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

“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 certai...

“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.”

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