Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Music and History: 1554-1555

From Gallicantus and Gabriel Crouch comes another historically themed CD of music at the Court during Queen Mary I's phantom pregnancy of 1554-1555:

Long-awaited news of a Tudor royal birth winged its way to London on 30 April 1555. A male heir had been born: a pledge of dynastic fertility after decades of royal stillbirths, miscarriages and marital misadventures. This was surely a sign of God’s pleasure with Mary I (1516-1558) and a vindication of her mission to restore Catholic religion, reverse the doctrinal experiments of the previous two decades, and return England to its historic place in Europe. The bells of London accordingly rang out while Te Deum laudamus, the traditional hymn of thanksgiving, was sung by the city’s choirs.

The festivities came to an abrupt end on 1 May. Yesterday’s news had been a mere rumour: there was to be no royal birth, not yet at least. ‘It turned out otherwise to the pleasure of God’, wrote the merchant-tailor Henry Machyn, assuring himself that the birth would happen ‘whenever it pleases God’. At thirty-nine years old Queen Mary was superannuated by sixteenth-century obstetric standards, but her pregnancy was generally deemed credible and she had not yet come to term by 1 May. The summer months drew on, but still no news. Long after the original due date, Mary eventually gave up hope, withdrawing from Hampton Court to Oatlands Palace in the first days of August.

There would be no apotheosis in 1555, but it had been tantalizingly imminent. This disc explores the musical traces of an extraordinary year of hopes raised and dashed. The music performed here resonates with the circumstances of the mid-1550s, even if some of the items were composed outside Mary’s own reign; some pieces stemmed from the royal ceremonies in which Mary participated as queen; and some of the music sung here can be directly tied to the specific events of 1554-5, including a newly-reconstructed Litany which was performed during Mary’s assumed pregnancy. The viewpoint shifts from the streets of London and its suburbs, through the ceremonial grandeur of the royal palaces and their chapels, to the intimacy of the queen’s birthing chamber.

You may listen to samples here and read the entire booklet here. Several of the compositions are by John Sheppard, and Hyperion offers this biography:

John Sheppard (c1515–1558) is thought to have been a chorister at St Paul’s Cathedral in or around 1530, although information supporting this theory has proved difficult to come by. By Michaelmas 1543 he is known to have been Informator Choristarum (director of music) at Magdalen College Oxford, where he is reputed to have blotted his copybook through various misdeeds. On further investigation, this mistaken allegation has arisen from a misreading of the college’s records: it was Richard Sheppar (and not Sheppard) who was the culprit. Sheppard later appears in the records of the Chapel Royal (from 1547).

Sadly, much of Sheppard’s music has been lost. His compositions survive in partbooks at Christ Church Oxford, and testify to the elaborate style of church music from the reign of Mary Tudor (1553–1558). . . .

He is best known today for his Media Vita ("In the midst of life"), an appropriate antiphon for Lent.

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