Academic journal article ARSC Journal

Mediography of John Sheppard's Music

Academic journal article ARSC Journal

Mediography of John Sheppard's Music

Article excerpt

"Many, many times on this earth of ours, musics have seemed to die, only to burst out again, phoenix-like, and to flourish." David Reck (1997: 42) 

I. Introduction

As the date of John Sheppard's birth can only be placed between 1510 and 1518 (Ardrey-Graves 2015: 212), 2018 may indeed be his quincentenary a perfect time to take stock of the rapidly expanding catalog of recordings of his music, which are often based on the latest advances in the scholarship on 16th-century music and performance practice. As suggested by the absence of modern editions until recently, Sheppard's music seems to have lain dormant for some 300 years, with a very gradual revival beginning only in the 20th century. That Sheppard is finally taking a prominent place amongst the pantheon of British composers of the Renaissance is evidenced not only by a rapidly expanding catalog of recordings, but through performers such as the German group who chose to call themselves the John Sheppard Ensemble, and conductor Paul McCreesh, who championed Sheppard's "Missa Cantate" as "an unquestionable masterpiece" (King's Singers, n.d.).

Perhaps the first modern publication of one of Sheppard's scores, J. E. West's edition of "Haste Thee O God," appeared in 1905. Then followed five more individual works, published from 1928 to 1955, and Frank L. Harrison's anthology of six pieces, with both the original Latin, and German translations, published in Wolfenbuttel, Germany (Sheppard 1960). One of the reasons why Sheppard's music had been neglected in the 20th century is that a missing part book caused its omission from the Tudor Church Music edition during the 1920s. Although the "Cantate" Mass had been "revived in 1917" (Dunkley 1997: 2), the first modern edition of the score was not published until 1976 (Sheppard 1976; Wulstan 1977). The British Academy recently added a third volume to its edition of Sheppard's music, as part of its monumental "Early English Church Music" series (Sheppard 1976, 1977, 2012).

Publication of modern editions, however, does not guarantee widespread use. For example, despite appearing in three different editions (Sheppard 1905, 1936, 1969), "Haste Thee, O God" was not issued on a commercial recording until 2010. Similarly, it took David Wulstan's stunning 1977 world-premiere recording of the "Missa Cantate" (first issued in France in 1979, and then in the United States in 1981) to bring Sheppard's music to a substantial audience, thus kick-starting a radically overdue recognition (c.f. Fugler 1982, Dunkley 2017).

The blossoming of new perspectives on Renaissance music was part of an expansive Zeitgeist fueling the fires of exploration. In the 1960s, pre-Baroque music began to be championed by a growing number of outstanding performers, often collaborating with scholars, who together breathed new life into a repertoire that had been dogged by anachronistic performance practice. Another aspect of the times spurring recognition of Sheppard's music is the opening of composers' ears to Renaissance music. Embracing pre-common practice music is nothing new; Luigi Nono admired John Ward and John Wilbye (Nielinger-Vakil 2015: 211), Maderna--Ockeghem, Webern--Isaac, Stravinsky--Gesualdo, etc. The late 20th and early 21st centuries, however, have seen a new pluralism embracing past epochs, made possible in part by technological advances that deposit sounds and scores at our fingertips for a fraction of the resources their acquisition had previously required. This pluralism is bolstered by both an openness for embracing mixture, and the expansion of the palette of techniques for doing so (hear, for example, De Bondt--Weelkes, Sorensen--Ockeghem, Sciarrino--Gesualdo, Holliger--Machaut). David Skinner wrote an intriguing comment, that "Sheppard's music often defies analysis" (Skinner 2008: 8). Indeed, Sheppard's music does not usually follow standard patterns of melodic repetition and harmonic progression; it sounds fresh in our 21st century, sometimes even avant-garde, embracing the freedom to employ non-standard dissonances that heighten emotional impact and maintain excitement. …

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