the U.K.’s foremost classical radio station with six million listeners, conducts
annual listener surveys to determine the most popular classical composers. Shortly after the
2000 premiere of The Armed Man – A Mass For Peace, the work claimed the eighth slot in the
top-10 list,3 placing Jenkins as the only living composer among such greats as Mozart and
Rachmaninov. “I don’t think of myself as within a million miles of the composers I’m
surrounded by. It’s just that people have responded to the “Benedictus” from The Armed Man,
and it has proved quite popular.”4 The Armed Man CD was released on September 10, 2001, the day before world-changing events that led to another war.
Jenkins continues to explore fresh sounds, blending genres, cultures, and historical periods,
creating music that draws an ever-broader audience. Soon after its 2005 release, his Requiem
topped the classical charts. That same year, The Armed Man CD went gold, selling more than
100,000 copies, and has had hundreds of performances in the U.K. and Europe. Jenkins would
like this work to receive more U.S. exposure as well. More than 35 performances are scheduled worldwide in 2008, beginning last January at Carnegie Hall. His many awards – from a room named in his honor at the Royal Academy of Music to Officer in the Order of the British Empire (OBE) by Her Majesty the Queen – do not distract Jenkins from focused productivity. His Stabat Mater will premiere this year in Liverpool.
The Armed Man – A Mass For Peace
The Armed Man was commissioned for the millennium by the U.K. Royal Armouries and had its premiere in London. Jenkins describes his inspiration this way: “As I started composing The
Armed Man, the tragedy of Kosovo5 unfolded. I was reminded daily of the horror of such
conflict, and so I dedicate the work to the victims of Kosovo.”6 According to Guy Wilson, then
master of the Royal Armouries, Jenkins “responded to the commission by composing the most
marvellous, varied, accessible, appropriate and singable music that embraces the whole world
and the full range of emotions that the subjects of war and peace evoke.”7 The hope was that
performances across time would encourage young people to think about “the vital issues of war and peace.”8
The human longing for peace is a visceral presence in this mass, as each movement adds to the larger story of war’s devastating impact. The various texts selected by Guy Wilson, as well as the music itself, embrace time periods from the first millennium B.C. to modern times. The
work’s compelling beauty bridges Hindu, Islamic, and Christian cultures.
For more than 500 years, composers have created settings for the Burgundian song “L’Homme
Armé” in their music. Jenkins opens the mass with this song, introducing the marching drumbeat of war, first barely audible, as though it might pass in the distance. Then the chorus joins in with “L’homme armé doit on douter” (the armed man must be feared), sung as a relentless round, and we become painfully aware that we are listening to a call to arms and a march to war.
The Koran, the holy book of Islam, stresses prayer as the link between Muslims and Allah,
creator and benefactor. The call to prayer, “Adhaan,” came into being so Muslims would know
when to pray and when to go to the mosque for congregational prayer. Traditionally, one of the men takes the role of muezzin and sings the call from the mosque rooftop or minaret five times each day.9 The five times, attuned to nature, vary across the globe but are roughly at dawn, as the sun declines from its zenith, just before sunset, just after sunset, and at night. Although the pronunciation and accompanying actions for the call to prayer differ from one country or region to another, the words remain the same.
Jenkins follows the Islamic call to prayer with a prayer from the Christian Ordinary of the mass.
This juxtaposition transcends the walls of mosque, temple, and church, where voices hear each other to call and respond in open space. “Kyrie” begins in a stately, somber style and, with the phrase “Christe eleison,” flows into the style of Renaissance composer Palestrina, whose serene works captured Counter-Reformation conservatism in a “polyphony of absolute perfection.” 10 The tenor line imitates Palestrina’s use of “L’Homme Armé” in his mass by the same name.
“Save Me From Bloody Men” sets Biblical text to Gregorian chant, suggestive of monastic life.
But after prayers of “Be merciful unto me,” “Defend me,” and “Deliver me,” the voices become
impassioned with fear and anger with the words “Save me,” as an ominous sense of doom
overtakes them. The infectiously uplifting yet subtly menacing “Sanctus” follows, with its
militaristic rhythm that harks back to “L’Homme Armé.”
The poem “Hymn Before Action” is by author and poet Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936). This
youngest of all Nobel Prize winners rejected knighthood, and his fiction is known for addressing issues of national allegiance and identity. Jenkins scores the battle-ready mindset of the poem in a grand choral movement, reflecting the grim determination of a brotherhood prepared to die together.
“Charge!” expresses the seductive power of going to war. The poetry segments are by poet and playwright John Dryden (1631-1700), who so dominated Restoration England that the period was called the Age of Dryden. Instead of relying on court patronage, he wrote in a precise and reasoned style that the general public understood. The line “How blest is he who for his country dies” was quoted by Irishman Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) in a letter to the Earl of Oxford urging peaceable action in the face of hostilities.11 The music for these texts takes on an accelerated beat, as the chorus and orchestra become battle-driven. Swift’s words interject a cry that seems to be both from the hearts of those sending their kin into battle and those who must fight. The movement ends with a cacophony of horrified voices as the battle is engaged, followed by a very long silence, and finally a trumpet solo playing the “last post.”
The central movement of The Armed Man describes the atomic bomb’s massive and worldchanging impact—two cities of Japanese civilians dead.12 A solitary bell and trumpet open “Angry Flames,” and then a slow melody begins. Very brief poignant choral phrases emphasize the delicately effective words of poet Toge Sankichi, who was 24 years old when the bomb fell on Hiroshima. During the handful of years remaining to him after he contracted radiation-caused leukemia, he was the leading Hiroshima poet in Japan and a passionate activist for peace.
The text of “Torches” reminds us that mass destruction is as old as war itself. The lines are from the ancient sacred Hindu book Mahabharata. This epic, a collection of stories dating from the first millennium B.C., became a unified text of 100,000 stanzas in about 350 A.D. The awesome visions of the cosmos, divinity, and humanity compare in philosophical depth, complexity, and scope to the Greek myths and the Bible. At the core of the Mahabharata, battles rage between two families descended from gods and demons. With a gently rocking rhythm, the orchestra accompanies the chorus, which paints a fiery scene that destroys beloved animals and humans alike with the immediacy of an eyewitness account.
The prayer “Agnus Dei,” which evolved from ancient Jewish rites into the Ordinary of the mass,
honors Jesus for the sacrifice of his life to atone for humanity’s sins. The beautiful solo melody, begun by the sopranos and then magnified by the rest of the chorus, serves as a prayer for those whose lives are sacrificed.
The silencing of war’s brutal machinery gives way to an interval of having to accept one’s own
survival even though friends have died. Appropriately, Guy Wilson’s own poem “Now the Guns
Have Stopped” is in the style of an elegy; and Jenkins’ music tunes gently to the heart suffering
“Benedictus” seems to draw on the sparse beauty of the previous movement, beginning with the melody in solo instruments, followed, one by one, by each choral voice part. The familiarity of the words from the Ordinary of the mass comforts and inspires; despite haunting sadness, it swells to a resounding “Hosanna.”13
“Better is Peace” opens with the dance-like dialogue of Lancelot and Guinivere from Le Morte
d’Arthur14 by Thomas Malory (1405-1471). The upbeat reprisal of “L’Homme Armé” then
signals reclamation of the human optimism and resiliency needed to triumph over disasters of
our own making. The middle text is by Poet Laureate Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892) from
his masterpiece, “In Memoriam A.H.H.,” commemorating his dearest friend. In a spirit of
rejoicing, his phrases “thousand wars” and “thousand years” invite us to freshen our minds, look back on the 20th century, and commit to a less war-wracked 21st century. The ending lines from Revelation 21:4 imagine a thousand year-long age of renewal, following the burial of him who “should deceive the nations no more” (Revelation 20:3). The final choral setting, reminiscent of the Welsh choral tradition, expresses both hope born of sorrow and the healing, uniting effects of giving praise.
– Carol Talbeck
1 “Fanfare for the common man,” The Independent (London) by Sam Ingleby, quoting Jenkins, May 17, 2004.
2 In 2006, the University of Wales awarded Jenkins a Doctor of Music degree.
3 The Armed Man remained in the Classic FM top 10 in 2005 and 2006 and currently is number 12 on their top 300 list. Classic FM has awarded the “Red f” award to him for “outstanding service to classical music.”
4 See the first footnote.
5 In 1999, N.A.T.O. launched military action to restrain the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) and Serbians after several massacres between the two. An estimated 300,000 Albanians were displaced by the conflict. At least 30,000 of the displaced found themselves in the woods without food or shelter.
6 http://www.karljenkins.com/armedman.php, undated.
7 Liner notes from the CD The Armed Man – A Mass For Peace, Virgin Records Ltd. 2001.
8 Audiophile Audition: web magazine article on Karl Jenkins by John Sunier, November 3, 2005.
9 Today, the call to prayer may be restricted to inside the mosque, due to noise regulations.
10 A History of Western Music by Donald Jay Grout, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., New York 1960.
11 While part of the Tory government’s inner circle, Jonathan Swift mediated fierce disagreements between his friend Robert Harley, Earl of Oxford, lord treasurer and prime minister, and Henry St. John, secretary of state for foreign affairs. Swift translated the line from Roman poet Horace’s Odes (23 B.C.) in a letter to Robert, who was imprisoned at the time for political reasons. World War I poet Wilfred Owen described the line as “the old lie.”
12 The bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, dropped three days apart in August 1945, resulted in 140,000 and 80,000 dead respectively, as well as many thousands afterward due to radiation poisoning.
13 The melody first became widely popular in Europe and the U.K. on Jenkins’ Adiemus: the Eternal Knot. It is also featured on the gold album Pure (2004) by young singing sensation Hayley Westenra.
14 Malory’s title in contemporary French would be La Mort d’Arthur.