Thursday 23 July 2020

Media Vita reconsidered: Alamire's fine new recording takes advantage of the latest research into the structure of Sheppard's great antiphon

John Sheppard Media vita; Alamire, David Skinner; Inventa
John Sheppard Media vita; Alamire, David Skinner; Inventa

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 23 July 2020 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Sheppard's great Antiphon given a new structure in the light of recent research into the liturgical structure of the work

Different eras have focused on different aspects of the church's liturgy for large-scale musical contributions, sometimes responding to fashion and sometimes to the church's own changes of focus. In Tudor England, the structural possibilities of Responds and Antiphons seemed to attract composers, in these the liturgy's use of repetition seemed to hold interest in the way larger-scale structural pieces could be created from components. Many singers are familiar with the challenge, two or three pages of music, polyphony and plainchant, marked up with labels, A, B, C etc, and a rubric at the end with a rather complex series of instructions about repeating different sections. The liturgical raison d'être for these has virtually disappeared, the modern church has simplified much of its liturgy and there is rarely the time in modern services.

John Sheppard's antiphon, Media vita, is one of the most large-scale works of this type surviving (though it does not survive complete, the tenor part has had to be re-constructed). It is the antiphon to the Nunc Dimittis at Compline from the Third Sunday in Lent to Passion Sunday. Quite why Sheppard wrote it, we do not know, the work survives in a single source which was copied in the late 1570s and preserved at Christ Church, Oxford. And whilst this surviving manuscript is marked up with symbols, indicating some sort of repeat structure, there are no instructions.

Media vita is one of Sheppard's masterpieces, and a very long work, so inevitably it has been well recorded over the past 30 years, each group bringing a slightly different attitude to it, size of ensemble, gender and age of those singing the upper parts, pitch, speed etc. But most groups have used the same structure for the piece. Lacking any detailed instructions, performers have turned to another similar form, popular in the Tudor period, the Respond. Responds have a similar repeating structure, so it made sense to structure Media vita like that and in fact, for many years I assumed that Media vita was a Respond. But, using this structure for Media vita results in a work which can seem rather unwieldy.

David Skinner and Alamire recorded Sheppard's Media vita in 2012, as part of a project linked to David Starkey's BBC series, Music and Monarchy, though the recording was never issued on CD. It has now been issued as an EP on Resonus Classics' Inventa label, and is worth hearing not just because of Skinner and Alamire's approach to pitch and sonority, but because Skinner was able to take advantage of the most recent research into the liturgical structure of the piece.

Skinner was interested in the structure of the piece because he, along with a number of other colleagues, felt that the modern form of the piece (based on the repetition structures of the Respond) did not work. Luckily, Professor John Harper and Jason Smart had been looking at the original liturgical sources for the piece, as a result they came up with an entirely new approach to the structure, changing and reducing the number of repeats. For those interested in the nitty gritty, there is an admirably clear article in the recording booklet available for download from the Resonus website [PDF], and in the rubric to Jason Smart's new edition of Media vita for CPDL [PDF]. What we get is still a complex work, with the entire Nunc Dimittis in plainchant, but with the sections of repeated polyphony somewhat simplified.

Quite what a difference the research has made is indicated by the duration. On this disc Skinner and Alamire take a whisker over 16 minutes, whereas previous recordings have lasted anything from 19 minutes to 30 minutes!  Sheppard's music was first brought to light in the 1970s by David Wulstan who famously performed early Tudor music at a high pitch with his group the Clerkes of Oxenford, a feature which has influenced whole generations of performers. [I can't find them singing Media vita, but you can hear them singing Sheppard's Respond Verbum caro factum est on YouTube

Skinner and Alamire, however, opt for a low-ish pitch to the piece, the lower three parts on this recording are tenor, baritone and bass, whereas on Tallis Scholars' recording they are counter-tenor, tenor, bass. The result is a lovely account of the work, sonorous and richly textured, full of darker colours, and which flows beautifully between chant and polyphony.

Interestingly, David Skinner also points out that during the Protestant era in Elizabethan England it was common to create motets out of such works, by missing out the plainchant and hence choirs should feel able to produce a simpler version of the piece.

I enjoyed this disc immensely, the sort of scholarship that has gone into it exactly appeals to me, but on top of that the performance from David Skinner and Alamire is anything but dryly academic, and their sonorous approach to the music brings it alive. Now, how about a complete re-construction of Compline from the period to give us a chance to hear the work in context!

John Sheppard (c1515-1558)  - Media vita in morte sumus [16:30]
Alamire (Julie Cooper, Grace Davidson, Alexandra Kidgell - sopranos, Ruth Massey, Clare Wilkinson - altos, Mark Dobell, Nicholas Todd, Christopher Watson, Simon Wall - tenors, Robert Evans, Gregory Skidmore, Tim Whitely - baritones, William Gaunt, Robert Macdonald - basses
David Skinner (conductor)
Recorded in the Fitzalan Chapel, Arundel Castle, 15 October 2012
INVENTA INV1003 1CD [16:03]
Available for download from the Resonus Classics website.

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