Oregon Repertory Singers presents

The Armed Man

with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra
Jonas Nordwall, Organ 

3pm, October 8th & 9th, 2016
First United Methodist Church

Program Notes

Welcome to the 43rd Season of Oregon Repertory Singers! We are proud to begin our year with the Portland premiere of The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace by the first Welsh composer ever to be knighted, Sir Karl Jenkins.

The Armed Man was commissioned by the Royal Armouries Museum in England for the Millennium celebrations and is dedicated to victims of the Kosovo crisis. Like Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem before it, it is essentially an anti-war piece that combines liturgical Catholic texts with other sources, most obviously the 15th century folk song “L’homme armé” (“The Armed Man”). Guy Wilson, then master of the museum, selected the other texts, including both sacred—the Islamic call to prayer, portions of the Hindu Mahabharata, and the Psalms and Revelation books of the Bible; and secular—poems by Rudyard Kipling, Alfred Lord Tennyson, and Sankichi Toge, who survived the Hiroshima bombing but died some years later of leukemia. In one of music history’s more ironic moments, the first recording of this “Mass for Peace” was released on September 10, 2001. The piece has received over 1,000 performances worldwide since.

Plato believed that great art could help humanity achieve a more ideal Republic by holding up a mirror to our current conditions so that the next generation could improve upon them. I think Plato would have loved The Armed Man, as it is entirely unsubtle and often uncomfortable in how it depicts one of mankind’s often-repeated patterns that needs fixing: our need or even desire for war. The first several movements depict the menace of war from a distance, interspersed with the prayers of those hoping to stop it from occurring. After this we hear “Hymn Before Action” and “Charge!” These two powerful poems show how summoning patriotism can get a society and its soldiers committed to war and even excited about the prospect.

The strength of this work is Jenkins’ grasp of just how quickly that excitement changes to horror once the fighting actually begins. The change in the music is as instantaneous as it is permanent. Nothing sounds the same afterwards. We hear the eerie silence of the battlefield after action, broken by a lone trumpet playing the Last Post. “Angry Flames” describes the appalling scenes after the bombing of Hiroshima, and “Torches” parallels this with an excerpt from the Mahabharata, describing the terror and suffering of animals dying in fire. “Now the Guns have Stopped” is a text by Guy Wilson himself, part of a Royal Armouries display about the guilt felt by returning survivors of World War I. After the Benedictus, “Better is Peace” ends the mass on a note of hope, drawing on the hard-won understanding that peace is better than war, and on the text from Revelation: “God shall wipe away all tears.” Hopefully this work can serve Plato’s purpose not just by holding up a mirror to the origins and horrors of war, but perhaps also by presenting a simple and naïve message: if texts from these diverse religions and cultures can co-exist on stage musically together, then maybe someday people can too.

We precede The Armed Man with two of its precursors. The concert begins with excerpts from a Baroque Mass by Giacomo Carissimi for three antiphonal choirs that is also based on the “L’homme armé” folksong. Next is Samuel Barber’s famous Adagio for Strings, which he later reworked for choir using the text Agnus Dei. Both of these works end with the text “Dona nobis pacem” or “Grant us peace.”

Program notes by Ethan Sperry, October 2016

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