The armed man is to be feared: L'homme armé

The theme of the French secular song L'homme armé (the armed man) will be featured on the Tallis Scholars' tour programme.

  L'homme armé  melody (Anonymous)

L'homme armé melody (Anonymous)

In the Europe of the fifteenth century, when the anonymous French song L'homme armé first became popular, war was an omnipresent threat. Many watched aghast as the old order seemed to crumble before their eyes. In 1453, the Ottoman Empire had sacked Constantinople, putting an end to the thousand-year old Byzantine empire. Later that same year, the Hundred Years War between England and France culminated in a bloody battle at Castillon. The song obviously resonated with a people preoccupied with war: the armed man was indeed to be feared.

  • TEXT (Old French): 

    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.

  • TRANSLATION:

    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.

 Josquin des Prez

Josquin des Prez

Composers of the early Renaissance, of whom Josquin des Prez was the most renowned, frequently turned to secular songs as models for sacred compositions. Tapping into contemporary popular songs allowed them not only to pepper their music with familiar motifs, but to allude to the content of those songs, creating multiple layers of meaning. Josquin composed two masses on the L'homme armé theme. The later of the two is a polyphonic tour de force, incorporating several complex canonic and imitative techniques.

 Francisco Guerrero

Francisco Guerrero

Francisco Guerrero, born some years after Josquin's death, also based mass settings on existing works. Guerrero's take on the L'homme armé mass is scored, unusually, for four higher voices, the tessitura giving it an intriguingly weightless feel. He evokes the song of the angels in the 'Sanctus', while in the livelier Hosanna, the triple time meter of the original tune is used, with the alto and tenor parts singing it in imitative canon.

  • VIDEO: The Tallis Scholars performing the 'Agnus Dei' movement from the Josquin's Missa l'Homme Armé Sexti Toni, which is not scheduled to be performed on the tour programme.