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Published on Jun 27, 2014
Psallite performs L'homme Arme at St. Cecilia at the Tower III
"L'homme armé" is well known as the melody that was used as the cantus firmus for over 40 mass cycles between 1450 and 1600. (It also inspired multiple other pieces, most notably a quodlibet by English composer Robert Morton in 1463.) The melody is particularly useful as a cantus firmus for several reasons: it neatly divides into three sections; it moves into a higher register in the middle, suggesting a temporary change in tonal center; and its leaps of fourths and fifths can be used to shape quasi-tonal harmonic progressions.
The origin of the song, however, is extremely unclear. It has been suggested that Du Fay, one of the first composers to use it in a mass, may have composed it. However, since each mass setting uses a slightly different version of the melody, it seems more likely that the tune was unwritten, passed across France from mouth to ear rather than copied from the work of an individual composer.
The meaning of the text is equally obscure. Certainly, several of the composers who used it as a basis for the mass drew parallels between the "armed man" and a variety of religious figures, such as the Archangel Michael and Longinus (the soldier who pierced Christ's side with the lance at the Crucifixion). It has been suggested that the lyrics may refer to a tavern with an armored man as its emblem. It is also possible that song was used for the mustering of soldiers for the campaign against the Turks, or that it was a bitter reminder of the Turks' victory in Constantinople in 1453. We like to think of it as a protest song against French militarization and expansionism in the mid-15th century.
The translation we use can be found in multiple places across the internet, all of them unattributed. If you happen to know who wrote it, fill us in!