After their enormous successes with Officium and Mnemosyne, the Hilliard Ensemble return to important source material including the Officium defunctorum of Victoria, and polyphony of Palestrina, as well as Gregorian chant from the Toul Graduale of 1610.
The music of Tomás Luis de Victoria and Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina has been a cornerstone of the Hilliard Ensemble’s repertoire almost from the beginning of the group’s long history. In recent seasons they have frequently performed a programme they call “In Paradisum”, which incorporates motets by Victoria and Palestrina, framed by a roughly contemporary plainsong Requiem Mass. The antiphon “In Paradisum deducant te angeli” – may the angels conduct you to Paradise – gives the album its title, this being the sequence which concludes the Latin rite of the Roman Catholic liturgy for the dead, before the funeral procession leaves the church to escort the body to its final resting place.
Composer Ivan Moody, contributing to “In Paradisum” as an essayist, points out that while our awareness of the musical achievement of the great composers of liturgical polyphony has grown in this century, we have also lost our perspective of the fact that they were first and foremost men of the spirit (Palestrina’s social connections and more worldly ambitions notwithstanding) whose greatest works were written for the glory of God. Here, the Hilliard singers restore an appropriate sense of context, their performance reminding us that Palestrina and Victoria would have been closely in-volved with the plainsong and mass for daily offices; at the same time they are emphasising that the sung Catholic Mass was once also an extraordinary musical event. Nor were its musical forms immutable; this was a period when the traditions were in flux, “performance practise” in chant was changing, influenced by developments in polyphony.
Palestrina, born around 1525 in the town in the Sabine Hills outside Rome that gave him his name, was chapel master at the Capella Giulia at St Peters and the Julian Chapel, sang at the Sistine Chapel, and was a most prolific composer, the author of more than 104 masses and more than 375 motets, 68 offertories, at least 65 hymns, four or five sets of lamentations, and over 140 madrigals. His peda-gogical skills were also widely praised. Palestrina exerted a great influence as exemplar and teacher, and a network of younger composers was enormously indebted to him. The most gifted of these was, arguably, Victoria, “the first Iberian composer to master Palestrina’s style with its smooth symmetrical melodies and carefully-worked double counterpoint. Victoria departs from Palestrina, however, in his subtle harmonic shifts, extensive use of accidentals, and rhythmic intensity” (Mitchell Covington).
Twenty years younger than Palestrina, Victoria came from the Spanish town of Avila, birthplace of St Teresa. He studied at the cathedral there and, preparing to study for the priesthood, proceeded to Rome where he met and befriended Palestrina. Although he wrote much less than the older composer, less too than other important religious composers such as Lassus or Morales, he saw almost all of his works published in his lifetime. His work, very highly-regarded by his contemporaries, traveled far, was sung all over Europe and even in distant Mexico. Acclaim seems to have had little effect on Victoria’s introspective character; one of the most reclusive composers of his day, he was devoted to the contemplative life. Victoria wrote no secular music, nor did he court the affections of wealthy patrons. After major successes in Rome he returned to Spain to take up a position as chaplain at the Monasterio de la Descalzas de Santa Clara in Madrid and remained there for the last 25 years of his life.
Of the repertoire on the present disc, The Hilliard Ensemble’s Gordon Jones explains: “Of the four pieces by Palestrina included in this programme, three are settings of Responsory texts from either the Office for the Dead or the Burial Service. Two, Heu mihi Domine and Domine quando veneris are both from the Matins for the Dead and are set in two sections. The third, Libera me Domine, is the only one to retain its full responsorial structure. The plainsong Dum veneris acts as a response to the polyphonic verses, which are for three voices, and there is a repeat of the whole opening section at the end. To the Responsory proper Palestrina has added a setting of the Kyrie which would have been sung at this point in the service. The fourth piece, Ad Dominum cum tribularer clamavi, Psalm 119 (120), is set as a motet, in two sections. This psalm would have been sung at Vespers from the Office for the Dead.”
Victoria published two settings of the Requiem and various other texts from the Office of the Dead. “From the first of these, Libera me is the same text as set by Palestrina and in the same responsorial style. It also, like Palestrina’s setting, has the chant as a cantus firmus in the top voice. The responsory, Peccantem me quotidie, is from the Matins of the Dead and the programme begins with a setting of the second lesson from the same service, Taedet animam meam, from Victoria’s later version of the office.”
Founded in 1974, the Hilliard Ensemble is one of the world’s finest vocal chamber groups, unrivalled for its reputation in the fields of both early and new music. Their 1988 recording of Arvo Pärt’s Passio signalled the beginning of a long and fruitful relationship with ECM, which has taken in recordings of Gesualdo, Thomas Tallis, Perotin, Lassus, Walter Frye, Giya Kancheli, Gavin Bryars, “Codex Specialnik” (music from a Prague manuscript c1500) and the New Music for Voices of “A Hilliard Songbook” – with pieces by Veljo Tormis, Barry Guy, Morton Feldman, Ivan Moody, Michael Finissy, Joanne Metcalf, Elizabeth Liddle and others – as well as the best-selling collaborations with saxophonist Jan Garbarek.
The Ensemble’s current interests include a long-term project on the 15th century Franco-Flemish mass, a continuing exploration of medieval and renaissance music in eastern Europe, and a new mass with organ, commissioned from Michael Finnissy. Concerts with major orchestras have recently included a performance of Pärt’s Litany with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and current collaborations include a major series with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and a commission from James MacMillan which was premiered with the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the London Proms in 1999 (a US premiere with the Philadelphia Orchestra is scheduled for 2001).