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For centuries, war and peace have been accompanied by music. Music was present on the battlefield, of course: the sounding of the trumpet as a signal to gather or attack, drumbeats to recruit soldiers or set them marching, battle songs to raise morale among the troops or instil fear in the bosom of the enemy. Once the hostilities were over, there was singing and dancing in the streets to celebrate peace.
The musical evocation of the violence and tumult of battle provided composers an outstanding opportunity to show off their skill. Many compositions are not an evocation of, but a reaction to the events in times of war. The centuries-long preference of composers for using the song L'homme armé and the antiphon Da pacem is a striking one: these two melodies are among the most-used cantus firmi in the history of music.
The song L'homme armé was the musical foundation of about 50 masses and other compositions written between about 1433 and the end of the 17th century by Jacob Obrecht, Josquin Desprez, Antoine Brumel, Loyset Compère, Pierre de La Rue, Ludwig Senfl, Christobal de Morales, Giovanni da Palestrina and others. The origin of the melody is unclear: it could be a folk song, a composed piece or the tenor of a polyphonic song. The antiphon Da pacem is also a clearly audible cantus firmus woven into polyphonic textures. Some 150 to 200 compositions make use of the text and/or music of this antiphon.
Peacemakers were frequently the subjects of tribute in ceremonial motets, whether or not commissioned by the ruler him- or herself. The death of an important political figure also engendered musical praises or poems of grief. The anonymous Proch dolor - often attributed to Josquin - for instance recalls the death of emperor Maximilian I.
And just as this motet is a lasting testimony of the grandeur of a ruler in life and in death, other episodes given voice from world history will endure thanks to, and in, music. In the hands of these consummately skilled polyphonic composers, war in its audible form becomes something manageable, an evil that can be exorcised, and peace a tangible good that can safeguard and nourish the people.