The legacy of the Hilliard Ensemble

January 17, 2014

Recently, the Hilliard Ensemble announced that they will disband in 2014 after 40 years of performing. The mark they’ve made on the fields of early and new music is huge, and it’s not at all an exaggeration to say that New York Polyphony exists in large part because of the trail they blazed. So, please allow me to give credit where credit is due, and maybe wax a bit sentimental…

I remember early on in my college days having a long running and heated argument with my roommate about two excellent recordings of the Tallis Lamentations: one by The King’s Singers (my favorite at the time) and the other (my roommate’s favorite) by The Hilliard Ensemble.

My bias was understandable: The King’s Singers introduced me to early music and to the possibility that I could be a countertenor. With the Hilliards, I found their blended, homogeneous sound attractive, but as a know-it-all young singer, I favored the in-your-face vocal detail that the studio recording of the King’s Singers captured so well. But now, after singing countless shows in all sorts of acoustic environments with my own vocal quartet and understanding first-hand the challenges of “self mixing” without the aid of an audio engineer, I get it. I really, really get it. To rely solely on four voices and an acoustic to create a unanimous gesture and an integrated sound is a riskier proposition than most people realize. And the Hilliard Ensemble, for 40 years, nailed it.

As I mentioned above, New York Polyphony owes more to The Hilliard Ensemble than can be crammed into one blog. But I will try to boil down what is so significant about this group and its influence.

  1. Unity
    Blend and a unified sense of style and purpose are the features that make the Hilliard sound so immediately attractive. In fact, it’s what first drew me to Thomas Tallis’ Mass for Four Voices— a work I’d overlooked until I heard them sing it. (FUN FACT: the Hilliard recording of the Tallis inspired our most recent record Times go by Turns. On it, we hoped to advance the “conversation” of performance style by applying a more sober, straight-forward vocalism.)
  2. Scholarship
    The Hilliards possess a brilliantly analytic side, both in terms of selection/ preparation of repertoire and individual study. This makes for an approach that is historically informed, but not slavish to fussy period performance practice. Musically and stylistically, their choices make good sense.
  3. Commitment to repertoire
    While other ensembles have succumbed to the pressure of presenters (and the marketplace!) to offer “lighter” repertoire, the Hilliard Ensemble has consistently and impressively remained committed to medieval and Renaissance music, presenting the highest standard performances and recordings.
  4. Education
    The ensemble has influenced countless groups with its recordings and performances, but most significantly, they have championed young ensembles, especially our friends in Trio Medieval with their acclaimed “Summer School” courses in ensemble singing. In addition, Hilliard alum John Potter—who was succeeded in the group by Steven Harrold—has transitioned to the scholastic side of ensemble singing by founding a degree in the subject at University of York. He has also authored the Cambridge Companion to Singing and A History of Singing with Neil Sorrell.
  5. Collaboration and innovation
    The final commendation I’d make to the Hilliards is their dedication to innovative programming, collaboration, and augmenting their core repertoire with new works. Their thrice “gold” record Officium combines exuberant early polyphony with the cool and sombre tones of Jan Garbarek’s saxophone; a recipe they’ve repeated successfully three times! This, and their work with violin virtuoso and conductor Christoph Poppen—a collaboration that brought the music of Bach and the Baroque into the their repertoire—are just two of many examples. The presentation of Professor Helga Thoene’s musicological study of the D minor Partita (BWV 1004) with interpolated chorales is a remarkable experiment, blending programmatic excellence, fine singing, and inspired playing— an experiment that the four of us have attempted to recreate in concerts with violinist Lizzie Ball.

So, in conclusion, here are my TOP 5 ALBUMS by The Hilliard Ensemble:

The Lamentations of Jeremiah
Thomas Tallis – The Lamentations of Jeremiah

This is the group’s first recording on ECM Records. The sound captured here became somewhat of a signature for the discs that followed thanks to the production sensibilities of Manfred Eicher. Their ECM discs raised the bar in terms of packaging: sexy photos, classy performances and repertoire, and the highest quality audio.


This album, released around the time of the Bach anniversary in 2000, coincided with my own personal period of discovery of all things Bach and performance practice. It brings together some of Bach’s most inspired chorales with perhaps his best instrumental writing in the solo violin partitas. I learned so much about programming from this recording, not to mention the fact that it’s also a great lesson in ensemble blend.

Lassus – (Requiem and Prophetiae Sibyllarum)

Anna Maria Friman of Trio Mediaeval told me this was her favorite Hilliard record while we were scouring the stacks at the Princeton Record Exchange in 2003. While the Prophetiae Sibyllarum are curious and enigmatic, it’s the simple glory of the Lassus Requiem that attracts me. Beautiful chanting by Gordon Jones and ecstatic polyphony strike a perfect balance here. It’s this recording that convinced me that a simple setting of the Requiem (like the Brumel setting we recorded on endBeginning) would be a strong programming choice, both on record and in performance.

In paradisum
In paradisum – Music of Palestrina and Victoria

The opening track from Victoria’s 4-part Requiem Taedet animam meam immediately captures the Hilliard sound… but it’s the chant on this record that really appeals to me! John Potter, Rogers Covey-Crump, and Gordon Jones are paragons of style when it comes to chant. Perfectly blended, well-tuned, and always gracious.

Steven Hartke – Tituli/ Cathedral in the Thrashing Rain

I wouldn’t have purchased this disc had I not been asked to sing Tituli with eighth blackbird in 2007. The ensemble really steps out of its shell in performing these two commissioned works. Yes, the band is fabulous, but it’s the Hilliards blazing medieval color that brings this contemporary piece to life!