Melanie Spiller and Coloratura Consulting

Escapades in Early Music, Writing, and Editing

Composer Biography: John Sheppard (c1515-c1560)

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John Sheppard (also Shepherd) is one of the less famous composers from Henry VIII’s court. He gets called a “turbulent and eccentric figure, too little of whose music has been printed” by the textbooks, but sadly, they don’t say what was so turbulent or eccentric about him. And despite his anonymity today, he was one of the major composers of the Pre-Reformation period between 1530 and 1560.

The only clue I have to his irascibility is a story about Sheppard’s recruiting practices. Apparently, it wasn’t uncommon for really good choirboys to be kidnapped occasionally, and there’s a story that Sheppard kidnapped a boy who was tied up and dragged all the way from Malmesbury to Oxford, about 60 miles. It seems like the boy would have died after such an experience, so it’s probably an exaggeration.

Sheppard was Informator Choristorum at Magdalen College, Oxford, between 1543 and 1548, which means that rather than being the conductor of the choir, he was the teacher or Master. His work there brought him to the attention of the King, and he became a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal by 1552. Sources show that there were gaps in his membership both at Magdalen College and at the Chapel Royal, but they don’t explain the gaps, although one consideration is that his tenure at court almost lines up with Queen Mary’s reign.

Sheppard’s musical techniques were often conservative (and considered old fashioned in his lifetime) but his music is really quite rich. The vocal textures are fairly uniform, without much coloration by imitation or repetition, but he combines virtuoso scoring (reminiscent of the Eton Choirbook period—see my post On Henry VIII’s MP3 Player for more about the Eton Choirbook) with chordal constructions and masterly control of the play between harmony and rhythm.

He wrote large number of hymns and Office responds, and through them, we can see the changes of taste in music for the Office, from the ornate Latin works when England was still Catholic, the ornamental form during Mary’s reign, and simple syllabic themes from Edward VI and Elizabeth I’s reigns.

Most of Sheppard’s surviving music for the Latin rite was probably written during Mary’s reign. His six-voice Magnificat has florid counterpoint and no imitation, and belongs to the tradition of the Eton Choirbook composers. Among his more modern works are a four-voice Magnificat, the Missa Cantate, and the Mass “The Western Wynde.” His best work included vigorous counterpoint around a plainchant (busy voices around a simple melody).

Sheppard shows foreign influence in his Frences Mass in the Eton Choirbook. His output was second only to that of William Byrd (biography to come) among 16th century composers. He wrote five Masses, 21 Office responds, 18 hymns, and a quantity of votive antiphons, psalms, canticles, etc.

HIs English-language works, which include 15 anthems and service music, date from Edward’s reign. During Mary’s reign, there was an outpouring of Latin psalm-settings by Tallis, Tye, Sheppard, and Robert White (c1530-1574).

He worked with Thomas Byrd (William’s father, whose dates are uncertain and about whom very little is known) on a collaborated psalm setting with Thomas Mundy (dates unknown), called Similes illis fiant.

Reports on his activities are few. All we know, really, is that in 1554, he applied for the Doctor of Music degree from Oxford, and that he was last listed in Chapel Royal documents in 1559. He might have died, or he might simply have retired. One source lists his death in 1559, several list it in 1560, and one lists it as 1563 and mentions London as the location.

Sources:

“The Norton/Grove Concise Encyclopedia of Music,” edited by Stanly Sadie. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1994.

The Pelican History of Music, Book 2: Renaissance and Baroque,” edited b Alec Robertson and Denis Stevens. Penguin Books, Harmondshire, 1973.

“The Concise Oxford History of Music,” by Gerald Abraham. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1985.

“Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music,” by Don Michael Randel. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1978.

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