Today’s pick takes us back to the 15th century, when the engine of Western musical creativity was the Franco-Flemish School. A star of the set, Johannes Ockeghem was born in Saint-Ghislain (now located in modern-day Belgium), but travelled widely throughout his life. He held posts at Notre Dame and in the Royal Court in Paris, Antwerp, and was even sent to Spain as a peace envoy in an attempt to prevent them teaming up with England.

It was a period of uncertainty, strained alliances, and tactical marriages, so it’s little surprise the song ‘L’homme armé’ was so prevalent, the text of which goes:

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.

It was a secular song that Ockeghem used as the basis for a Mass setting to be sung in a cathedral, church, or at court. This might seem like a rather improper starting point for the Catholic Mass, but in a period of crusade (it’s suggested by some the “armed man” is the Turk), Christianity was rather more robust in its messaging back then. And before reforms to music in the Catholic church made in the 16th century, composers mixed and matched with all manner of profane materials. The Song of Songs, a veritable encyclopaedia of sexual desire, was a firm favourite.

“L’homme armé” was almost as popular, being set over over forty times for the Mass alone by many composers. It’s in the Dorian Mode (which, you’ll notice if you’ve been keeping up with this series religiously, is the same as ‘Scarborough Fair’), which gives it this rather stark, otherworldly aura. He winds these long, ethereal lines around the “L’homme armé” tune which is quoted throughout, that seem to go on for eternity like an endless horizon.

Ockeghem was a master of his craft. Celebrated during his lifetime, he received greater extolment at the end of it. A large number of tributes in the form of poems and songs were written, including by Erasmus, Molinet, and Josquin. Despite the 500 or so years since it was written, it sounds just as fresh today.

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