From a 1550s Pandemic, a Choral Work Still Casts Its Spell

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We know remarkably little about John Sheppard and his “Media vita.” But it has become a cult favorite of early music.

“Media vita” starts low, rising as if from catacombs. The tenors begin, sounding the slow, steady chant that will occupy them for more than 20 minutes. Countertenors come in above them, also rising step by step. Then the highest line enters, then another, another, still another, until all six parts take flight — rich yet somehow fragile, even lonely, and full of fear.

“Media vita in morte sumus,” they sing: “In the midst of life we are in death.”

“Media vita”

Alamire, conductor David Skinner (Resonus)

We don’t know much about John Sheppard, the composer of this polyphonic edifice. We don’t know when he was born, or where. We don’t know what he did for much of his life, and we are missing much of the music we can assume he wrote.

We do know when he died. A member of the Chapel Royal, the household choir of the English monarchs, he was buried in Westminster on Dec. 21, 1558. This was at the fateful hinge point of the English Reformation, between the death of Mary I, a Catholic, and the coronation of Elizabeth I, a Protestant.

We also know how Sheppard died: likely of the “new ague,” a strain of pandemic influenza that swept England in 1557, then returned the following year in a murderous second wave. Perhaps one in 10 Londoners died in 1558, a carnage that claimed Sheppard just after it took Reginald Pole, the archbishop of Canterbury, and probably the queen as well.

So if “Media vita” was written near the end of Sheppard’s life — as it may well have been — this profound meditation in the face of death might be the pandemic piece par excellence.

“Sancte Deus, sancte fortis”

Westminster Cathedral Choir, conductor Martin Baker (Hyperion)

Then come fervent waves of prayer, massive curlicues of polyphony that reach heavenward. “Sancte Deus,” comes the first (“Holy God”); “Sancte fortis,” the second (“Holy and strong one”). The third, “Sancte et misericors salvator, amarae morti ne tradas nos,” asks for mercy from a savior, for deliverance from the “bitter pains of eternal death.”

“Sancte et misericors Salvator”

Choir of New College Oxford, conductor Robert Quinney (Linn)

“Media vita” has become a touchstone for me this year, a piece I have played over and over as a beacon of certainty at a time when certainty has been impossible. But the more you try to find out about it — as I did in interviews with artists who created most of the eight recordings of a work that has become a cult favorite — the more uncertain this inventive, dissonant piece becomes.

It sounds, to our ears, almost like a slow movement from Mahler or Bruckner, but we have no idea how Sheppard would have heard it. We don’t have its manuscript, only a copy made in the 1570s. We have five of the six vocal parts, but the tenor part is lost, requiring reconstruction before the piece can be performed.

And we don’t know how accurate the copy is. Are some of the dissonances — “piquant,” said Robert Quinney of the Choir of New College, Oxford — that make it sound so modern actually errors? Or are they a faithful account of what Owen Rees, director of the vocal ensemble Contrapunctus, calls Sheppard’s “extraordinary harmonic imagination?”

Liturgically, this antiphon (a piece that frames a psalm or canticle) was intended for Compline, at the end of Lent. But the text, which recurs in some funeral rites and Good Friday services, might mean that it was written for a specific occasion. Perhaps, Mr. Quinney suggested, this occasion was the funeral of Nicholas Ludford, a composer who perished in the flu’s first wave and was buried, like Sheppard after him, at St. Margaret’s, the parish church in the shadow of Westminster Abbey.

“Frailty and weakness, pain, repentance, passion, desperation, but faith, acceptance, hope,” said Rebecca Hickey, a soprano in the ensemble Stile Antico, summing up the work. “It does encapsulate almost the whole scope of human emotion — and the Christian faith, in a nutshell, is all there.”

“Nunc dimittis”

Contrapunctus, conductor Owen Rees (Signum)

At the peaceful heart of “Media vita,” after the polyphony has sucked you in, comes the solemn, unadorned “Nunc dimittis.”

“Lord now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace,” the interlude begins.

Sheppard is still little known, at least compared to contemporaries like Thomas Tallis. The standard date given for his birth is 1515, though that is guesswork based on an application Sheppard made for a doctorate in 1554. Except for his time at Magdalen College, Oxford, where he led the chapel choir on and off in the 1540s, evidence of his life is thin. At some point he moved to London, joining the Chapel Royal in 1552.

For a long time he remained obscure. Omitted from “Tudor Church Music,” a 1920s compendium that started a revival for figures of Sheppard’s era, it took until the 1970s for scholars like David Wulstan, another Magdalen man, to start to edit his works. Wulstan recorded some of Sheppard’s scores, and he had among his students Peter Phillips, founder of the Tallis Scholars, a crucial ensemble in the resurgence of Renaissance polyphony.

“We did a lot of Sheppard very early on,” said Mr. Phillips, who released the first commercial recording of “Media vita” in 1989. “The success of it took me completely by surprise. I realized it was a terrific piece, but it wasn’t normal.”

Others started to explore Sheppard, including another Wulstan disciple, Harry Christophers, who had recorded many of the composer’s scores by the early 1990s. But with Wulstan unsure about his edition of “Media vita,” with debates ongoing about the appropriate pitch for music like this, and with the work itself “crucifying to sing,” as Mr. Christophers remembers from his own performances and recording, “Media vita” languished.

“It did eventually become an iconic piece,” Mr. Phillips said, somewhat mystified that it has had seven recordings in the last decade and a half, including two this year. “It’s seductive, it draws you in, and you just can’t leave it alone; you have to go with it.”

“Ne projicias”

The Tallis Scholars, conductor Peter Phillips (Gimell)

Three verses follow the “Nunc dimittis,” each a test of faith. The first spotlights the lower voices, the elder singers in a male choir: “Cast us not away in our old age when our strength fails, neither forsake us, O Lord.” The second repeats the idea: “Shut not thy merciful ears to our prayer.” The third splits the top two lines in half and leaves a chasm to the basses below, opening up the texture as if to let us hear single members of the choir: “Thou knowest, Lord, the secrets of our hearts; forgive our sins.”

Between the verses come those colossal “Sancte” pleas again: all of them after the first verse, but then with the “Sancte Deus” dropped after the second and the “Sancte fortis” after the third, so the last, magisterial entreaty for mercy is left to sound alone.

“Noli claudere”

The Sixteen, conductor Harry Christophers (Coro)

“Media vita” might, in fact, turn out to have been too good to be true.

“To be honest, for the singer, it’s tedious,” said David Skinner, a Cambridge academic who directs the Alamire ensemble. “This is the thing that always bothered me, it’s just too long. You get to the third time that you’re singing ‘Sancte fortis,’ and you’re going ‘Oh, my God.’”

Prompted in part by Mr. Skinner’s suspicions, last year the scholar Jason Smart published a new edition of the score that has strong claims to archival accuracy, but excises most of what made the piece so alluring. Partly audible on Alamire’s release from earlier this year, Mr. Smart’s adjustments include replacing the opening edifice with a six-note chant, moving the “Nunc dimittis” to the front, and curtailing those enthralling repetitions of the “Sancte” sections. The 17 minutes that remain still make for a fine work, but one less spectacular — and certainly less unique — than the 25 minutes we thought we knew.

“If you strip it down and go back to what the form should be,” Mr. Skinner said, “it’s about the size of a large-scale votive antiphon, the staple compositional endeavor of most composers.”

Normal, in other words.

Others who have recorded “Media vita” share Mr. Skinner’s desire for fidelity to the sources, but suggest that it might nevertheless survive in its traditional form.

Mr. Quinney said that 16th-century musicians “had a very much looser concept than we do of what constitutes a musical work,” so it “would be bogus to say there is now one way that this music must be performed.”

Martin Baker, until recently the master of music at Westminster Cathedral and the director of a “Media vita” that even he calls “daringly slow,” argues that tradition offers its own form of authenticity.

“We were authentic singers of the liturgy in this modern age,” he said of his choir, which sings daily services much as Sheppard’s did. “And we were singing this music as though it were of relevance to liturgy and people today.”

Mr. Phillips went further. “We do need scholars to tell us what notes to sing,” he said, “but very often they disagree with each other, so what do you do then? We have created a performing tradition for ‘Media vita,’ there’s no doubt about it.”

“Qui cognoscis”

Stile Antico (Harmonia Mundi)

It’s the repetitions that make “Media vita.” Three times we have heard that last invocation of “Sancte et misericors salvator,” our ears hearing misery where the Latin suggests mercy. But at the fourth hearing, the textures thicken as the singers, who have had to hold back to survive, finally let go.

Suddenly one of the inner lines rises high in the search for deliverance. “Ne tradas nos,” the countertenors sing — “deliver us not” — as they step downward, inverting the upward rumbles of death with which the piece began. Then another a voice echoes with a defiant “ne,” again plunging down — then another, then more, until the sopranos crown this song of faith.

It all becomes, as Mr. Rees said, “almost unbearably expressive.”

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