Listening to Britten – A.M.D.G.


Study for ‘Oppy Wood’ (1917) by John Nash, used courtesy of the Imperial War Museum

A.M.D.G. for unaccompanied chorus (5 – 30 August 1939, Britten aged 25)

1 Prayer I
2 Rosa mystica
3 God’s grandeur
4 Prayer II
5 O Deus, eg amo te
6 The soldier
7 Heaven-haven

Dedication not known
Text Gerard Manley Hopkins
Language English and Latin
Duration 18′

Audio clips – taken from the recording made by Polyphony under Stephen Layton. With thanks to Hyperion Records.

Prayer I

Rosa mystica

God’s grandeur

O Deus, ego amo te

The soldier

Heaven-haven

Background and Critical Reception

A.M.D.G stands for ‘Ad maiorem Dei gloriam’ (‘to the greater glory of God’), and is used by the poet Gerald Manley Hopkins in several of the manuscripts that Britten examined when setting these texts.

The set of seven songs has a curious history. Originally intended for publication as Britten’s Op.17, it was withheld – but the exact reason is not clear. The songs were intended for performance by a quartet Peter Pears was due to set up in London in 1939, named the ‘Round Table Singers’, but because of the Second World War, Britten and Pears did not get back and A.M.D.G. was shelved. Britten never returned to it, and although individual songs were programmed and sometimes performed, the full set did not see performance until 1984 and publication until 1989. There is some conjecture on the order of performance of the individual songs, and the available recordings present a number of differing solutions.

In his booklet note for the Finzi Singers’ release on Chandos, Philip Reed draws an accurate parallel with A Boy Was Born in terms of the choral writing and its difficulty. The Singers’ conductor Paul Spicer expands on this in his guide to Britten’s choral works, written for Boosey & Hawkes. He writes of how ‘these pieces are seriously demanding, and each one presents new challenges. The choir that can perform the complete score successfully is confident, ambitious, has a good sense of humour and has sopranos and tenors capable of high tessitura work’. Going still further in his job application parallel, Spicer notes that ‘it helps if the conductor is something of an amateur psychologist who can interpret these sometimes tortured poems in the light of Gerald Manley Hopkins’ Jesuit affiliation, Britten’s homosexuality and his deep attachment to his mother’.

Perhaps that explains why the pieces are not often performed!

Thoughts

Although the above implies A.M.D.G. to be a very complex piece of work, Britten once again achieves the duality of challenging his performers and rewarding his listeners. It is not always easy listening for sure – and nor should it be with some of the texts Britten chose to set – but there is some strong music here that can by turns entrance (Rosa mystica), uplift (God’s Grandeur) and deeply move (Prayer II).

The last example sets out a melodic and harmonic pattern that Britten expanded on in later years during the War Requiem, and it also gives an example of his genius in staying in the same key for the whole of the setting before moving the harmony right at the end, putting everything in a new light. On the subject of war – still a pertinent topic – Britten’s setting of The Soldier comes with a vivid evocation of a marching band, and finds a parallel in the second movement of the Violin Concerto.

John Bridcut notes that it would be nice to hear these songs sung in the original quartet intention, but that would be remarkably difficult and demanding for both performers and listeners alike. It works better when presented with the weight of a full chorus, surely, where the opportunities for colour and shade are greater.

Recordings used

The Sixteen / Harry Christophers (Coro)
Finzi Singers / Paul Spicer (Chandos)

Interestingly Harry Christophers, in an interview with this site, explained he did not consider Britten wanted A.M.D.G. to be exhumed in the way that it has, and so has not performed it. That is a shame – but there are three exceptional versions of this, led by Stephen Layton and Polyphony on Hyperion. The ‘first performers’ in 1984, the London Sinfonietta Chorus and Terry Edwards, are extremely good too, opting to take a different order of the seven songs that can of course be easily rectified in playback. The excellent Finzi Singers, meanwhile, ensure Rosa Mystica is full of enchantment. All three versions make the demanding choral writing sound perfectly natural, which is no mean achievement!

Spotify

The versions conducted by Terry Edwards and Paul Spicer can be found on this playlist, which also includes the two prayers, deemed worthy of inclusion in Edward Higginbottom’s recently issued survey of Britten’s complete sacred choral works – which curiously does not include A boy was born

Also written in 1939: Villa-Lobos – New York Sky-Line Melody

Next up: Violin Concerto, Op.15

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3 Responses to Listening to Britten – A.M.D.G.

  1. You briefly mention Manley Hopkins’ Jesuit leanings, it’s worth pointing out that AMDG is a motto particularly associated with the Jesuits (Elgar was also quite fond of it)

  2. Pingback: Britten and earworms | Good Morning Britten

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