There can only be two reasons why music highbrows are still a bit ‘iffy’ about the Welsh composer Karl Jenkins. One is probably a comment on his unusual route into classical music. A talented music scholar from Cardiff University and the Royal Academy London, he founded a jazz group Nucleus, which won first prize in the Montreux Jazz Festival. Then to keep bread on the table, he made a series of TV advertising jingles. One of them, called ‘got off the ground’, was for an airline. But it became so popular and catchy, that people were clogging the airline’s phones demanding what was that amazing music. Jenkins developed the theme and, extending its African and Arabic sounds, it became the energetic Adiemus. It topped the pop charts across the world.
Music highbrows distrust chart toppers.
Then there is the mad variety of instruments that Jenkins uses, not usually associated with sacred or religious themes. I don’t know all their names, but as well as a conventional orchestra, he introduces a range of drums from deep explosive sounds, to the tinny fife and drum, to the bongo! There are weird gourd-like horns (making a sound similar to blowing across a water filled bottle ), church bells, lots and lots of percussion, jingling harness-bells and a voice recording. All this additional ammunition is capable of a torrential downpour of sound that can make listeners jump in their seat. The result is that his music is not only for the trained classical ear, but welcomes everyone on board. Jenkins sees the world as a multi-cultural unit, and part of his appeal is that everyone can find their own resonance, both national and personal, within his music.
Despite the controversy, Jenkins does it for me.
Perhaps his most famous composition to date is The Armed man - A Mass for Peace, commissioned by the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds for the Millennium celebrations, and dedicated to victims of the Kosovo crisis. Like Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem before it, it is essentially an anti-war piece. Jenkins’ work is a mixture of familiar sacred words of the Mass, and the brutal physicality of words of war drawn from literary works as diverse as Rudyard Kipling, Thomas Malory, Alfred Lord Tennyson as well as a survivor of the Hiroshima bombing. Interspersed among these quotations are the sacred hymns of the Kyrie Eleison, Agnus Dei, Sanctus, Benedictus, etc, exquisitely reinterpreted by Jenkins, and haunting in their beauty.
‘A familiar swish’
The Galway Baroque Singers, together with the RTE Concert Orchestra presented the Galway premiere of The Armed Man- A Mass for Peace at Leisureland last Thursday. That was followed by a repeat performance at the National Concert Hall, Dublin, the following day. It cannot be too much of an exaggeration to say that the combination of the Baroque Singers and the RTE Concert Orchestra is a marriage made pretty close to heaven. They have performed together before, and when they do so now, it is a major Galway event. Leisureland was packed to its gills, and on a warm summer evening many people used their programme as fans. The conductor Proinnsías Ó Duinn has a familiar swish about him that the Galway audience love. As well as conducting the music he eloquently guides the soloists, lead players, the orchestra, the choir, and its director through the strict protocol of concert etiquette as they make their entrances and exits. It’s a performance in itself! Furthermore the Galway audience have long taken the Baroque Singers to its heart. It is always eager to show its appreciation by warm applause, and, as on Thursday evening, a prolonged standing ovation. Even the odd mobile telephone was anxious to show its appreciation too.
The programme last week was enhanced by beginning with two other sacred music pieces, Te Deum, and Paukenmesse - Mass in Time of War, by the father of the symphony and the string quartet, and the darling of music highbrows, Joseph Haydn. Both pieces were composed when Europe was in chaos in the 1790s, the ambitious Napoleon Boneparte had emerged from the French Revolution, and Austria was under threat of invasion. Most of Hayden’s music is a pleasing harmony of strings and human voice, perfectly presented by the Baroques and soloists Lynda Lee ( soprano ), Chloe Hinton (mezzo-soprano ), Ross Scanlon (tenor ), and Jeffrey Ledwidge ( bass ). There are audio references to war in his Paukenmesse but nothing more than drums and brass, and a magnificent Agnus Dei with its climatic ... ‘grant us peace’.
The atmosphere is dramatically different with the Jenkins’ Mass. The choir begin by stamping their feet and swaying as if they are an army on the move. Then singing The Armed Man, a French 15th century call to arms :
The Armed man must be feared;
Everywhere it has been decreed
That every man should arm himself
With an iron coat of mail...
And then in typical Jenkins’ cinematic style, he takes us on a journey as he explores the theme of war through his choice of literature and of course, music. Cellos create a sun-rise, a mullah calls us to prayer, Arabic folk sounds, and then we’re off: On a camel train in the desert, bells jangling in the harness, echoes of the Crusades, Christian bells, and Christian prayers.
Because his Sanctus, Agnus Dei and the Kyrie are frequently requested on RTE, most of us are familiar with them, but the Benedictus took me by surprise. Just before the line Hosanna in excelsis there is an explosion of sound, a burst of fireworks, that electrified the audience. And yes, I jumped! And then, in contrast, the last five lines are sung by the choir alone, with no musical accompaniment...
God shall wipe away all tears...
And there shall be no more death
Neither sorrow nor crying
Neither shall there be any more pain.
Praise the Lord.
If you ever wondered why the Galway Baroque Singers, founded and directed by Dr Audrey Corbett, are the greatest amateur choir in Ireland, and have the awards to prove it, then this closing prayer, sung with exceptional grace and beauty, was clearly the defining moment in an evening of outstanding music.
A reader adds a note to Galway’s dramatic participation in the sinking of SS Athenia
‘I read with interest your article on SS Athenia some weeks ago (March 26, 2009 ). If in the future you are doing anything further on this subject I have a small but interesting record from O Beirns Pharmacy's original prescription book started in 1935.
My late mother Sile always told a story of how the ship’s cook was saved by an American doctor who was a passenger on board. The cook was very badly burned and this doctor made an ointment of engine oil and ink! Which was liberally applied.
After the rescue this very badly burned man was admitted to St Brides on Sea Rd and the pharmacy had to devise a similar topical application of which vast amounts were made and delivered to the nursing home daily. I have found the original entry as I said in the prescription book for a Sydney Worrell, a Scotsman, and the prescribing doctor was Robbie Sandys, who would have been Dr
Paul's father. By the way 8ozs of this concoction cost 2/8!