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John SHEPPARD (c1515 - 1558): Sacred Works

[I] "Sacred Choral Music"
Choir of St Mary's Cathedral, Edinburgh
Dir: Duncan Ferguson
rec: Jan 29 - 31 & Sept 18 - 20, 2013, Edinburgh, St Mary's Episcopal Cathedral
Delphian - DCD34123 ( 2013) (68'59")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - translation: E
Cover & track-list

Adesto sancta Trinitas II a 6; Gaude virgo Christiphera a 6a; Hodie nobis caelorum rex a 4b; Kyrie Lux et origo a 6; Libera nos, salve nos I a 7; Missa Cantate a 6c; Reges Tharsis et insulae a 6; Sacris solemniis a 8; Verbum caro a 6

[soli] Katie Bradshawb, Max Carsleybc, Anna Cooperac, Peter Gillb, Emily Jarronc, soprano; Rory McCleeryc, Michael Woodac, alto; Andrew Bennettac, Oliver Brewerc, Sam Clarkeabc, Sam Jenkinsac, tenor; Christopher Borrettac, Sam Carla, Matthew Daviesc, bass

[II] "Gaude, gaude, gaude Maria - Sacred Choral Works"
Choir of St John's College, Cambridge
Dir: Andrew Nethsingha
rec: Jan 11 - 13, 2013, Cambridge, St John's College (chapel)
Chandos - CHSA 0401 ( 2013) (70'07")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - translation: E

plainchant: Haec diesd; John SHEPPARD: Aeterne rex altissime a 5e; Christ rising again a 4f; Gaude, gaude, gaude Maria virgo a 6g; In manus tuas, Domine II a 4h; In pace, in idipsum a 4; Libera nos, salva nos II a 7i; The Lord's Prayer a 5; Spiritus sanctus procedens II a 6j; Western Wynde Mass a 4k

[soli] Kieran Bruntj, John Claphamg, Guy Edmund-Joneshk, Xavier Hetheringtone, Samuel Oladeinde efk, tenor; Geoffrey Claphamdfik, John Holland-Averyf, bass

Is it a coincidence that two discs with music by John Sheppard have been released at about the same time? In the liner-notes to his recording Duncan Ferguson states that a part of his output is more or less neglected and that some pieces have never been recorded as yet. That is partly due to a lack of modern editions. Moreover, a considerable number of pieces have been preserved incomplete, and not all of them can easily be reconstructed. The lack of modern editions could well come to an end, as the publication of a new edition of Sheppard's complete extant oeuvre is nearly finished. That could be the explanation for the release of these two discs, although there is no mention of the new edition in the liner-notes of the Chandos disc.

Sheppard is considered one of the most brilliant composers of the English renaissance. Unfortunately we know very little about his life and career. It is assumed that he was born in 1515, but we don't know where, and we also know nothing about his musical education. At Michaelmas 1543 he went to Oxford to become informator choristarum at Magdalen College; here he stayed until 1548. We find him in the list of Gentlemen of the Chapel Royal in 1552, but as the records are incomplete it is impossible to say whether he entered the chapel in 1548.

In 1554 Sheppard stated that he had been active as a composer for twenty years. However, as the largest part of his music has been preserved in post-Reformation sources, a considerable part of his output must have been lost. He lived in a time of political and religious upheavals. In the late 1530s Henry VIII took various measures which would result in a complete breakaway from the Roman Catholic Church. Under his son Edward VI, who ruled from 1547 to 1553, liturgical reforms took place, leading to the publication of the first Anglican prayer book. The archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, ordered choirs to sing only in the vernacular and avoid any music in honour of Mary or other saints. Composers should set "a plain and distinctive note for every syllable one". When Edward died he was succeeded by his half-sister Mary, who aimed at restoring the Roman Catholic dominance and its traditional liturgy. These developments had a far-reaching influence on the work of the composers of the time, including John Sheppard.

It is mostly impossible to put a date on his extant works. A relatively small proportion is in English, and these obviously date from the time of Edward's reign. The disc of the Choir of St John's College Cambridge includes two specimens of this part of his oeuvre: The Lord's Prayer and Christ rising again. Here Sheppard attempts to come up to the orders of Cranmer, while at the same time making use of counterpoint.

His Latin church music was probably largely written under Mary, but many pieces show strong influences from the pre-Reformation period. Duncan Ferguson sees parallels with the music of John Taverner. Gaude virgo Christiphera is an example of an elaborate work on a rhyming text - itself quite unusual - which was hardly ever used. This piece has been preserved incomplete: the treble part is missing, and has been reconstructed as part of the new Sheppard edition. This piece is recorded here for the first time. It is a highly ornamented and melismatic work. Adesto sancta Trinitas II is another first recording. This is a hymn for Trinity Vespers; the cantus firmus is in the tenor. Not recorded for the first time, but in this particular form - at least according to Duncan Ferguson - is Hodie nobis caelorum rex. "Four soloists sing the verse 'Gloria in excelsis' detached and distant from the rest of the choir which sings the plainsong. The intended soloists appear to be three trebles, with the fourth part sung by a very agile tenor, quite possibly the singing teacher of the three trebles". Sacris solemniis is another piece which is reminscent of the past, which is comes to the fore in the scoring for eight voices and the many 'false relations'. It is one of various alternatim works. The performance pays tribute to a tradition of singing plainchant in faburden, the practice of improvising a three-part harmonization of plainchant.

Both discs include a mass setting. Five masses are known from Sheppard's pen. The Western Wynde Mass is the best-known. It is based on the secular song Westron wynde when wyll thow blow; the melody is clearly discernible as it appears 24 times, twenty times of it in the treble. It contains several passages for two voices. The Missa Cantate is of a larger scale and Sheppard's only mass in six parts. It is a so-called festal mass, a mass of a particular saint from the Sanctorale (the proper of the Saints which commemorated the feast-days of individual martyrs and saints celebrated on fixed dates of the calendar). The title is probably derived from the material Sheppard used for this mass, but that has not been identified as yet. As masses in the English renaissance usually omitted the Kyrie, it is preceded here by the independent Kyrie Lux et origo, written for Second Vespers of the Resurrection.

The disc of the Choir of St Mary's Cathedral Edinburgh is the most interesting of the two as far as the choice of repertoire is concerned. Andrew Nethsingha has opted for pieces which are better-known. However, as Sheppard is not one of the most frequently recorded composers, certainly not by all-male choirs, this disc is welcome nevertheless. The programme opens with Gaude, gaude, gaude Maria virgo - the text points in the direction of the period under Mary's reign. In manus tuas, Domine could also date from that period, considering its Latin text. However, it is notable that the words "Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us" are absent in all three of Sheppard's settings of this text which - according to Martin Ennis in his liner-notes - could suggest that they are written at an earlier date. In pace in idipsum is a beautiful piece whose text - "In very peace I will lie down and take my rest" - is eloquently translated into the music. i>Libera nos, salva nos I is another piece in a large scoring, this time for seven voices.

The performances by the two choirs are quite different. In the Choir of St Mary's Cathedral Edinburgh the upper parts are sung by a mixture of boys' and girls' voices. They blend well, but the sound is different from that of, for instance, the Choir of St John's College, which only uses boys in the treble parts. I can't tell whether that difference is due to the inclusion of girls' voices or just a matter of training. Although in general I have appreciated their singing, sometimes the sound is a bit hard, even harsh, and a little obtrusive. The singing of the altos, tenors and basses is very good and largely devoid of vibrato. The singing of the plainchant is notable: it is quite forceful and the tempi are rather swift.

The Choir of St John's College Cambridge produces a softer sound and the trebles probably have a little less presence. In general I prefer this sound, but overall I am not completely satisfied with these performances. There is certainly much to enjoy, but I find the vibrato in some of the lower voices hard to swallow. It is stylistically untenable. In In manus tuas, Domine the slight vibrato of the altos damages the ensemble. The bass Geoffrey Clapham uses a pretty wide vibrato which clearly manifests itself in the Gloria from the Western Wynde Mass. He then sings solo the gradual Haec dies in plainchant - the result is quite horrible. Christ rising again is performed with solo voices, and because of the vibrato of several of them it doesn't come out well.

It is disappointing that both directors have opted for the Italian pronunciation of Latin - or haven't they given this subject any thought? I would really wish interpreters to attempt to use Latin pronunciation as was common in England in the 16th century.

All said and done, these discs deserved to be warmly welcomed on a market which is not exactly overfilled with recordings of Sheppard's music. Let us hope that the completion of the new edition of his extant oeuvre will result in more recordings of his works. These discs are a good start, and it is a matter of good fortune that the two programmes have no duplications.

Johan van Veen ( 2014)

Relevant links:

Choir of St John's College, Cambridge
Choir of St Mary's Cathedral, Edinburgh

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