Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Literalism and Subversion

L’Homme Armé

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.
(attr. the court of Charles the Bold, 1433-77).

The warmongering Charles the Bold of Burgundy, in between skirmishes and battles, presided over a remarkably musical court, one of whose members penned the song ‘L’homme armé’. The tune caught on, appearing in dozens of mediæval mass settings, but so far as I know, no-one had the brass face to use the words in a religious context.

Until recently.

I admit to being underwhelmed when I first heard Karl Jenkins’ ‘The armed man — a mass for peace’, probably because it was being hyped to death by Classic FM (note for colonials — a radio station specialising in lifestyle music for the moneyed middle classes) in ‘lollipop’ snatches designed to calm gridlocked commuters. But I came to realise he’d done something rather clever: by creative use of text and intertextuality — including the Ordinary of the mass — he’d managed to take the uncompromisingly military ‘L’homme armé doibt on doubter’, ‘The armed man should be feared’ and so subvert it that by the end of the work it became an impassioned plea for peace, doubtless leaving Charles the Bold (who, it should be noted, died in one of his own battles) gently spinning in his grave. Subversion, a leading up the proverbial garden path, is perhaps a more fruitful way of bringing about change than reaction.

For Christians, this can hardly be a surprise. The ‘crux gemmata’, the ‘jewelled cross’ demonstrates one way in which we have subverted the Cross, transforming its original power as an instrument of Roman oppression into a symbol of honour and glory, and some recent studies place the stone crosses of the Anglo-Saxon period (e.g., at Ruthwell) in the same ‘crux gemmata’ tradition. The art of the early mediæval period, with its ‘Christus Rex’ symbolism points us in a similar direction, as do the various forms of the Rood poem and Venantius Fortunatus’ ‘Vexilla Regis’.

It is suggested that the devotion to a tortured Christ begins only in the writings of the ninth-century Candidus of Fulda, which devotion opened the way to a literalistic, rather than a subversive, reading of the Cross (and which, we might argue, facilitated the penal understanding of atonement, not to mention Mel Gibson’s profoundly unbiblical gorefest). The tortured Christ invites pity and shame; Christ subversive on the Cross takes us somewhere else, ‘leading captivity captive’.

St. Mary’s Barton backs on to an artesian well, the sort of ‘holy well’ which historically (and currently, at places like Walsingham, Lourdes and Madron) has been associated with healing and the like. Of the mediæval chapels within our building, the oldest dedication is that of St Thomas of Canterbury, victim of twelfth-century power politics, whose feast we celebrated a couple of days ago. This juxtaposition of a martyr’s altar and a site with connotations of healing echoes the cult of Thomas evidenced in the Canterbury Tales — where a story of the violent is subverted into one of healing and hope and wholeness.

Christianity as revolution has been a theological platitude since the 1960s (‘Sing we a song of high revolt,’ gets the blood fizzing, to be sure, but most western Christians are still wealthy and white, which rather gives the game away). But there is good reason to think that our current context, our common societal mental matrix, is no longer centred on revolution but subversion, the undermining of the powerful by means of their own tools. Entering a new year intent on subverting the world for God might be a Christian vocation with much deeper roots than that knee-jerk counter-culturalism so often offered us as the Good News.

Mynsterpreost

Posted by David Rowett on Wednesday, 31 December 2008 at 7:56am GMT | TrackBack
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Comments

I am afraid you are only about 600 years behind the times. This tune was used frequently in settings of the Mass in the 16C. Composers who used it include Dufay (probably the first), Regis, Ockeghem, Josquin (twice), de la Rue and Palestrina.

The practice of using popular songs as a counterpoint - usually a Cantus Firmus with other voices freely composed around it for masses was an enormously popular technique in the 15 and 16Cs

Posted by: Jeremy Pemberton on Wednesday, 31 December 2008 at 9:30am GMT

Don't forget Cristóbal Morales.

Posted by: BobinSWPA on Wednesday, 31 December 2008 at 1:57pm GMT

My peculiar religious road has always included the idea of religion as subversion, that if it does not disturb then it is not doing its job. It doesn't help me as an individual, because it leads to constant misunderstanding, but also means presenting a shape that doesn't fit institutional holes on offer.

Mind, having said that, it's good to have conversation with the said generous Mynsterpreost, who doubles up as my adopted parish priest.

That's a very good description of Classic FM, but it applies even more to what was Classic FM TV and is now O Music. Karl Jenkins is like Michael Nyman, one of the few moderns that Classic FM play as they brush alongside the crossover stuff. They have more bitesize potential that John Taverner's Orthodox plus minimalism. One day Classic FM will end up playing various version sections from Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells.

I've never got into the Anglo-Saxon thing, my sympathies more coming from the Celts who went west, and known for having some sympathy for even a bit of postmodern recreating Celtic forms - a little. I don't want to irritate the boss too much.

Posted by: Pluralist on Wednesday, 31 December 2008 at 5:46pm GMT

Interestingly, England was the great exception to the popularity of the tune as the basis for parody masses during the renaissance. Jenkins is the first English composer to write a setting. In Scotland, however, Robert Carver composed a mass on this melody, which was, i believe, sung at a major royal event (coronation of James V?).

Along with other secular songs used as the basis for renaissance masses, this may have been a bit rude. It has been conjectured that "the armed man" may have been a penis in a condom. The English song "The Western Wind", popular with Tudor mass composers, was quite unambiguoulsy naughty - "Oh that my love were in my arms, and I in my bed again!"

Posted by: Alan Harrison on Wednesday, 31 December 2008 at 6:56pm GMT

Jeremy; thank you for the mention of Dufay - I was listening to his 'Homme Armé' mass only the other day, and had a funny feeling he antedated Karl Jenkins;-) - but I don't quite see how your observation is in any way contradicted by my line 'The tune caught on, appearing in dozens of mediæval mass settings'. Have I missed something?

Greetings 'god yul' and happy new year from Mercia

Posted by: mynsterpreost (=David Rowett) on Wednesday, 31 December 2008 at 8:48pm GMT

"Classic FM (note for colonials — a radio station specialising in lifestyle music for the moneyed middle classes)" - Mynsterproest -

Watch it David, we ex-colonials are a little bit sensitive at the retention of the 'colonialist' title. We in New Zealand have been a part of the British Commonwealth of Nations - with our own government and judiciary for some time now - so your reference here is a little out-dated.

Notwithstanding the above, many of us do have familial links with 'The Auld Countrie' and want to be kept in the loop about the peculiarities of its customs - both civil and religious. Have a Happy New Year.

Posted by: Father Ron Smith on Wednesday, 31 December 2008 at 9:26pm GMT

I might have to see if ITunes has a setting with one of the above composers. We have that in the colonies lol.

Posted by: BobinSWPA on Thursday, 1 January 2009 at 1:10am GMT

Happy new year! On a related note, here's this NY Times article from 2006:

http://www.nytimes.com/2006/02/26/arts/music/26eise.html

And then I got to hear the tune for myself.

Posted by: Ren Aguila on Thursday, 1 January 2009 at 1:30am GMT

I think what many of my fellow commenters are missing is that while parody masses were very common in a certain period of musical history, they were normally just a way of cleverly building a mass around a popular tune - a musical "in joke" for those who could follow the structure. The words may well have been present in the cantus firmus, but there was normally no attempt made to weave the two texts together to create a third understanding in the mind of the hearer.

Both from David Rowett's essay and a quick Google search, it's apparent that Jenkins chose to actively counterpoint the texts, in hopes of encouraging a different way of looking at war and peace in a religious context. I'd say (as a singer who has observed audiences NOT getting the point of musical subtleties) this is probably more rewarding for the singer who spends weeks with the work, but I look forward to hearing/reading Mr. Jenkins' piece.

Aside from the musical issue, I agree that turning a supposedly-understood concept on its head is frequently more effective, as well as more fun, than outright revolt! It's even got a substantial Scriptural basis. I look forward to opportunities to practice it in the new year, both as a believer and as an artist.

Posted by: Robin on Thursday, 1 January 2009 at 2:24am GMT

'Interestingly, England was the great exception to the popularity of the tune as the basis for parody masses during the renaissance. Jenkins is the first English composer to write a setting. In Scotland, however, Robert Carver composed a mass on this melody, which was, i believe, sung at a major royal event...'

Jenkins is not 'an English composer' of any sort at all. He is not English.

Mae e'n Gymro. He is a Welshman. for your penance recite the name of Llanfairpwllgwyngyll (etc) 20 times in full!

Seriously, I am sure no harm was meant, but it is a very important matter.


http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karl_Jenkins

Posted by: Rev L Roberts on Friday, 2 January 2009 at 12:52am GMT

"Seriously, I am sure no harm was meant, but it is a very important matter."

Believe me, as a Newfoundlander, I understand precisely why this is a very important matter.

Posted by: Ford Elms on Friday, 2 January 2009 at 12:44pm GMT

"Jenkins is the first English composer to write a setting"

Perhaps Alan H is trying to subvert nationalism;-)

Posted by: mynsterpreost (=David Rowett) on Friday, 2 January 2009 at 7:29pm GMT

Jenkins is the first English composer to write a setting"

Perhaps Alan H is trying to subvert nationalism;-)

Posted by: mynsterpreost (=David Rowett) on Friday, 2 January 2009 at 7:29pm GMT


I do understand that only one nationalism and one language is acceptable to the English establishment led from Westminster.


But the marinalisation of Wales and Welsh is a shameful but rarely acknowledged part of the colonial effort led from Westminster.

For example when Geo Fox went on preaching tours of Wales in the seventeenth century, he had to take a translator with him (John ap John). But the language was offically ans trenuously marginalixed and indeed extirpated, leading to the situation today, where English dominates offically.

Posted by: Rev L Roberts on Saturday, 3 January 2009 at 8:09pm GMT

Mynsterpreost, thank you for this (and for your other posts a number of which have lifted my spirits and made me smile). I had never heard of the song L’Homme Armé and went to You Tube to listen to Karl Jenkins' 'The Armed Man - a Mass for Peace' and am glad I did.

You write, 'Entering a new year intent on subverting the world for God might be a Christian vocation with much deeper roots than that knee-jerk counter-culturalism so often offered us as the Good News.'

Have you come across the work of René Girard? Through his reading of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, he draws attention to the particular way in which he believes these texts are capable of subverting power play and the culture of death. I just thought I would flag up his work in case you might find it of interest.

Posted by: Ian on Saturday, 3 January 2009 at 11:57pm GMT

"Have you come across the work of René Girard? Through his reading of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, he draws attention to the particular way in which he believes these texts are capable of subverting power play and the culture of death. I just thought I would flag up his work in case you might find it of interest."

James Alison is also extremely enlightening in this respect.

Posted by: Erika Baker on Sunday, 4 January 2009 at 10:09am GMT

JAmes Alison I'm aware of, René Girard, not, I fear. Thankyou both for those themes to follow up.

Posted by: mynsterpreost (=David Rowett) on Sunday, 4 January 2009 at 3:19pm GMT
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