For many musicians of the past, war was personal. It ravaged their cities, starved their loved ones, drove them to flee, or inspired them to fight. And, sometimes, it influenced what they wrote. Coming up, we’ll explore music with military ties, along with a featured release from the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra.
Let’s start with the Hilliard Ensemble in a performance of the motet Absalom Fili Mi, attributed by some scholars to the composer Josquin Desprez.
The speaker in the motet is the biblical King David, who mourns the death of his son Absalom.
Absalom had been a favorite before he plotted against his father. He was eventually killed in battle by David’s men. Despite this, David mourned, calling out: “O Absalom, my son. Would that I had died instead of you.”
Scaramella and l’homme arme
The Europe of centuries past was not a particularly peaceful place. Noblemen vied for power; religious conflict abounded, and day-to-day life was hard. Writing from war-torn England, the philosopher Thomas Hobbes described what he saw as the inevitable outcome when humans were left to their own devices: lives that were “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” with “no letters, no arts, no society.”
But the arts are hardier than we give them credit for, and men of war were as likely to find their way into song as onto the battlefield.
The Franco-Flemish composer Josquin Desprez, writing in the 1400s and early 1500s, was one of several composers to set to music text about men of arms.
We’ll hear the Hilliard Ensemble performing two settings of the tale of the solider Scaramella, one by Josquin and one by his contemporary Loyset Compere. You can hear the drums in the singer’s words:
Scaramella goes to war with his lance and round shield,
Scaramella is out for fun, with his shoes and pack,
Scaramella wasn’t the only armed man to merit his own song—there’s the armed man himself, l’homme arme, an unnamed soldier who has haunted the imagination of many a student of music history. The text is basic:
The man, the man, the armed man,
The armed man should be feared.
Everywhere it has been proclaimed
That each man shall arm himself
With a coat of iron mail.
The origins of the tune are murky, but l’homme arme did the equivalent of shooting to the top of the Renaissance charts, becoming one of the most popular tunes around which to base a Latin mass. More than forty settings of the tune exist. We’ll listen to a meager three!
First up, the Tallis Scholars, singing a bare-bones anonymous version of the tune followed by the Kyrie of a mass setting by Josquin. After that, we’ll skip ahead several centuries to hear a version by Giacomo Carissimi, sung by the group I Madrigalisti Ambrosiani.
“All the Good Soldiers”
We’ve been listening to music about soldiers. Now let’s hear from one directly.
In the 15th century, Gilles Binchois served under William Pole, the Earl of Suffolk, who sought to occupy France on behalf of the English. The composer Ockeghem, memorializing his colleague Binchois, called him an “an honorably chivalrous soldier.”
Let’s hear music by the honorably chivalrous Binchois, a chanson, Pour prison ne pour maladie.
From honorable to good: we’ll hear warlike works performed by Jordi Savall, Hesperion XXI, and La Capella Reial de Catalunya. Up first, music by the Catalan composer Mateo Flecha, Todos los Buenos Soladaos, or “All the Good Soldiers,” from the chanson La Guerra, or “The War.”
Here’s more martial music, an anonymous “Battle Pavane” performed by Savall and his forces. We’ll follow that with another anonymous piece, a Marcha Guerrera Otomana, or Ottoman war march.
Heinrich Schutz and The Thirty Years’ War
In the 1600s, The Thirty Years’ War ravaged Europe. A muddy mess of political and religious conflict, it caused…well, thirty years of war, famine, deprivation, and bankruptcy.
It was also bad for music, slashing budgets and musical payrolls. You can hear the drag of the Thirty Years’ War in the music of Heinrich Schutz, a German who studied in Venice with that master of multi-choral works, Giovanni Gabrielli.
Gabrielli’s music is sumptuous, demanding large forces and large spaces. And at the beginning of his career, Schutz imitated his teacher. Early works by Schutz, written before the war, are lavish, featuring two, three, or even four choruses with instruments.
But as the war went on and on, musical resources dwindled, and Schutz, like so many, was forced to make do with less. His later works are lean and light, scored for a handful of singers and instruments. It’s music close to the bone, though it still retains a sense of the expansive.
We’ll hear two works from different points in Schutz’s career.
Featured recording: Brandenburg Concertos
Musicians in Berlin lost their jobs when Friedrich Wilhelm I—dubbed the ‘Soldier King’—turned his attention to military recruits rather than musical pursuits. But one man’s loss is another’s gain. Some of the best of those out-of-work musicians were snatched up by Prince Leopold and moved to his court in Cöthen. (Johann Sebastian) Bach went to Cöthen too, and it was there that he finished compiling his Six Brandenburg Concertos in 1721.
Our featured release is a recording of the Brandenburg Concertos performed by the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra. Here is their performance of the final movement from Concerto No. 1.
Break and Theme music
:30, Marin Marais: Alcione, Le Concert Des Nations/Jordi Savall, Alia Vox 2014, 4th Suite: Airs pour les Matelots & les Tritons: Tr 20 March pour les Matelots (excerpt of 1:21)
:60, Marin Marais: Alcione, Le Concert Des Nations/Jordi Savall, Alia Vox 2014, 4th Suite: Airs pour les Matelots & les Tritons:Tr 21 2nd Air pour les mêmes (excerpt of 1:17)
:30, Bach: Brandenburg Concertos, Freiburger Barockorchester, Harmonia Mundi (2014), D 1/ Tr 8 Concerto No. 2 in F Major, BWV 1047: I. [Ohne Satzbezeichnung (excerpt of 5:31)
Theme: Danse Royale, Ensemble Alcatraz, Elektra Nonesuch 79240-2 1992 B000005J0B, T.12: La Prime Estampie Royal
The writers for this edition of Harmonia are Anne Timberlake and Janelle Davis.
Learn more about recent early music CDs on the Harmonia Early Music Podcast. You can subscribe on iTunes or at harmonia early music dot org.