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Meeting the Monster

November 2015

The TVEMF event on 26 September at the Wesley Memorial Church Hall, Oxford, was devoted entirely to the music of John Sheppard. This was our third visit in the last two years to the venue and, as with David Allinson’s day of Marian motets in September 2013 and James Weeks’ Rosenmüller day the following April, we were regaled with a highly interesting programme, on this occasion experiencing the sharply focused and invigorating direction of Justin Doyle.

For your reviewer, there are two particularly pleasurable features of TVEMF singing days. One is the opportunity to become acquainted with relatively little-known (or even totally obscure) composers. Sheppard has certainly attracted less attention than his better-known contemporaries, John Taverner, Robert White and Christopher Tye. Of the forty volumes of Early English Church Music (Stainer & Bell), which include the entirely undistinguished Sir William Leighton’s ‘Tears or Lamentations of a Sorrowful Soul”, five are devoted to Taverner, and three to each of White and Tye, but only two to Sheppard.

The other is that so many of our distinguished and erudite directors wear their learning lightly, so that the events are enjoyably informative. To this tradition, Justin was no exception, interpolating his commentary on the early Tudor musical landscape and the Sarum rite with (to borrow a phrase from Ernest Bramah) ‘weird antics of a gravity-removing nature’, some of which we were required to emulate during the warm-up. Those of us who had been exposed to David Allinson’s brain-scrambling Z YZY XYZYX usque ad insaniam warm-up exercise may have thought that there were no further worlds of lingual dexterity to conquer, but were rapidly disillusioned by the introduction of four flying fishes and five fat fireflies (both ascending and descending the scale) into the repertoire.

As with Gombert and Rosenmüller, Sheppard’s personal life has attracted adverse comment, but in his case (as the New Grove puts it) ‘his character has regularly been blackened as a result of misreading of, and scribal inaccuracy in, the college records’, the actual malefactor being, apparently, one Richard Shepper who was briefly (ca. 1548) a contemporary of Sheppard at Magdalen College, Oxford.

Sheppard’s dates of birth and death have not been firmly established, but he was born ca 1515, so his childhood years must have coincided with the last years of the lives of William Cornysh the younger, John Browne and Robert Fayrfax, all of whom were contributors to the Eton Choirbook; Sheppard’s six-part Magnificat is in a style which, according to the New Grove, seems to belong to the tradition developed by the Eton Choirbook composers and continued by John Taverner. His life spanned a period of religious turmoil, with Henry VIII’s break with Rome and Thomas More’s execution after refusing to subscribe to the first Act of Supremacy (1534) near its halfway point. It appears that much of that which has survived was composed during the reign of Mary; there is comparatively little extant of the English music composed during the reign of Edward VI.

The programme began with a four-part respond for Compline, for use between Quadragesima and Passion Sunday, In pace, in idipsum dormiam et requiescam. Justin took us through this in detail, with a considerable amount of re-editing of the plainchant. The gently melismatic section following the plainchant paints a picture of the eyes yielding to dreams and the eyelids to slumber; and after repetition of these two sections, the vigorous setting of the Gloria provides a sharp contrast. The numerous repetitions made this a work of quite substantial length, and in order to leave an adequate amount of time for the Monster, we spent only a short period on the seven-part Libera Nos, one of Sheppard’s two settings of this antiphon for Matins during Trinity.

All references which your reviewer has found that relate to the main item of the event, the six-part antiphon Media vita in morte sumus, which incorporates a plain chant Nunc dimittis, emphasise its scale, and one cannot dissent from Justin’s appellation of it as “The Monster”. The New Grove does not comment specifically on it, though the part of the article relating to his Office music is replete with references to its richness, sonority and vigour. Peter Phillips has said of it that it is ‘a unique achievement in its length, expressive power and liturgical function’. The programme booklet of the Stile Antico recording (under the Harmonia mundi label), which also includes the Te Deum and the responsory Gaude, gaude gaude Maria, states that ‘the colossal antiphon Media vita ranks among the largest-scale pieces of the entire century, and is certainly among the most powerful in terms of its cumulative emotive effect’, and that its scale seems to point to a purpose beyond its liturgical function as Lenten Nunc dimittis antiphon at Compline. Rival theories are that it was composed in memory of Nicholas Ludford (ca 1485-ca 1557) (whose eleven complete and three incomplete Masses make him the most prolific English composer of Masses) and that the influenza epidemic of 1557-59 provided the impetus for it.

Under Justin’s direction we negotiated the 71-bar first verse (media vita…juste irasceris) followed by the respond Sancte Deus, sancte fortis, sancte et misericors salvator (a further 76 bars) after which we tackled the plain-chant nunc dimittis and the verse which followed it, non proiicias… ne derelinquas nos Domine (35 bars), at the end of which is the direction ‘repeat from A that is, the sancte fortis’ which follows each verse) to the end. It would be fair to say that we enjoyed a highly interesting and vigorous grapple with The Monster, but lack of time prevented us from going the full distance, so the entreaties contained in the final two verses, noli claudere aures tuus and qui cognoscis occulta cordis, parce peccata nostris, remained unsung.

It remains only to record our sincere thanks to Justin for directing such an excellent event, to Nicola Wilson-Smith for organising it and for all those who ensured that refreshments were available during the day.

Sidney Ross

© Sidney Ross 2017

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