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

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

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

“Media vita” has change into a touchstone for me this 12 months, a chunk I’ve performed again and again as a beacon of certainty at a time when certainty has been unimaginable. However the extra you attempt to discover out about it — as I did in interviews with artists who created many of the eight recordings of a piece that has change into a cult favourite — the extra unsure this ingenious, dissonant piece turns into.

It sounds, to our ears, virtually like a gradual motion from Mahler or Bruckner, however we do not know how Sheppard would have heard it. We don’t have its manuscript, solely a duplicate made within the 1570s. We now have 5 of the six vocal elements, however the tenor half is misplaced, requiring reconstruction earlier than the piece could be carried out.

And we don’t understand how correct the copy is. Are a number of the dissonances — “piquant,” mentioned Robert Quinney of the Choir of New School, Oxford — that make it sound so trendy truly errors? Or are they a devoted account of what Owen Rees, director of the vocal ensemble Contrapunctus, calls Sheppard’s “extraordinary harmonic creativeness?”

Liturgically, this antiphon (a chunk that frames a psalm or canticle) was supposed for Compline, on the finish of Lent. However the textual content, which recurs in some funeral rites and Good Friday companies, may imply that it was written for a selected event. Maybe, Mr. Quinney prompt, this event was the funeral of Nicholas Ludford, a composer who perished within the flu’s first wave and was buried, like Sheppard after him, at St. Margaret’s, the parish church within the shadow of Westminster Abbey.

“Frailty and weak point, ache, repentance, ardour, desperation, however religion, acceptance, hope,” mentioned Rebecca Hickey, a soprano within the ensemble Stile Antico, summing up the work. “It does encapsulate virtually the entire scope of human emotion — and the Christian religion, in a nutshell, is all there.”

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