“Media vita” has turn out to be a touchstone for me this yr, a chunk I’ve performed time and again as a beacon of certainty at a time when certainty has been inconceivable. But the extra you attempt to discover out about it — as I did in interviews with artists who created a lot of the eight recordings of a piece that has turn out to be a cult favourite — the extra unsure this creative, 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 copy made within the 1570s. We have 5 of the six vocal elements, however the tenor half is misplaced, requiring reconstruction earlier than the piece might be carried out.
And we don’t understand how correct the copy is. Are a number of the dissonances — “piquant,” stated Robert Quinney of the Choir of New College, Oxford — that make it sound so fashionable really errors? Or are they a devoted account of what Owen Rees, director of the vocal ensemble Contrapunctus, calls Sheppard’s “extraordinary harmonic imagination?”
Liturgically, this antiphon (a chunk that frames a psalm or canticle) was supposed for Compline, on the finish of Lent. But the textual content, which recurs in some funeral rites and Good Friday providers, may imply that it was written for a particular event. Perhaps, Mr. Quinney urged, 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 weakness, pain, repentance, passion, desperation, but faith, acceptance, hope,” stated Rebecca Hickey, a soprano within 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.”