Way back, in the time of the Hundred Years Unpleasantness, when England and France had been at it marteau and tongs for as long as people could remember, a song was composed---or at least occurred. It was called “L’homme Armé”, and it was destined to have far-reaching repercussions down throughout all of musical history.
The song itself is an odd little thing. When the words are they mean something like
‘The armed man’s the one to fear!
‘On every corner they are crying
‘“Come everyone, arm yourself in a Kevlar (registered
trade mark) Vest”
‘Yup, the armed man's the one to fear’,
and scholars have never been able to decide whether there is some deep, bitter anti-war protest buried in there, or if the song isn’t after all just a commercial for a bar called The Armed Man.
But that’s not our concern today. Today we are concerned with the song’s later history.
It was enormously popular, people were always arranging it and resetting it for various combinations of instruments and voices, and in particular there were whole series of masses which used the tune as a uniting structural device, and in even more particularity, the great Flemish composer Josquin Despres wrote two mass settings on it. One of these masses we don't in fact give a damn about, but the other one, the one in the sixth mode, which was written around 1500, has a rather special place in musical history. About half of the way through the Credo of this Missa L’homme Armé occurs a unique event, an event that the physicist might well call the ‘singularity of music’: during that Credo occurs neither more nor less than the high point of Western Music. Up till about half of the way through the Credo of the Missa L’homme Armé Western Music was on the rise, it was developing, it had somewhere to go, then, suddenly, it peaked, and for the remaining part of the Credo down through the Sanctus and Benedictus and even through the Agnus Dei and down to the present day music has been declining.
I'm sure you remember the middle section of the chanson:
On a fait partout crier,
Que chasquin se vien d’armer
D’un haubregon de fer,
well there is a point in the mass when all four voices come together for a moment to almost sing that section
and that’s it! The high water mark! From then on, though there are minor successes for individual composers, the way for Western music is down-hill, the spark has gone, and there is a feeling, especially among the more gifted composers, that somehow---there is no point. Why else do you think that, once realization of this turning point had sunk in, composers started to have such a hard time of it, always searching for something new and way out, as though vainly and pathetically trying to believe that it had not happened. Things were slower in the sixteenth century so it wasn’t until around the beginning of seventeenth century that the message of the decline of music really sank in, and what do we see?
Gesualdo going ga-ga!
John Dowland, writing the most miserable songs in the history of the world - Flow my Tears, Lachrimæ Antiquæ, In Darkness let me Dwell!!
The invention of opera!---now there's desperation for you.
They even tried forgeting about Josquin for a time, which is why Bach managed to escape the worst of the depression merely by indulging in (to judge by the number of his offspring) an inordinate sex life, though even he is supposed to have tried to knife a chorister who unadvisedly, though perhaps not inadvertently, walked past him whistling L’homme Armé. But they couldn’t forget, why else did Mozart spend all his time gambling and playing pool; why else did poor old Salieri die of a cold he caught while out one dark midnight pouring poison through a crack in Josquin’s tombstone; and why else in his portraits is Beethoven always looking so mad? Indeed how else can you explain Mahler or why there's HipHop?
We know, don’t we.
Cheerio for now
from Richard Howland-Bolton
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