John Sheppard was a much more prolific composer than Tallis, but his achievement is comparatively limited. His Latin music consists predominantly of alternatim works with equal-note cantus firmus, especially responds and hymns; and there is, perhaps inevitably, a certain sameness about much that he wrote. Nevertheless there can be no doubt that Sheppard deserves far greater notice than he has so far enjoyed; his style is forthright and vigorous, the full-blooded sound of six-part writing with trebles being a favourite.
Sheppard was almost certainly considerably younger than Tallis or Tye, because unlike them he was not yet represented in the Peterhouse partbooks of c. 1540-7. He was probably born in about 1520: reference is made to his twenty years' study of music in his supplication for the Oxford DMus in 1554. He was master of the choristers at Magdalen at various times between 1542 and 1556; the interruptions to his service were probably connected with disciplinary infringements, for the College registers record several charges against him. Although granted his degree, he may not actually have received it, for he is never referred to as 'Doctor', even in the College records of 1555 and 1556. Sheppard became a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal in about 1552. The Check Book does not list him, and so he had presumably left, or died, before 1561 when its record of appointments and resignations, begins. The last reference to him is in 1557 when he made a gift of music to the Queen.
The responds form Sheppard's largest group of works and contain some of his most impressive writing. Sixteen are choral responds, twelve with texts not previously set. The basic technique of working imitation against a plainsong in semibreves resembles that of Tallis's responds; but Sheppard's textures tend to be more consistently dense, and to be a little more florid.
The Masses range from the alternatimPlaynsong Masse for a Mene, a setting in black plainsong notation plus a few single (white) minims with a mean as the highest of four voices, to the exciting six-part Cantate. The latter is in the festal tradition because it is more richly scored and longer than the other settings, but like Tallis'sPuer natus it is on a much smaller scale than Taverner's longer Masses or Fayrfax's (some 400 bars instead of 600 or 700).
Western Wyndeis the only other Mass to use pre-existing material. It is the least interesting of the threeWestern Wyndesettings, and probably the least accomplished of Sheppard's major works. Apart from obvious inferiority in style and finish, important differences from Taverner'sWestern Wyndeare more frequent imitation, including anticipatory imitations worked during brief rests in the melody part, and less use of reduced textures. Sheppard's setting is little more than half as long as Taverner's, having only twenty-four statements of the tune, fourteen of them without the final phrase. There is a much reduced use of sequence and triplet passages, an unfortunate unwillingness to let the tune move away from the treble, and a simpler style than Taverner's in the O sections.
The two remaining Masses are stylistically much more advanced than Western Wyndeand presumably later in date. Reduced scoring is now virtually eliminated, verbal repetition is adopted (as indeed it is in Cantate and the Playnsong Masse), and imitation is much more important. The very title of one of them signals deliberate experiment, and acknowledges the source of inspiration: theFrench Mass,in its polished imitative writing, recalls the shorter Masses of such Frenchmen as Gombert. As in Taverner'sMeane Mass,the imitation is effectively set off by occasional chordal passages, although Sheppard employs the signature C for them instead of Taverner's O and O. The strangely titledBe not afraideis a less interesting work, lacking the chordal passages and having a somewhat limited melodic vocabulary.