Listening to Britten – Deus in adjutorium meum


Painting (c) Brian Hogwood

Deus in adjutorium meum from This Way to the Tomb – for unaccompanied chorus (1944 – October 1945, Britten aged 31)

Dedication Unknown
Text Psalm of David
Language Latin
Duration 6′

Audio

A clip from a recording made by the Westminster Cathedral Choir conducted by David Hill. With thanks to Hyperion.

Deus in adjutorium meum

Background and Critical Reception

When Britten was providing music for the Ronald Duncan radio play This Way to the Tomb in 1945, he almost assumed the guise of three very different composers, offering a Boogie Woogie for instrumental ensemble, a triptych of songs pertaining to times of the day and this solemn motet, which introduced the whole play.

Deus in adjutorium meum is a setting of Psalm 70, a heartfelt plea from David for rescue from his enemies that would have resonated strongly in wartime Britain. Duncan, who like Britten was a pacifist, used the music from this motet to frame the entire play, which the Britten Thematic Catalogue lists with a running time of 147 minutes, 27 of which are music.
Just the seven minutes here though, which Paul Spicer describes as ‘an almost completely overlooked anthem which ought to be in the repertoire of most cathedrals and ambitious church choirs’.

Thoughts

As befits its subject matter, Deus in adjutorium meum is a solemn utterance indeed. Britten’s mastery of the unaccompanied choir is quite clear here, for although there are some quite complex textures the setting is a very natural one, and unfolds as though from the composer’s pen – even though it was a commission.

The musical language is older than some of Britten’s other music for choir, though, and feels a lot older than the Hymn to St Cecilia, for instance. It may be the Latin text that does this, or the way the parts start in canon, but I suddenly wondered if Britten had studied Renaissance composers more than I previously realised. It seems though that what he learned from John Ireland about good technique counterpoint in Palestrina had stayed with him – for here it is put to use in a rich and thoroughly rewarding setting. The mood, though, stays downcast – as dictated by the text – much of the way through.

Recordings used

There are very few recordings of this motet, underlying Paul Spicer’s comment above:

Britten Singers / Richard Hickox (Chandos)
Choir of Trinity College Cambridge / Richard Marlow (Decca)
Westminster Cathedral Choir / David Hill (Hyperion)

The Britten Singers are the most consistently satisfying version of the three, though to be honest the other two are also extremely good.

Spotify

Just the one version on Spotify for this piece – the Britten Singers under Hickox, available by clicking here

Also written in 1945: Kabalevsky – Piano Sonata no.2

Next up: Boogie woogie from This Way to the Tomb

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