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John SHEPPARD (c.1515-1559? 1563?)
English and Latin Church Music

Andrew Carwood; Mike McCarthy; Robert MacDonald, cantors; Christ Church Cathedral Choir, Oxford/Stephen Darlington. DDD.
Booklet with notes in English. Texts and translations included.
rec. Dorchester Abbey, Oxon., England, 3-4 July 1995.
NIMBUS NI5480 [66:56]

The Lord’s Prayer [3:41]
The Second Service
Magnificat [6:12]
Nunc Dimittis [3:12]
Gaude, gaude, gaude Maria [12:32]
Filie Jerusalem [7:13]
Reges Tharsis et insule [5:49]
Spiritus sanctus procedens [8:24]
Laudem dicite Deo nostro [8:48]
Hec dies [2:48]
Impetum fecerunt unanimes [5:51]
Libera nos, salva nos [2:26]

The music of John Sheppard is slightly more an acquired taste than that of John Taverner which I recently reviewed and recommended on an earlier Nimbus CD (NI5360). Though it encompasses a wide range of styles, ranging from the late-medieval to the much plainer style of settings of the Book of Common Prayer, the works on this CD do not demonstrate that full range. Nor do they include his larger-scale Mass settings.

Christ Church Choir does not have quite the same demonstrable affinity with his music as with that of Taverner, their erstwhile choirmaster. Sheppard was associated with Oxford; he was choirmaster at Magdalen for four or five years before he transferred to the Chapel Royal, where he served under the ultra-Protestant Edward VI, the brief Roman Catholic restoration of Queen Mary, and the Elizabethan via media. The honour of affinity with Sheppard, therefore, must go to Magdalen College Choir (Songs of the Angels on Signum SIGCD038) and to The Magdalen Collection under Harry Christophers on a deleted Collins recording.

Having become accustomed to hearing Sheppard as performed by The Sixteen under Harry Christophers, Hyperion recordings which slightly predate the Nimbus, my first impression of these Christ Church performances was to find them just a little anaemic. I bought the Hyperion recordings as separate CDs when they were first released; they are better value now, reissued on two Dyad sets (Cantate Mass, etc., CDD2201 and Western Wynde Mass, etc., CDD22022, both 2-CD sets for the price of one; Libera nos is also available on a very inexpensive Hyperion sampler, HYP12).

Christophers’ performances are often a degree faster than Darlington’s, but not always, and not hugely so – 5:48 against 6:12 for the Second Service Magnificat and 3:07 against 3:12 in the Nunc Dimittis, for example. Christophers is actually significantly slower in Gaude, gaude, gaude – 13:41 against Darlington’s 12:32 – so it is not merely considerations of tempo which made me initially recall the Hyperion recordings as more feisty. The Clerkes of Oxford under David Wulstan on Classics for Pleasure 5 75982 2 beat them both to the post by a fair margin at 11:17 – on which, see more below. Christophers and Darlington take almost exactly the same time for Impetum fecerunt, 6:01 and 5:51 respectively.

Whereas honours were about even between The Sixteen and Christ Church in Taverner, Christophers’ performances of Sheppard just have the edge. Perhaps that is due in part to the fact that the Nimbus recording begins with some of Sheppard’s least interesting music, written for the English rite. The notes in the booklet suggest that the English Lord’s Prayer and the Second Service Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis were composed in a hurry at the beginning of the reign of Elizabeth I and that Sheppard’s death prevented his revising them. This seems to be special pleading, as if to excuse the unsatisfactory nature of the music; if the music is unfinished and inferior, why were these pieces included?

In fact it is far from certain that these works were composed in 1559, or that Sheppard actually died as early as January 1559. These works are more likely to have been written for the 1549 Prayer Book; Sheppard’s text of the doxologies to the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis conforms to the 1549 formula "As it was in the beginning, and is now, and ever shall be" whereas all versions from 1552 onwards omit the first "and", a fact which the note-writer appears not to have noticed. I’m probably one of few people odd enough even to own copies of the 1549 and 1552 Prayer Books, but they are available online, as also is the 1559 Elizabethan version. Start with the 1549 Book.

There are other unexplained places where Sheppard’s texts do not correspond exactly with any version of the Prayer Book. In the Lord’s Prayer Sheppard’s text has "let us not be led into temptation" where all versions of the Prayer Book from 1549 onwards have had the more familiar "lead us not into temptation". In the Magnificat all versions of English Evensong have had the words "And my spirite hath reioyced in God my sauioure" (1549 text) for Sheppard’s "and my spirit rejoiceth in God my Saviour." For the usual "imagination of their hearts", Sheppard has "imaginations." (My italics in all these quotations.)

Whatever the truth about when these pieces were written, they are attractive enough, but Sheppard’s heart does not seem to have been in them; his earlier music for the Latin rite is much more adventurous and striking. One reviewer of the original issue of this CD thought Darlington’s account of the Second Service pedestrian, whereas it is really the music that qualifies for that title. In fact the performances on this Nimbus recording do their best for these works. At least the comparative simplicity of this music allows for some clear, but not exaggerated diction.

The First Prayer Book of 1549 would have been a shock to musicians, the maimed rites of the more Protestant Second Book of 1552 must have knocked the stuffing out of them. Eventually Queen Elizabeth’s love of music, in Latin and English, alongside her wish to preserve traditional ecclesiastical vestments, saved the day but Sheppard did not live to see that day. Byrd’s Great Service is just about the best example of music in a traditional mould adapted for Anglican use. See review of the recent reissue of the Tallis Scholars’ version on CDGIM208, coupled with Byrd’s three Masses.

The longest and most impressive piece on this recording is the elaborate Marian Gaude, gaude, gaude Maria (Rejoice, Virgin Mary), a respond for Second Evensong of Candlemas with an interpolated prose section, Inviolata, integra et casta es (Thou art a pure and chaste virgin). It receives a very fine performance on this recording, with a good sense of pace, as if the music’s forward motion were inexorable. The cantor is especially commendable here and throughout the programme (Andrew Carwood here? Three cantors are named for the CD overall on the Nimbus website) but somehow the performance seems to fall between two stools. I marginally prefer the more sprightly paced Wulstan version on Classics for Pleasure – this is, after all, a celebration of the Joys of Mary – and the more secure adult voices score over those of the Christ Church trebles, however inauthentic this may be. The CFP sound, too, is brighter and more forward.

Harry Christophers and The Sixteen take this work at a much more sedate pace and this performance, too, has its own internal logic. Here, as on the CFP, the more assured adult voices and more forward recording bring the performance to life.

Tracks 5 to 7 illustrate the swings and roundabouts of comparing different performances. In Filie Jerusalem (O daughters of Jerusalem), an Eastertide responsory for the feasts of martyrs, Darlington’s fairly sedate pace allows for a more affective performance than that of Christophers. Conversely, I would have liked Darlington to have set a rather faster pace for Reges Tharsis (The Kings of Tarshish shall come), celebrating the Epiphany visit of the Kings; Christophers’ faster tempo strikes me as just right here.

Darlington’s Hec dies (This is the day that the Lord hath made) also strikes me as a touch mournful an Easter piece which bids us to "rejoice and be glad". I’m sure the Holy Spirit would have approved of the fairly sedate pace which both directors set for Him in Spiritus sanctus procedens (The Holy Spirit coming forth) and the Christ Church performance of Libera nos (Free us, O Lord) makes a fitting conclusion to a recording which i wish I could have recommended more strongly.

It is a pity that this Nimbus recording is up against such strong competition from the Hyperion versions, excellent performances, well recorded, at mid price, especially when the more attractive of those Dyad sets, containing the Western Wynde Mass, offers so much overlap with the Nimbus CD. Nor can I in all honesty not advise you to purchase the other set, containing the Cantate Mass. One thing in common between the Nimbus and Hyperion versions is the presence of Andrew Carwood, now the director of the Cardinalls Musicke, on both.

If price is a major consideration, David Wulstan and the Clerkes of Oxenford, on the CFP CD to which I have referred above, offer a good selection of music by Tallis (including the famous 40-part Spem in alium) and Sheppard in the lowest price bracket (around £6 in the UK). With very good performances in good ADD sound, this is a wonderful introduction to Tudor church music. The only snag is the lack of texts, unless later reissues of this CD have improved on my earlier version, but most of these may be found online by typing the opening words into Google. The Nimbus and Hyperion recordings come with full texts and translations.

The Nimbus recording, made at Dorchester Abbey, is good but slightly more recessed than on the Taverner CD – slightly too recessed for my liking. Turning up the volume a notch or two helps, but I prefer the more forward Hyperion sound.

With such fierce competition, I can recommend the Nimbus only as a good also-ran; I don’t think that purchasers will feel short-changed by it, especially if they abstain from making the comparison with the Hyperion versions which a reviewer must make. If there were no competition, I could imagine myself recommending it with flying colours.

The notes in the booklet, by Roger Bowers, make a detailed and learned case for the manner in which the music is presented here "by forces which are as close as it is now possible to attain to that which the composer himself envisaged." Though they may be somewhat too exhaustive for the average listener, these notes nevertheless omit to tell us which of two similar settings of Libera nos and which of the settings of Spiritus sanctus is included on the recording.

The notes assume that Sheppard died very soon after the accession of Elizabeth I, but Grove gives his obit. as 1559/60 and Hyperion, who formerly gave 1559/60, now give his dates as c.1520-c.1563.

Bowers’s notes also perpetuate the belief, now less widely held, that Queen Elizabeth wished to return not to the status quo of 1552 but to that of the more traditional 1549 Prayer Book, a belief which he later explored in a learned paper, ‘The Chapel Royal, the First Edwardian Prayer Book, and Elizabeth’s Settlement of Religion, 1559’ in The Historical Journal (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 43: 317-344. If Elizabeth did have such a wish, its fulfilment would have been impossible; the reformers who returned from Geneva – the majority – were barely willing to accept even the 1552 Book. The best that the queen and her archbishop could do was to add words susceptible of a Real Presence interpretation into the Communion service and to insert a rubric requiring the ornaments and vestments of 1549 (or even 1548) to be maintained. In the event, the Puritan element refused to wear the cope or chasuble and could hardly be constrained even to wear the surplice.

Classicists may baulk at some of Nimbus’s spellings, such as Filie for Filiæ, but that is how the word was pronounced, and often spelt, in the 16th-Century. Hyperion employ the more familiar classical spellings.

The cover, with its portrait of Queen Mary, may be appropriate for a composer whose music was probably mostly composed during her short reign, but I should have preferred something more akin to the covers of other Christ Church Nimbus recordings – or something more like the Hyperion covers.

Brian Wilson


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