This is what Settlement Music School in the Germantown Section of Philadelphia looks like today, the modern brick facade in the shape of a concert piano a significant improvement over the stultifying stone exterior on your left as it was in the early 1960s.
Though the piano lessons I received there from Miss MacBirney (there was no Ms. in those days) never stuck, owing to my disinterest in practice (I popularized the phrase in Philly long before Alan Iverson), it did give me an appreciation for music. What did stick in my youth, however, was choral singing at Beth Jacob school with Miss Mary Romig-de Young, complemented by choir participation with Cantor Naftali Ungar in Logan’s B’nai Israel, both of whom gave me the gift of tonality.
If you were fortunate enough to be the recipient of early musical gifts, you’ll appreciate an article in the Arts & Leisure section of today’s New York Times by David Allen. Titled A Choral Work From a 1550s Pandemic, it centers on the composition by John Sheppard, known as “Media vita in morte sumus“. Translated as “In the midst of life we are in death”, David Allen speculates that Sheppard intoned this meditation in the face of a strain of pandemic influenza that swept his home country of England in 1557. At the very least, it was an infectious disease of global proportions, probably a proto-pandemic of what we are dealing with now.
Media vita in morte sumus
quem quaerimus adjutorem
nisi te, Domine,
qui pro peccatis nostris
sancte et misericors Salvator:
amarae morti ne tradas nos.
In the midst of life we are in death
of whom may we seek for succour,
but of thee, O Lord,
who for our sins
art justly displeased?
Yet, O Lord God most holy,
O Lord most mighty,
O holy and most merciful Saviour,
deliver us not into the bitter pains of eternal death.
Not coincidentally, these flu-like pandemics with mutating strains seem to burn themselves out after a two year period, as they did from 1557-1559 and during the Spanish Flu from 1918-1920. Though predicting the future is risky business, if history repeats itself, the COVID-19 pandemic can be anticipated to run its course from late 2019 to late 2021. We might be able to mitigate the waves through masks, social distancing, and the extent to which a vaccine which didn’t exist in Sheppard’s time, nor as recently as the Spanish Flu, is effective. In the interim, the healing music of Sheppard’s choral work remains timeless and universal.