An entire class of English vocal ensembles, sometimes placed under an "Oxbridge Sound" umbrella, specializes in early music. Among the prestigious ranks of the Gothic Voices, the Tallis Scholars, Pro Cantione Antiqua, the Oxford Camerata, and The Sixteen, longevity and musical versatility placed the Hilliard Ensemble in a class almost of their own. Named for the great Elizabethan miniaturist painter Nicholas Hilliard, the Hilliard Ensemble grew out of the musical vision of baritone Paul Hillier, a graduate of the Guildhall School of Music, and his friendships with three other singers (two of them from Oxford). Their intention was to explore the then-less-heard musical riches of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Their musical odyssey covered music from the 11th to the 17th century, with a strong interest in new vocal music as well. Though Paul Hillier himself left the ensemble in 1990 to take American academic positions, the core membership remained otherwise fairly consistent: countertenor David James, tenors Rogers Covey-Crump and John Potter, and bass Gordon Jones. Tenor Steven Harrold joined when Potter left the ensemble in 1998.
The Hilliard Ensemble's work under Hillier's direction centered on English and "Netherlandish" music. Notable recordings included pathbreaking performances of Leonel Power and the Old Hall Manuscript, a large selection of music from the Continental generations influenced by the English style; the "Contenance Angloise" (Dufay, Ockeghem, and Josquin); and excellent renditions of later English composers such as Thomas Tallis and William Byrd. As an example of their many departures from this Renaissance main road, however, the Hilliard Ensemble's catalog features a musically powerful and quite controversial 1989 recording of the music of Pérotin. At all times, the singers performed almost exclusively one on a part (in contrast to the "choral" Tallis Scholars), with a characteristic full and resonant vocal production, and impeccable tuning. In addition, Hillier's individual approach emphasized historical pronunciation; he performed Latin texts by English composers, for instance, with regional Anglo-Latin dialects, thereby significantly altering the very sound of the music.