Tonight, in London, the Hilliard Ensemble will give their final scheduled performance before they retire. Since their founding in the 1970s, the Hilliard Ensemble have been vanguards of the early music movement and remained a powerful force throughout their 40-year history. At the end of October, the Hilliard Ensemble released their final album, Transeamus. The album (which was recorded in 2012) is a collection of English carols and motets from the 15th century and a stunningly appropriate cap to an amazing set of recordings. David James, countertenor of the group, summed up the essence of this recording’s context within the Hilliard Ensemble’s catalog:
The Hilliard Ensemble’s first ever recording contained music from the court of King Henry VIII and so it seemed appropriate for our final recording to return to our roots…
The transparency of these two-, three-, and four-part songs are a welcome addition to the Hilliard Ensemble’s discography. On several of the tracks the singers move away from the supremely rich, roaring sound they are known for, and rather present something much more intimate, raw, and visceral. The music is presented simply and with incredibly direct interpretations. The album is actually quite a departure from the current prevailing style of early music interpretation, which has largely blended together with the performance practice of contemporary choral music. The Hilliard Ensemble instead interpret the music in a style akin to the beginning days of the early music movement in the 1960s and 1970s. Rather than sounding like recent albums such as Gesualdo’s Quinto Libro di Madrigali (2012) and Guillame de Machaut’s Motets (2004), the quartet sounds much more like David Munrow and the Early Music Consort of London.
Listening to the album has been extraordinary and it reminds me of my I love this sort of music and the Hilliard Ensemble. My favorite track from the album is “St. Thomas Honour We,” which is masterful combination of clear, precise intonation and the direct stamping quality of “vintage” early music. Other great tracks include “There Is No Rose,” and “Sancta mater gracie/Dou Way Robin.” Both of these place the uncanny accuracy of the singers right in the front of the texture.
Most importantly, the album fills me with a deep sadness knowing that the Hilliard Ensemble will be retiring at the end of the year. I’ve followed this tremendous ensemble since I was 18 years old, and their music has been a powerful inspiration to me as a person, musician, vocalist, and composer. Time and time again I’ve returned to their recordings and through their music have gained a better understanding of what resonates with me, and what my aesthetic goals as a musician are. One of my great regrets in life is that I have never seen them live, and it seems that I never will.
New York Polyphony’s countertenor Geoffrey Williams recently authored an article about the Hilliard Ensemble’s legacy and said that, “New York Polyphony exists in large part because of the trail they blazed.” (New York Polyphony is a male vocal quartet similar to the Hilliard Ensemble; read about their latest release, Sing Thee Nowell.) I completely agree with Mr. Williams, and New York Polyphony—more than any other vocal ensemble—are poised to be the successors to the Hilliard Ensemble. Of course, the two groups are quite different not only in sound, but also in attitude. New York Polyphony embraces social technology and actively engages with their fans and other music lovers. Hilliard is much more old school: they perform and release CDs; only recently have they even offered their albums for digital download. In addition, Mr. Williams offered up his top five Hilliard Ensemble albums, which got me thinking about my favorite albums by the Hilliard Ensemble…
The opening track to this album, “Viderunt Omnes,” is one of a few defining musical experiences in my life. I was 18 and in my music appreciation course at San Diego City College. We had just begun to learn about medieval music and after the typical lecture on Gregorian Chant, we had our first listen to some of the earliest known music in four voices. The instructor played the four-part organum “Viderunt Omnes” and I was utterly blown away. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing—I was overwhelmed by the florid voices dancing over a long droning tone. This was one of those moments where I wondered, “Why have I not been listening to this music for years?” The album was also one of my first online purchases ever and it quickly became one of my favorites as I discovered more amazing tracks such as “Veni Creator Spiritus” and “Isaias Cecinit.” To this day I return to the album again and again when I need to remind myself why I love music.
English and Italian Renaissance Madrigals (1999)
This compilation CD of madrigals (originally released separately as Draw On Sweet Night and Italian Renaissance Madrigals) is another album I was introduced to during my 1998 music appreciation course at San Diego City College. The required listening for the class has three tracks from this album: “Morir non può il mio cuore,” “Sweet Nimphe, Come to Thy Lover,” and “Fyre and Lightning from Heaven.” The set is a fascinating exploration of two different genres of madrigal. The Italian madrigals are, by and large, serious and expressive, while on the other hand, the English madrigals are markedly direct and capture the devil-may-care attitude of English renaissance music.
I first heard this album in 2011 when it was re-released by ECM, and for crazy, in-tune singing, this one is the tops. The album includes both Lassus’s Requiem Mass and Prophetiae sibyllarum, which the Hilliard Ensemble interpret with unbelievable ring. Both the Sanctus and Agnus Dei include some the most resonate and pure intonation not only by the Hilliard Ensemble, but by any vocal ensemble I’ve ever heard. This album was recorded at Boxgrove Priory, Chichester—where Hilliard has recorded several albums—and it’s a testament to how the recording or performing space is almost another member of the ensemble. There’s a special moment where one hears drops of water as the cantor begins the Memento mei Deus in the first moments of the album. Moments like these add a visceral dimension to the recording that, in effect, transports one into the same space as the performers.
Johann Sebastian Bach – Motetten (2007)
This recording is one of those moments where an early music group simply decides to cast historic accuracy aside and simply do something awesome. With Motetten, the Hilliard Ensemble choose to record Bach’s motets (BWVs 225–230 & BWV Anh. 159) a cappella and one on a part, rather than accompanied by a baroque instrumental ensemble, which would have been the standard practice of Bach’s day (although Hilliard tenor Rogers Covey-Crump plays organ for Lobet den Herrn, alle Heiden). My favorite moment from the album is “Gute Nacht, O Wesen” from Jesu, Meine Freude. This gentle movement features the tenor voice as a walking bass while two sopranos harmonize over the chorale tune, creating an almost ideal texture of sound. In addition, this album was released just as I was finishing my undergraduate degree and, at the time, I was becoming rapidly disillusioned with how music was practiced and taught in the academy. Hearing an album like this was incredibly refreshing and inspiring.
Guillaume de Machaut – Motets (2004)
Few records I can think of are as hands-down awesome as Hilliard’s recording of Machaut’s motet’s. I first encountered Machaut’s motet’s from a recording of “Ha! Fortune/Qui es promesses de Fortune/Et non est qui adjuvet” by David Munrow and the Early Music Consort of London. Their version was accompanied, upbeat, and peppy; Hilliard’s on the other hand is serious, unaccompanied, and much more exposed. In fact, the unaccompanied versions of these motets by the Hilliard Ensemble bring the rich harmonies and strange rhythmic elements of late medieval polyphony immediately to the fore. Motets epitomizes what I love about early music: it lets me go back to another time and hear how distant humans expressed themselves and discover what ideas still resonate today.