Europe's foremost vocal ensemble performs two of the most important works by that enormously prolific master of 16th century polyphony, Orlande [Roland] de Lassus, otherwise known as Orlando di Lasso (born in Mons, Hainaut in 1532, died in Munich in 1594). The Hilliard Ensemble has sung Lassus's compositions since the group's inception. As John Potter says of the Prophetiae Sibyllarum : "They are among the finest expressions of a renaissance musical ideal: an attempt to recover from an imagined past a fusion of rhetoric and chromaticism, in which Lassus stretched the compositional boundaries of his own time and laid down a challenge to performers of ours."
Lassus wrote more than 2,000 works in diverse genres, including masses, motets, psalms, hymns, responsorial Passions and secular pieces in Italian, French and German. His motets include didactic pieces, ceremonial works for special occasions, settings of classical texts (some secular, the Prophetiae Sibyllarum among them), liturgical works and private devotional pieces. Lassus issued five volumes of sacred music as Patrocinium musices (1573-6). After his death, his sons assembled another, the Magnum opus musicum of 1604.
Little is known of Lassus's early life. The stories of the choirboy with the golden voice, kidnapped three times before the age of 12, are most likely apocryphal. It is thought that he began to compose while in Naples working for Constantino Castrioto circa 1550, after which he moved to Rome, becoming maestro di cappella of St John Lateran in 1553. John Potter: "It is possible he was in Rome at the time of the great debate on chromaticism between Lusitano and Vicentino in 1551. Both these theorists were trying to establish the nature of the ancient Greek music, the former (who was judged the winner) using the evidence to support a diatonic (and conservative) compositional method, and the latter proposing a more radical chromaticism. The young Lassus was on the side of the radicals..." In 1556 he joined the court chapel of Duke Albrecht V of Bavaria as a singer, becoming Kapellmeister of the Bavarian court in 1563. In this capacity he served the Duke and his successor, Wilhelm V, for 30 years. Many of his works were published while he held this position and he also travelled widely, consolidating his international reputation as composer and singer.
John Potter on the Prophetiae Sibyllarum: "The words for the introductory Carmina Cromatico are probably by Lassus himself, the title referring to the complex dissonances and tuning of this extraordinary work. It is the shortest of the collection, and tonal disorientation begins almost immediately...In the first eight bars there are chords on all but one of the twelve chromatic semitones. This is word-painting in excelsis. The homophonic texture enables Lassus to express the text with the immediacy of renaissance rhetoric, while the continually shifting pitch-centres prepare the listener for the bizarre mixture of pagan hysteria and Christian epigram which are to come... The Sibylline Prophesies were a gift from the young Lassus to his patron, and were not published until after the composer's death. Lassus, who was fluent in all the compositional techniques of his day, put aside extreme chromaticism and did not return to it. Such music, known as musica reservata, was unique and performances were reserved for cognoscenti..."
The Hilliard Ensemble's reputation as an early music ensemble dates from the 1980s and its recordings for EMI, including Lassus's Penitential Psalms and Motets and Chansons, but from the beginning the group has paid equal attention to new music. Their 1986 recording of Arvo Pärt's Arbos initiated a fruitful relationship with both the composer and with ECM New Series, further developed on the Pärt recordings Passio, Miserere and Litany. The Hilliard Ensemble's ECM discography now covers a wide range and includes albums of music by Thomas Tallis, Perotin, Gesualdo, Walter Frye, Giya Kancheli and Gavin Bryars, as well as Codex Speciálník (Music from a Prague manuscript c 1500), and the anthology of New Music for Voices, A Hilliard Songbook.
The Ensemble's current interests include a long-term project on the 15th century Franco-Flemish mass, an ongoing exploration of medieval and renaissance music in eastern Europe, and a new mass with organ commissioned from Michael Finnissy. 1997 saw the release of the Canadian film Lilies, for which the group provided the soundtrack, and a renewal of their collaboration with Jan Garbarek with whom they recorded the immensely successful Officium project. The Hilliard Ensemble also commemorated the 500th anniversary of the death of Ockeghem with special tribute programmes.
The Hilliard Ensemble's 1998 touring schedule takes in concerts in Norway, Sweden, Germany, Belgium, Austria, Switzerland, France, Italy, Spain, Latvia, Lithuania and throughout the United Kingdom.