The composer Karl Jenkins is the bane of many music critics’ lives. They cannot understand him; or why he is so popular with serious music lovers. A recent study shows that he is now the most performed living composer in the world. If Jenkins was a Mick Jagger or a Paul McCartney then, some critics argue, different criteria would apply. But this man takes the most solemn themes, such as the Mass, and more recently Stabat Mater (the intensely moving 13th century hymn to Mary as she stands at the foot of the Cross ), and presents them in an astonishing, and exciting, new format that makes you sit up, and ask: “What was that?” It is certainly not in the classical tradition.
Yet Jenkin’s music is now performed in the great music venues of the world, and embraced by some of the greatest choirs, orchestras, and singers such as Kiri Te Kanawa, acclaimed as one of the most beloved sopranos in both the United States, and Britain. Not only does he introduce a variety of new instruments into the standard orchestral arrangement, including African drums, gourds, bells, synthesisers, even the sound of the Adhan, called out by the muezzin in the mosque five times a day, but surprisingly, made-up words all of which came together when he first weaved his magic in Adiemus, released in 1995.
Jenkin’s musical background had been in jazz and accompanying music for advertisements (another reason for music critics to roll their eyes in disbelief ). He was working on a series of quasi religious Songs of Sanctuary, when asked by Delta Airlines to compose a score for its new TV advertisement. Adiemus, with its harmonised vocal melody, full orchestra, and the powerful voice of South African Miriam Stockley, hits you head on. It has a distinctive and joyous African feel, yet the words are merely vocal sounds invented by Jenkins. “ I didn’t want the distraction of words of any dramatic message conveyed in the lyrics. I wanted to use the voice as an instrument, because the voice is the first instrument of man.”
I do not know what the effect of the advertisement had on Delta Airways, but the theme became a world-wide best seller.
Do critics worry him? “ Honestly, I think of those critics, and the’re not too many of them, as musical snobs. They have an image that I should write modern music that is difficult, and usually only performed once, and then, put to one side. I like to explore themes that find resonances in different music styles and cultures. I draw from African, Celtic, Arabic, rock, and jazz influences, which reflect, I believe, our modern world. It means more to me to do a concert at the Royal Albert Hall, or to do a session with the London Philharmonic and have the orchestra applaud me at the end of that session. These people are working musicians who play every day and have seen and heard much. For them to enjoy what I do means I have accomplished something.”
A common link
Karl Jenkins was born in Wales in 1944. He first learned music from his father, a local schoolteacher, organist and choirmaster. His principal instrument was the oboe, an unusual choice for a boy, who went on to start his own jazz /rock group Nucleus, which won first prize at the Montreux jazz festival in 1972. So much of his recent music has a strong spiritual content. Is this his intention? “Oh no. People have told me that my music touches them deeply, and that they felt spiritually uplifted listening to it. I just express myself through music. I never intentionally put any spiritual message into it. I was raised a Christian, of course. I have my doubts about it all. But I do believe that there is a spiritual entity beyond our lives, and that it is shared by all people of every ethnic background, and all religions. Music seems to be a common link which everyone can identify with, and feel part of.”
Not to be missed
We will get the full impact of this remarkable artist at Leisureland on Thursday, April 28. when Jenkins himself will conduct the RTE Concert Orchestra, with the Galway Baroque Singers, and present two perfect works for Easter, his Te Deum, and The Armed Man - Mass for peace.* This is the second time the Baroque Singers and the RTE orchestra will present this work. They did so together in 2009. But the privilege of having the composer on this occasion will make the evening an event not to be missed.
I asked Jenkins if he had heard the Baroque Singers before? He said he had not. “ Are they good?”
I said they were very fine. “ You will have a great time.”
“Good! I’m looking forward to it.”
There are exquisite lyrical moments, such as during the Agnus Dei; but the work is essentially an anti-war statement which Jenkins weaves in and out of the Mass with music and quotes from other sources. It includes the Islamic call to prayer, and quotes from the Old Testament, there are texts by Dryden, Kipling, and Swift as well as a poem by a survivor of the Hiroshima bombing in 1945.
The work was commissioned by the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds for the Millennium celebrations. It was initially dedicated to victims of the Kosovo crisis; with the vain hope that the world would leave behind the most war-torn and destructive century in human history, and move into an era of peace. It concludes with "Ring Out, Wild Bells, " a very good poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, published in 1850, the year he was appointed Poet Laureate. It forms part of In Memoriam, Tennyson's elegy to Arthur Henry Hallam, his sister's fiancé who died at the age of twenty-two.
Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light;
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.
Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.
Ring out the grief that saps the mind,
For those that here we see no more,
Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.
Ring out a slowly dying cause,
And ancient forms of party strife;
Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.
Ring out the want, the care, the sin,
The faithless coldness of the times;
Ring out, ring out thy mournful rhymes,
But ring the fuller minstrel in.
Ring out false pride in place and blood,
The civic slander and the spite;
Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.
Ring out old shapes of foul disease,
Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.
Ring in the valiant man and free,
The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.
NOTES: * Tickets available at Charlie Byrnes’ Bookshop, Middle St. €20