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Christ Pantocrator, Sainte-Sophie, Istamboul (fr Wikipedia)

The Fall of Constantinople

Setting a Mass to a secular song, the 15th-century L’Homme armé, is an oddity. But the title of this Mass is otherwise intriguing. Sir Karl Jenkins (b. 1944), a Welsh composer, dedicated his Armed Man: a Mass for Peace to the victims of the Kosovo genocide, giving his Mass a “contemporary resonance.” (Early Music Muse.)

The genocidal wars that followed the dissolution of the Soviet Union reflect ethnic discrimination in Eastern Europe. Such discrimination is probably rooted in the very last Crusades, the fall of Constantinople.

On 29 May 1453, the Byzantine Empire fell to the Ottoman Empire. Greek scholars fled to Italy initiating or buttressing the Renaissance. Moreover, Ottoman Turks invaded neighbouring countries, creating Muslim communities. In 1529, they nearly reached Vienna.

By the 15th century, the expanding Ottoman Empire overpowered the Balkan Peninsula, but faced successful rebellion and resistance led by Gjergj Kastrioti Skanderbeg. By the 17th and 18th centuries, a substantial number of Albanians converted to Islam, which offered them equal opportunities and advancement within the Ottoman Empire. Thereafter, Albanians attained significant positions and culturally contributed to the broader Muslim world.

(See Albanians, Wikipedia)

L’Homme armé

The composition of the secular L’Homme armé has been attributed to Johannes Regis (c. 1425 – c. 1496), but it appears that Antoine Busnois (c. 1430 – 6 November 1492) is the song’s composer. Sources differ. Both Regis and Busnois were younger members of the Burgundian School, younger than Guillaume Du Fay (5 August 1397 – 27 November 1474). However, all three composers lived in the 15th century and were active in or after 1453. Busnois, Regis, and Du Fay were members of the Burgundian School, whose chief purpose was the development of polyphony. Although the Greeks invented polyphony, “the term polyphony is usually used to refer to music of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance.” (See Polyphony, Wikipedia.)


The fall of Constantinople and the conquest by Ottoman Turks of several European countries, the future Balkans mainly, led to battles and bloodshed. So, it is less surprising that 15th-century composers set the Ordinary of the Mass, the Mass’ permanent elements, to L’Homme armé, its cantus firmus, or fixed melody. “Some have suggested that the ‘armed man’ represents St Michael the Archangel.” (See L’Homme armé, Wikipedia.)

As for compositions of L’Homme armé that followed the breakdown of the Soviet Union, they reflect distant conflicts. Karl Jenkins’ Armed Man: a Mass for Peace, composed in 1999, is a commemoration. One is also reminded of Benjamin Britten‘s War Requiem, an anti-war piece. 

Fifteenth-century composers who have set a Mass to L’Homme armé are Josquin des Prez, Matthaeus PipelarePierre de La RueCristóbal de MoralesGuillaume Du Fay, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, Guillaume FauguesJohannes Regis, and Johannes Ockeghem. Most were members of the Burgundian School or the Franco-Flemish School.

One cannot forget L’Homme armé.



Sources and Resources

L’homme armé / The armed man: the remarkable life of a 15th century song and its contemporary resonance.
(Early Music Muse.)

L’homme armé doibt on doubter.
On a fait partout crier
Que chascun se viegne armer
D’un haubregon de fer.
L’homme armé doibt on doubter.

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.

(See L’Homme armé, Wikipedia.)


Love to everyone 💕

Sir Karl Jenkins conducts his Armed Man: a Mass for Peace
Renesansowa pieśń żołnierska Renaissance Soldier Song L’Homme armé (ballada na niej oparta)
L’homme armé in the Mellon Chansonnier, c. 1470 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

© Micheline Walker
6 April 2021