Listening to Britten – A Wedding Anthem (Amo Ergo Sum), Op.46


Sunlight through the window of Wimborne Minster (c) Ben Hogwood

A Wedding Anthem (Amo Ergo Sum), Op.46 for soprano and tenor solos, chorus (SATB) and organ (September 1949, Britten aged 35)

Dedication Written for the wedding of Lord Harewood and Marion Stein
Text Ronald Duncan
Language English and Latin
Duration 6′

Background and Critical Reception

Lord Harewood, nephew of King George V, announced his engagement to the concert pianist Marion Stein in 1949. On hearing the news, Britten asked Ronald Duncan to write the words for a wedding anthem.

It seems the two were both fans of Britten’s music, for as Humphrey Carpenter writes, William Walton told his wife of how ‘Marion Stein and George Harewood were both admirer’s of Britten’s music, and were marrying each other because of this bond’.

Carpenter talks of how Britten acted as counsellor to Marion in the weeks before the engagement was made public, and also reveals that the score for the anthem was buried as a keepsake in the foundations of the Royal Festival Hall, which was being built at the time.

Although Ronald Duncan, the librettist for The Rape of Lucretia, was no longer working with Britten on a regular basis the two were still friends, and collaborated on Britten’s final piece of incidental music, Stratton. A Wedding Anthem, one of their last collaborations, was duly performed at the wedding in St Mark’s Church, North Audley Street, London on 29 September 1949.

Perhaps surprisingly, the work appears to have only been recorded a handful of times since, suggesting it was intended for private performance only.

Thoughts

The influence of Purcell can now clearly be heard in Britten’s church music, too – and the organ flourish with which this attractive anthem begins is straight out of Britten’s realizations of his music.

There is a sense of joy in the peals of ‘Ave maria’ that are passed between the four parts in the opening section, before the music becomes more contemplative. Duncan’s text here is of a more flowery nature, talking of how ‘As mountain streams find one another till they are both merged’. Here there are solos for soprano and tenor, following a little the structural profile of Rejoice in the Lamb.

The serene coda is particularly beautiful, one of the calmest passages in all Britten so far, eventually resolving in a rareified B major as the Latin text is intoned.

Recordings used

Choir of New College Oxford / Edward Higginbottom, Steven Grahl (organ) (Novum)
The Sixteen / Harry Christophers, Margaret Phillips (organ) (Coro)
Finzi Singers / Paul Spicer, Andrew Lumsden (organ)

The new recording from Edward Higginbottom and New College Oxford gets right to the spirit of the wedding service, with a sense of rapture observed within the confines of the church. The Finzi Singers are much more expansive, their rendition almost two minutes longer and with some extra vibrato in the soprano part. Vibrato, too, is a feature of The Sixteen in their recording, with less of a sense of the virginal purity that Higginbottom secures.

Spotify

The following playlist groups together all three versions listed above, as well as an older version with the BBC Choral Society conducted by George Thalben-Ball.

Also written in 1949: Prokofiev – Cello Sonata in C major, Op.119

Next up: Stratton

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