Armed and Dangerous… a month ago, I uploaded a posting written with my friend Sue very much in mind. She’d mentioned to me that she’d heard Vivaldi’s famous Gloria performed as part of a local music festival — and not been all that taken with it. In my posting, I not only had a go at presenting the piece in its full voices-and-orchestra form (rather than the voices-and-piano arrangement she’d heard in that local church), but also tried leading up to it in a more helpful sort of way — and then I wondered out loud if she’d feel like commenting…

Well, she did. Here is the email Sue sent after she’d worked her way through my posting:

It’s strange to see your name in print, even if it is my wrong name, or maybe that was my right name? There may be a Stephanie-me in one world and a Sue-me in another world.  Two worlds.

Mum and I attended the Vivaldi “Gloria” concert in the glorious church (see actual picture in Mark’s original article).  The church which has had the lead stolen from the roof, three raids so far, about 40 per cent stolen. 60 per cent left. I suggested to the Vicar the other week that he sell the remaining 60 per cent, ahead of its being stolen, and use the income to buy plastic roofing which looks like lead. He can’t, his hands are tied by it being Grade 1 listed. No selling, only stealing. A good idea which won’t work for us.

Which sums up how I felt about that concert. A good idea but won’t work for me because I’m in a different world where I feel ill-at-ease due to being more tuned in to Lady Antebellum and Gareth Malone.  Perhaps I’m Sue, or maybe I’m Stephanie.  Either way, roll on the village’s Summer Festival, where the choir members promise me they’ll be doing numbers from well-known musicals!

My thanks to Sue for sending that!

As it happens, though, I’m not quite finished with the event she attended — even though it sounds like Sue very definitely is! — because she did also mention to me that the Vivaldi wasn’t the only work that was given on that now famous occasion. I’ve dug about for the other work she heard — which I hadn’t encountered before — and, now that I’ve heard it, I’ve decided two things. First — and just like last time! — I am very strongly of the opinion that a voices-and-piano version is absolutely not the best way to make its acquaintance; and, secondly, I am — once again! — determined to find a ‘direction of approach’ that gives all this blog’s readers (Sue included — if she’s still among them!) a slightly better chance of finding their way into at least a part of this work…

In order to do that, I want to start with a few lines of text translated into modern English from some very old French — and by ‘very old’, I mean from the Renaissance, and specifically from the mid-1400s (in fact, quite possibly from the time of the 1453 fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks):

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

As you’ll probably have guessed, these words come from a song — or, to be precise, a melody — one of whose sources is the following manuscript…


Now, the fact is that in working out how these ancient tunes are meant to go, modern scholars encounter a serious problem: the notation of these old sources doesn’t include all the detail necessary for us to be able to tell at this distance everything we need to know. As a result, there’s often quite a degree of variability attached to the way different experts interpret what’s written and decide how to supplement it — which is a polite way of saying that no two editors will ever agree about everything. As a result, even this famous tune — L’homme armé (‘The Armed Man’), one of the most popular and most often re-used melodies in musical history! is ‘realised’ in quite different forms nowadays. 

Here, for example, is a modern realisation that’s in the Mixolydian mode (sounding like B flat major with a flat seventh degree)…

And here is one in the Dorian mode (sounding like G minor with an unsharpened seventh degree)…

(You may have noticed that there were other differences to be found between those versions, and indeed between the second version and the modern printed text seen in its video… And, for what it’s worth, I myself find that one thing both these performances have in common — the disruptive fifth (and 28th) bar in the panel seen above — is simply not credible, whatever scholars think the source means. Imagine a bunch of 15th century folks trying to sing that rhythmic hiccup in a group: first of all, people would get it wrong, and wrong, and wrong, and wrong…; secondly, it would be rapidly smoothed over to something less obtrusively hostile to rhythmic continuity. Our cleric would simply never have heard the gesture his beautifully inscribed and illuminated notation is taken to show…)

Anyway, after all that, here is the full-scale, voices-and-orchestra version of the L’homme armé section of the other piece Sue heard all those weeks ago…

If anyone is wondering what this piece is, it’s The Armed Man (A Mass for Peace) by the Welsh-born composer Karl Jenkins (b. 1944). It was first performed in 2000 — which makes it around 550 years younger than the tune used in the first of its 13 sections. I doubt anyone needs to hear more than a few minutes of that clip in order to decide that a piano accompaniment is really not going to do justice to it: I wonder if Sue would have warmed to it more had there been some crackling brass sonority and serious percussion out there in St Andrews Church…

Two more things before we finish. First, L’homme armé was a tune that was used as a component in, as it were, masses of masses: more than 40 mass cycles are known from between c. 1450 and 1700 in which it is referred to or used as a so-called ‘cantus firmus’. (The earliest of these are held to be those of Du Fay, Ockeghem, Regis, Faugues and Busnoys, if anyone wants to investigate them.) What I want to do now is let everyone hear a section of one of the two L’homme armé masses Palestrina wrote in the late 1500s: like everyone else, he spreads the phrases around in decorated forms and combines other material with them — but having now heard the tune go round and round for ten minutes, you’re probably in a pretty good position to spot at least a few of the bits going past…

My second point is simply to endorse what the lyrics say.

The armed man is indeed to be feared, no less in 2016 than in 1453, and in spite of all the ‘masses for peace’ we’ve had in the interim.


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