During the period from 1547-1603 (the death of Henry VIII to the accession of Elizabeth I), there was a dizzying succession of monarchs and corresponding switches in State religion. From the boy king Edward's imposition of strict protestantism, through Mary Tudor's return of Catholicism and finally Elizabeth's establishment of Anglican protestantism, these were dangerous and bloody times. Composers like Tallis, Byrd and others including Sheppard had to be able to instantly switch their styles and profess appropriate allegiances upon pain of loosing their livelihoods, or even their heads.
We have but sketchy knowledge of John Sheppard's career; he was a chorister at Magdalen College, Oxford in 1543, leaving there in 1548 to become a 'Gentleman of the Chapel Royal' in London - a similar pattern to the other better-known contemporary singer-composers, gravitating from the provinces to the capital. However, while Tallis has been celebrated for over a century, Sheppard's name has only slowly surfaced in the last three decades or so. Hyperion Records produced several ground-breaking sets of his Masses, including the exquisite 'Western Wynd' Mass, which advanced his star considerably. Matthew O'Donovan's erudite notes for this Harmonia Mundi SACD explain the most likely reasons for Sheppard's comparative obscurity; for example, little of his oeuvre was published, the MSS are often incomplete and require much scholarly detection work in consolidation. It is certainly not the quality of his compositions which are in question, just that the vagaries of history have been unkind to him.
While Hyperion's sets concentrated on Sheppard's Latin works, Stile Antico have elected for an illuminating comparison of the Latin and vernacular styles, with most of the Latin works probably dating to Mary Tudor's brief reign (except the sumptuous Te Deum, which shows some signs of being attributable to Henry VIII's reign). The vernacular liturgical pieces must originate in Edward VI's time, using texts from Cranmer's Book of Common Prayer. Here, the flight of Sheppard's Latin polyphony is severely curtailed, with nearly homophonic settings, little repetition and greater textual clarity (paralleling the reforms of Church music promulgated on the Continent by the Council of Trent).
Arguably one of Sheppard's best liturgical pieces in the vernacular style, the 'Our Father' illustrates the composer's simplification of his Latin style. It is in 5-part SAATB, and keeps warmly to the mid-range for its melodic lines, which are harmonically varied but lack the spicy collisions of his Latin mode. The bass line leads continually, as though representing the Church's foundations, while the close harmonies may symbolise the unity of Faith. These Tudor composers loved interweaving cryptic symbolism in their works, it was often the only fairly safe way of expressing their personal views.
Of the Latin works, 'Gaude Maria' is an exquisite and sunny 6-part Responsory (SSAATB). Its florid counterpoint begins raptly, in awe of the great Mystery of the Immaculate Conception, taking wing as it contemplates the motherhood of Mary and its consequences. Sheppard at several points uses "gimel", a technique for splitting the treble part into two solo voices, and he divides some of his other parts too, forming a rich tapestry of sound. Intervening plainchant lines from the tenors sound from further back in what one can imagine as a candle-lit church, the acoustic halo being evocatively atmospheric.
'Media Vita' is at the heart of this compilation; a sustained and sonorous setting of the obsequies, from "In the midst of Life we are in Death" to the Nunc dimittis ("Lord, lettest now thy servant to depart in peace"). It may relate to the death of a fellow parishioner, musician and composer Nicolas Ludford, its unique gravitas denoted by Sheppard's use of breves to carry the Latin cantus firmus. Stile Antico's stately progress through this wonderful work is a near-miracle of breath control, rhythmical but not metrical lines and transparency of texture, coupled with hypnotic ebb and flow of dynamics. It arrives at an awe-inspiring climactic conclusion. The 6-8 part 'Te Deum' is another important Latin work, alternating chant settings of the medieval Latin hymn with richly-scored petitions from the psalms, which traditionally follow the hymn. A work of considerable grandeur. One wonders at which ecclesiastical event it was first performed.
There is little to say about Harmonia Mundi's recording in All Hallows Church, Gospel Oak, London, a late Victorian Church with a fine and well-tamed acoustic. The sound, whether stereo or MC, is simply so right for this music, marrying the building's response to the singers exactly as the Tudor polyphonists expected, the vocal timbres truthfully represented. The producer has judiciously managed changes in choral perspective for breath-catching atmospheric effects. HM's 3 fold Digipak production is sumptuous, with notes in three languages - well-illustrated and on superb paper.
I have no doubt that this new album will be as acclaimed as Stile Antico's previous ones. It is a significant milestone on Sheppard's journey to modern recognition for his considerable talents, offering many beauties and evoking its period with considerable emotional force.