Karl Jenkins – A Maestro for the 21st Century

By Father Frank Mann

karl jenkins

A few months ago, while reading The Tablet in a rectory dining room, I heard some of the most soul-stirring music that I could ever recall. The immediate questions that ran though my mind were: “Where are these exhilarating and enthralling sounds coming from? Who composed such beautiful music? What were the titles?”

I quickly discovered that one of the priests was listening to some rather breathtaking compositions of the brilliant visionary composer and conductor, Karl Jenkins.

So, it was with great anticipation that I recently attended a performance of his work, “The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace” in Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center. This riveting composition is both captivating and wondrous, as it is gloriously majestic and deeply moving.

This work by Jenkins  opens with a marching army and the beat of military drums. The orchestra gradually builds to the chorus entrance, singing the 15th-century themed tune — The Armed Man. What follows is the Moslem Call to Prayer (Adhaan) and a supremely stirring Kyrie. Next we hear words from the Psalms asking for the Lord’s assistance against one’s enemies. The Sanctus that follows is remarkably haunting and has a distinctive primeval, tribal flavor.

The next movement reflects on a poem by Kipling, “Hymn Before Action,” which swells toward the chorus singing “Lord grant us strength to die.”

At the center of the Mass for Peace is a composition titled “Angry Flames.” It is an excerpt from a poem about the horrors of the bombing of Hiroshima written by a poet who was there at the time and who died in 1953 of leukemia brought on by exposure to radiation.

A passage from the Indian epic The Mahabharata illustrates that such mass destruction is not necessarily a product of the 20th century. The section following mourns the dead, remembering that even one death is one too many. A following reading points to the loss and sense of guilt many survivors of the First World War felt when they returned home but their friends did not.

The uplifting Agnus Dei stirs the soul and, without question, reminds us of Jesus’s ultimate sacrifice on the cross.
The Benedictus transports the listener to a place of transformative prayer and quiet reflection. This composition draws the listener to a hallowed space as the voices of the chorus hint of an attempt at healing the wounds of war with faith in God and the goodness of mankind.

The conclusion of the composition is indescribably joyful and upbeat as the chorus and orchestra ring in a new age in which we are all uniquely renewed and refreshed by the healing and peace, the sure and certain “shalom” afforded by victory achieved over the dark forces of evil.

“The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace” has been performed nearly 1,000 times in 20 different countries.

Recent recordings by Jenkins include Gloria, Stella Natalis and Joy to the World, Requiem and Stabat Mater.
His dauntingly haunting composition on the grieving Mother of Jesus, “Stabat Mater,” is my favorite; its depth and scope capture so starkly the deep and abiding sorrow reflected in the life and blessed tears of the Virgin Mary.

Jenkins was born and raised in the county of Swansea, south Wales. His father, who was a local schoolteacher, organist, and choirmaster, gave him his initial musical instruction.

I got a chance to sit down with Jenkins at Calvary Baptist Church in Manhattan. The composer-conductor explained, “I had a thoroughly classical upbringing and training in music. Without question, it was my father who started the ball rolling since he was hugely influential with regard to my musical education. He taught me piano from an early age and music was always in the house, both live and recorded.”

Jenkins began his musical career as an oboist in the National Youth Orchestra of Wales. He went on to study music at Cardiff University, with postgraduate studies in London at the Royal Academy of Music, where he met his wife and musical collaborator, Carol Barratt.

“In my teenage years I fell in love with jazz,” he said. He co-founded the jazz-rock group Nucleus, which won first prize at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1970.

“I likewise joined the Canterbury progressive rock band Soft Machine in 1972.” The group played venues as diverse as Carnegie Hall and the Newport Jazz Festival. The album on which Jenkins first played with Soft Machine, Six, won the Melody Maker British Jazz Album of the Year award in 1973.

He has created a good deal of advertising music, twice winning the industry prize in that field. “I began to write music for television commercials. It gave me the opportunity to explore (as it were) various ethnic cultures.”

Perhaps his most familiar piece of music for advertising is the classical theme used by diamond merchants for their television advertising campaign. Jenkins later included this as the title track in a compilation called Diamond Music, and eventually created Palladio, using it as the theme of the first movement. His advertising credits include Levis, British Airways, Renault, Volvo, C&G, Tag Heuer, Pepsi and Delta Airlines.

His compositions later became marked by the success of what became known as the Adiemus project. The “Adiemus” compositions combined the classical with ethnic vocal sounds and percussion, in addition to what he called, “an invented language.” “Adiemus” works topped classical and pop charts around the world.

In the summer of 2005,  he scored the feature film, River Queen starring Kiefer Sutherland and Samantha Morton, the soundtrack of which won the Golden Goblet award for best score at the Shanghai Film Festival.

“My musical journey, following academic classical training at Cardiff University, has taken on a wide variety of genres,” he pointed out. “I am a composer who always looks outside the European tradition for influences, texts and instrumentation, particularly percussion. My principle is searching around for ideas (usually using a piano) and developing what takes my fancy. A huge amount of intuition is involved, but intuition based on acquired musical craft; harmony, counterpoint, orchestration, form, etc.”

One statement from this unpretentious  artist that struck me was, “I believe music should emotionally connect with an audience; make them cry, laugh, administer goose bumps!”

I shared with him that I personally found the beauty of his compositions transport me to a place of deep prayer and profound inspiration (albeit even motivation to be a better person in the somewhat mundane world). His musical pieces seem to touch upon a plethora of variant human emotions as well as point to a definitive, transcendent, spiritual reality.

Commissioned for the millennium by Britain’s Royal Armouries in 2000 and dedicated to the victims of the Kosovo crisis, “The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace” is a  composition based on the 15th-century French song L’homme arme’ (The Armed Man). Set within the framework of the Catholic Mass, it is a major choral work which uses both sacred and secular texts.

The music of Karl Jenkins has been the subject of renowned praise from around the world.

Dame Kiri Te Kanawa said, “I adore Karl’s compositions. From this quiet, gentle human being, comes the most amazing, haunting music, that is instantly recognizable, and loved across the world.”

A comment from the pen of Bryn Terfel: “Karl Jenkins? …always impeccable writing for a multitude of voices and instruments. I wish I had his talent to compose tunes but am proud to consider myself as one who adores to sing them.”

On Friday, Dec. 2, at Immaculate Conception Center, Douglaston, at 7 p.m., join The Tablet staff as we gather for a viewing of Karl Jenkins’ masterpiece, “The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace.” This is a “must see” event, one that  cannot be missed! Admisison is free and no tickets are needed. It will be a wonderful reflection for the season of Advent.

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