Sunday, 6 February 2022

Cantus Firmus, The Armed Man and the love of God

Image: CD cover of
The Armed Man
Today I've been singing The Armed Man by Karl Jenkins, as part of the Northampton Bach Choir (and alongside the Royal Philarmonic Orchestra). It's only actually the second time I've sung the whole piece, but it's one of my very favourite pieces of classical music, partly because it was the first concert my wife Becky heard me perform and we played the Benedictus as a settling-down piece at our wedding; but also because of the very fine themes of peace and war that it portrays in a really vivid and accessible way. 

Rehearsing it again over the past two months, I've learnt a lot about the piece from the choir's main conductor Lee Dunleavy and our guest conductor Adrian Partington who actually conducted the piece in concert. In particular, from Adrian I learnt about a piece of musical theory that's important to understanding one of the movements: the idea of a cantus firmus. This was described by BBC Music Magazine as "a fixed tune around which polyphonic choral music is developed" - an existing tune or phrase which is typically sung or very slowly and by low voices, underneath other parts to form a foundation. For centuries, one such tune was the medieval song L'homme armée, which is also the basis of The Armed Man. 

Image by Lee Dunleavy,
Northampton Bach Choir [via Facebook]
In the Kyrie of The Armed Man, there's a couple of minutes of unaccompanied plainsong to the words 'Christe eleison', based on a setting of Missa de l'homme arméby Palestrina, and the second tenors (of which I am proudly one!) sing a cantus firmus - a very slow and sonorous version of the main theme which sits as an underlay to the rest of the plainsong. Adrian flattered the second tenors at one of our rehearsals by saying that we had the most important part in that section of the movement, and the more I think about it, the more I can see that musically.

But I was also really interested to learn (tbh from Wikipedia in the first instance, but subsequently from other sources) that the concept of a cantus firmus has been used metaphorically by various thinkers. Perhaps most notably, it was used by the great German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer as a metaphor for the love that a believer should have for God and how it relates to our love for the world and other humans (in all the different forms of love):

God, the Eternal, wants to be loved with our whole heart, not to the detriment of earthly love or to diminish it, but as a sort of Cantus Firmus to which the other voices of life resound in counterpoint. One of these contrapuntal themes, which keep their full independence, but are still related to the Cantus Firmus, is earthly love. ... Where the Cantus Firmus is clear and distinct, a counterpoint can develop as mightily as it wants. The two are ‘undivided and yet distinct,’ as the Definition of Chalcedon says, like the divine and human natures in Christ. Is that perhaps why we are so at home with polyphony in music, why it is important to us, because it is the musical image of the Christological fact and thus also our Christian life? [Extract from Letters and Papers from Prison, pp. 393-4, available online via Cantus Firmus Ministries

This idea of the cantus firmus and our love for God was much in my mind during the Quaker meeting for worship that I attended this morning immediately before our concert-day rehearsal for The Armed Man. My experience of singing the cantus firmus in the Kyrie is that it has the following characteristics:

  1. It is massively slower than the parts in the other voices
  2. It sits below those other parts, giving them foundation and depth
  3. It can be hard to hear by itself, but if you're able to listen hard for it, it's then difficult to ignore (my ability at picking out individual lines on a recording is only average but the cantus firmus on the Armed Man recording is very clear)
  4. It is not easy to sing, and requires a lot of concentration but once you try, it can be really rewarding
  5. It is something that especially works through sharing - at one point today I was part of a group of just three second tenors and that was especially hard, but when the choir was reconfigured so that a larger group were together, the cantus firmus was much easier to pick up
I think all of these can be said of God's love for God's creation - it is more fundamental than human love, and happens at a different pace; once you know it, it's not hard to see but it requires work to do so; and that love can best be experienced along with others. In my own experience, Quaker stillness is an especially good way to experience God's love, but others have found it through many other contemplative practices within Christianity and other faiths. And the same processes can be said to be true of other response to God and our love for God - it requires effort, and to be foundational underneath other loves, and it can perhaps best be learnt and shown in a group of others.

As St Paul wrote in the letter to the Romans:
And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor [rulers] neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. (Romans 8:38, New Living Translation)

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Cantus Firmus, The Armed Man and the love of God

Image: CD cover of The Armed Man Today I've been singing The Armed Man  by Karl Jenkins, as part of the Northampton Bach Choir (and alo...