John Sheppard: Media Vita in Morte Sumus
Alamire, David Skinner
Resonus/Inventa INV1003, Digital EP. 16’30
There is an interesting back story to this 16-minute downloadable EP of John Sheppard’s famous Media Vita in Morte Sumus (In the midst of life we are in death). Much performed and recorded, this piece can last up to 30-minutes in length, making it a complex prospect for recording and concert programming. This recording is based on recent research that reassesses the structure of the piece, reducing it to this entirely appropriate and more manageable shorter version.
Although it has been associated with medieval plainchant Christmas and New Year celebrations, it is best known as an antiphon to the Nunc dimittis sung at Compline on Saturdays, Sundays and Feast days from the Third Sunday in Lent to Passion Sunday. Sheppard’s version survives in a single source in the Christ Church Library, Oxford, (Mss 979-81) in the hand of John Baldwin in the late 1570s. Media vita follows a rather unusual liturgical form. After an introductory plainchant incipit, the three verses each finish in an invocation: Sancte Deus; Sancte fortis and Sancte et misericors.
The downloadable programme notes explain the background to this version of the piece, based on research by John Harper and Jason Smart, leading to the first recording of a version that Sheppard might have recognised, rather than the subsequent inflated versions that have so far been emphasised.
The recording (made in the in Fitzalan Chapel of Arundel Castle) dates from October 2012 and was part of a project linked the BBC series Music and Monarchy. Apart from its use in the series, it was never released until Covid-19 provided the opportunity and time to re-look at the recordings. Whatever your take on this reconstruction of the piece (and I find the arguments compelling), this is a wonderful example of English Renaissance choral music at its finest. The recording quality and the singing of Almira is excellent.