Music from a Christ Church Tudor manuscript discussed in New York Times

On 3 January 2021 an engrossing article on John Sheppard's Media Vita appeared in print in New York Times. A few days before, on 30 and 31 December 2020, the piece had also appeared on the prestigious American newspaper's website. The online version is particularly exciting as it has also added a few recordings of the said piece.

As David Allan, the author of the article says, we don’t know much about John Sheppard, the composer of this polyphonic edifice. He was a member of the Chapel Royal, the household choir of the English monarchs, and in this quality he must have written a lot of music, most likely, more than we know of today. But if information about his life and work is sparse, his death is well documented. Sheppard seems to have died of the “new ague,” a strain of influenza that swept England in 1557, then returned the following year in a murderous second wave. Tellingly, the first line of this cult favourite of early music goes : "Media vita in morte sumus” (“In the midst of life we are in death”). If the piece was written near the end of Sheppard’s life — as it may well have been — this is a profound meditation composed in a world shaken by yet another deadly pandemic.
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What is the connection between Sheppard's composition and our Library? ... A very important and powerful one. The original manuscript of Media vita did not survive. However, there is an early a copy made in the 1570s. This copy is among the treasures preserved in Special Collections at Christ Church, Oxford, and has been recently digitised. Media vita is the 118th piece in a five partbooks manuscript (Mus 979 - Mus 983), copied and formerly owned by John Baldwin, a singing-man at St George's Chapel, Windsor. This set is one of the most important surviving sources of Tudor church music and Elizabethan motets. It is also famous for Baldwin's fine penmanship, executed on sheets with printed staves.

To read the article and listen to the music, please click on the link provided by New York Times. The parts recorded are as follows:

“Media vita”
Alamire, conductor David Skinner

“Sancte Deus, sancte fortis”
Westminster Cathedral Choir, conductor Martin Baker

“Sancte et misericors Salvator”
Choir of New College Oxford, conductor Robert Quinney

“Nunc dimittis”
Contrapunctus, conductor Owen Rees

“Ne projicias”
The Tallis Scholars, conductor Peter Phillips

“Noli claudere”
The Sixteen, conductor Harry Christophers

“Qui cognoscis”
Stile Antico

 

* For other news related to Special Collections, please go the library Exhibitions and Research.

Dr Cristina Neagu
Keeper of Special Collections