Sanctus?

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The choir I sing with is rehearsing the choral suite from Karl Jenkins’ The Armed Man: A Mass For Peace. For me, his setting of the Sanctus is especially spine-tingling to sing. The tiptoeing tension in the opening bars, the small skip added to the beat in ‘Pleni sunt caeli et terra’ and the rise and fall of the repeated ‘Gloria’ lead to a leap of excitement with ‘Hosanna in excelsis’.

The words are sublime, too. Based on the song of the six-winged seraphim in the prophet Isaiah’s vision of God, they speak of dazzling light and a world beyond everyday earthly experience. This could easily be a musical picture of a heavenly procession that can’t help breaking into dance.

That is, until you remember that the overall context of the piece is a preparation for war. Then the steady beat underlying the melody becomes the ominous, relentless approach of an army. If it’s a dance, it’s a hypnotic, menacing one.

Once, driving due west at dusk into a lurid red and orange sunset, the Sanctus happened to be playing on my car stereo. The effect was apocalyptic, as if the Four Horsemen might be preparing to thunder over the horizon. I remembered that ‘Dominus Deus Sabaoth’ means ‘Lord God of hosts’—or ‘God-of-the-Angel-Armies’, as The Message Bible paraphrase puts it.

I feel ambivalent about this, and perhaps Karl Jenkins means me to. The words and music are glorious, but war is not glorious—the First World War poets leave us in no doubt about that—and ‘holy’ war is especially horrific. Angel armies, if they exist, don’t kill men, women and children with guns and bombs, yet too many of the world’s armies and solitary warriors believe that some kind of heavenly commander is leading them on.

Jenkins’ composition as a whole suggests a range of conflicting emotions. The very title, The Armed Man: A Mass For Peace, is a contradiction in terms. Clearly, though, it aims to highlight (to quote Wilfred Owen) ‘the pity of war’. Possibly the most heart-rending movement in it is the Agnus Dei: ‘Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, have pity on us and give us peace.’

So I shall continue to feel this conflict whenever I sing the Sanctus. I hear both the tramp of an earthly army with a delusional belief that God is on its side and, at the same time, the dance of a heavenly procession through light and glory.

What do you hear?

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5 responses to “Sanctus?

  1. A choir I sing in performed most of this work last Remembrance Day. There are some lovely contrasts in it and some reminders of how horrific war really is.
    Best wishes for your blog. Sue

  2. Thoughtful stuff, Lisa, as we approach the centenary.

    Trust you’ll be watching Niall Ferguson tonight- and catch Max Hastings’ The Necessary War’ for the other side of the debate.

  3. I thought I’d missed them, Chris! Thanks for the reminder – I’ll be interested in the Niall Ferguson programme tonight. And thanks for following!

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