John Sheppard (composer)

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John Sheppard (also Shepherd, c. 1515 – December 1558) was an English composer of the Renaissance.


Sheppard's birth date can be placed in the second decade of the 16th century, based on his claims of composing in 1534.[1] Otherwise, little is known about Sheppard in the years preceding his presence in Magdalen College, Oxford; it is here that he attended Michaelmas in 1543 as Informator choristarum.[2] Sheppard is in the list of the Gentleman of the Chapel Royal in 1552; he may have entered this position directly after his departure from Magdalen, but because of the gap in Chapel Royal records from 1547, this is not certain.[3] He presumably remained active at the chapel up to the year of his death; on New Year's Day 1556 he presented a roll of songs to Mary Tudor. In 1554 he supplicated, apparently unsuccessfully, for the degree of Doctor of Music at Oxford University, stating that he had studied music for 20 years and had "composed many songs".[4][5] Sheppard's death in December 1558 is marked by the making of his will on 1 December and by his burial on 21 December; he was awarded liveries for the funeral of Queen Mary on 13 December and for the coronation of Elizabeth I on 15 January 1559, despite his date of burial.[1]


Almost all of Sheppard's compositions for the Latin liturgy exist in post-Reformation anthologies. The survival of his music is owed greatly to the five surviving Baldwin partbooks at Christ Church, Oxford (GB-Och Mus. 979-83), copied after 1575.[6] Four of Sheppard's masses can be found in the Gyffard Partbooks (GB-Lbl Add. 17802-5), including his setting of The Western Wynde, which is modeled on Taverner's plan.[1] The so-called Gyffard Partbooks are a set of four manuscript part books, probably copied for Dr. Roger Gyffard during the 1570s.[7] Much of the Gyffard music may have been composed during Sheppard's Magdalen years (the compiler had formerly been a fellow of Merton College, Oxford). Additionally, a set of six partbooks (GB-Ob Tenbury 807-11; missing the superius) contains some of Sheppard's votive antiphons and ritual music.[8]



Of Sheppard's five surviving Mass ordinary cycles, the six-part Cantate is a full-length, sumptuous festal setting in the tradition of John Taverner, constructed in units of six-part polyphony alternating with a mosaic of semi-choir sections. The principal unifying device, apart from the head-motive passages at the beginning of each movement, is the eight-note figure F-E-F-G-A-Bb-G-F, which occurs at various points in the tenor. Of the four-part Mass cycles, Western Wynde is based on a pre-existing popular melody, also forming the basis of Mass cycles by Taverner and Christopher Tye.[3] In Sheppard's setting the melody migrates between the treble and the tenor. Two other cycles, Be not afraid and The Frences Mass are both elaborately contrapuntal and freely constructed, with the former scored exclusively for men's voices. Playnsong Masse for a Mene is a much simpler work; written in the simplified notation known as "strene," it follows in the tradition of a setting in a similar style by Taverner. It includes a Kyrie (unlike most Sarum Mass cycles) and uses alternatim technique with alternating sections of chant and polyphony.

Latin music[edit]

Sheppard was evidently a key figure in Mary Tudor's programme to supply the Chapel with elaborate polyphony for the Sarum Rite, which was restored by the Catholic monarch on her accession in 1553. The greater part of Sheppard's music was composed for it.[9] There are 21 responsories, elaborate liturgical units normally sung at Matins in which progressively shortened repetitions of the responsory itself alternate with verses and a doxology.[1] Sheppard often set the responsory to five or six-part polyphony with the chant sung as a cantus firmus in the tenor (less commonly in the treble or mean) and leaving the incipit, verses and doxology to be chanted. One of his most well-known responsories is Media vita in morte sumus. His innovative use of the cantus firmus in breves allows for a greater, more spacious harmonic rhythm, which effectively complements his solemn treatment of the opening text.[3] Another relevant example of this use of cantus firmus is Sheppard's six-part setting of Verbum caro, which is the ninth responsory at Matins on Christmas Day. In a few settings of ferial responsaries for Advent and Lent he employs the reverse procedure, providing polyphony for the incipit, the verses and the doxology but leaving the responsory itself to be sung to plainsong (e.g.In manus tuasa4). One of the most grandiose of Sheppard's responsories is Gaude, gaude, gaude Maria; a magnificent setting of the responsory and interpolated prosa for Second Vespers for the Feast of the Purification.[3]

Like Tallis, Sheppard also composed alternatim hymns, with the even-numbered verses sung to polyphony with chant cantus firmus and the odd-numbered verses left to be chanted. Usually the cantus firmus is in the treble. There are also a number of additional items for particularly solemn feasts of the Church calendar, including settings of the Gradual at Mass for Easter Day Haec dies, and of the Kyrie as sung at Second Vespers. An alternatim setting of the processional psalm In exitu Israel, composed for the Paschal Vigil, was set jointly by Sheppard, William Mundy and the young William Byrd.

English music[edit]

Sheppard's music for the new Protestant rite, which has suffered seriously from the loss of manuscript sources, was presumably composed during the reign of Edward VI which saw the publication of the Book of Common Prayer in 1549 and thus created a need for liturgical music for English texts.[citation needed]

Four services (settings of canticles and other items for the new English Matins, Evensong and Communion services) have all survived in incomplete form, the Second Service being of interest in that it influenced the design of Byrd's Great Service (research by Richard Turbet). Sheppard's fifteen English anthems, most of which are a4, comply with the demands of the Protestant reformers for simplicity, clear, audible words and largely syllabic text-underlay. His five-part English setting of the Lord's Prayer nevertheless overcomes these limitations and achieves a degree of musical elaboration. The part-songs O happy dames and Vain, vain, all our life we spend in vain (both a4) are Sheppard's only known secular works.[citation needed]


Chadd, David, ed. John Sheppard: I: Responsorial Music. London: Stainer & Bell, 1977. Print. Early English Church Music. 17.
Sandon, Nicholas, ed. John Sheppard: II: Masses. London: Stainer & Bell, 1976. Print. Early English Church Music. 18.
Mateer, David, ed. The Gyffard Partbooks, I. London: Stainer & Bell, 2007. Print. Early English Church Music. 48 / 33, 40, 41.
Mateer, David, ed. The Gyffard Partbooks, II. London: Stainer & Bell, 2009. Print. Early English Church Music. 51 / 7, 15.
Williamson, Magnus, ed. John Sheppard: III: Hymns, Psalms, Antiphons, and other Latin Polyphony. London: Stainer & Bell, 2012. Print. Early English Church Music. 54.

In popular culture[edit]

His composition Media vita in morte sumus was used as part of the soundtrack of the strategy game Civilization 4.[10]



  1. ^ a b c d Chadd, David. "Sheppard, John." Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press. Web. 5 Feb. 2016.
  2. ^ Chadd, David, ed. John Sheppard: I: Responsorial Music. London: Stainer & Bell, 1977. Print. Early English Church Music. 17. ix.
  3. ^ a b c d Benham, Hugh. Latin Church Music in England, c. 1460-1575. New York: Da Capo Press, 1980. Print. 197.
  4. ^ Bloxham, J.R. A Register of the Members of St. Mary Magdalen College, Oxford. London: Oxford University Press, 1857. Print. 187.
  5. ^ Sandon, Nicholas, ed. John Sheppard: II: Masses. London: Stainer & Bell, 1976. Print. Early English Church Music. 18. ix.
  6. ^
  7. ^ Mateer, David. "The Gyffard Partbooks: composers, owners, date and provenance." [Royal Musical Association] Research Chronicle, 28 (1995).
  8. ^ Milsom, John. "Sacred songs in the chamber." In English Choral Practice, 1400-1650, John Morehen, ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995. Print. 175.
  9. ^ Bowers, Roger. "To chorus from quartet." In English Choral Practice, 1400-1650. John Morehen, ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995. Print. 42.
  10. ^;

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