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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

Australian Heritage: Alfred Hill

This bright and breezy tune was written by a man who was born in Melbourne, grew up in New Zealand, studied in Leipzig, and who in later life played a major role in Sydney's musical life. He lived for almost a century and was a tireless performer, composer and teacher. Yet sadly, not a lot of his music is known or performed today. His name is Alfred Hill and he's the subject of this post.

Alfred Hill (c. 1920)

Alfred Francis Hill was born in Richmond, in suburban Melbourne, on 16 December 1869. For a long time his birth year was thought to be 1870 (this is in fact what is on his birth certificate) but it has now been proven that his birth year was in fact 1869. When he was two his family moved to New Zealand and settled in Auckland; three years later they relocated to Wellington. As a boy he began playing the cornet, gaining useful early experience in bands, a family orchestra, and a theatre group called The Patchwork Company, also run by members of his family.

He eventually began playing the cornet in productions mounted by Simonsen's Opera Company, which visited New Zealand (from Australia) and toured the country. Hill started to play the violin at this time and was assisted in this by the leader of the Simonsen's orchestra, Rivers Allpress. The violin soon became his main instrument and he also played the viola. Initial attempts at composing at this time - when he was in his mid teens - were not successful as he had little tuition or guidance.

Jacques Carabain: Queen Street, Auckland (c. 1889)

A huge change in Alfred Hill's world came in 1887, the year he turned 17. His father was persuaded to send him to the other side of the world, to Leipzig, to study at the city's Conservatory. His brother Jack, a singer, also went to study, and it was from this time that Hill's true professional training began.

Studying violin in Leipzig was the gateway to some amazing experience for the young Hill. He played in the second violins of the famed Gewandhaus Orchestra, a time when its Kapellmeister was Carl Reinecke, and its guest conductors included Brahms, Grieg and Tchaikovsky. He had excellent teaching, studying harmony with Gustav Schreck and violin with Hans Sitt.

Hans Sitt

Among the works composed in the four years spent in Leipzig is the violin sonata known as the Scotch Sonata, a work inspired by experiences in Scotland and dedicated to his friends there.

The Scotch Sonata, along with a number of other violin works, was performed and published in Leipzig during Hill's student years there. He clearly did well, as he was awarded the Helbig Prize by the Conservatory when he graduated in July 1891.

After four years in Leipzig, Hill returned to New Zealand. A work which spans both Leipzig and New Zealand is his first string quartet. In 1896 he substituted two new middle movements which show his developing interest in Maori music and his keenness to incorporate traditional Maori melodies into European musical forms. This is the second movement of the revised version, called "Waiata". The influence of Dvořák and Tchaikovsky is evident in Hill's quartets, interestingly, two composers who themselves were also keen to incorporate folk elements into their music. [listen]

For the first few years after returning to New Zealand from Leipzig, Hill was based in Wellington as the conductor of the Wellington Orchestral Society, but this was not a happy time for him. The older musicians in the orchestra resented his youth and experience and he left in 1896 after suffering four years in the post.

In addition to the early quartets, Hill also composed larger-scale works. The premiere of his cantata Time's Great Monotone in 1894 was an important early success, and he also developed a growing reputation for his violin playing.

After leaving the Wellington Orchestra, Hill played with the touring company of his friend, the Belgian violinist Ovide Musin. In late 1896 he returned to Wellington for the premiere of his next cantata, Hinemoa, which again put traditional Maori elements into a European musical context. Such interests marked him out as an individual and creative thinker, and Hinemoa in particular helped launch Hill's career as a composer in the public eye.

The following year, 1897, Musin's company disbanded and Hill found himself without regular income. He took the momentous decision of returning to Australia and he settled in Sydney. On 6 October that year he also married Sarah Brownhill Booth, who was usually known as Sadie.

Alfred Hill's output includes some seventy short piano works. These miniatures are perfect examples of his assimilation of the German Romantic style in which he was trained in Leipzig. Over his career there is no moving away from tonality to atonality, or even any obvious acknowledgement at all of 20th century modernism. He was content to write - and write well - in the style of his youth. The piano miniature Come Again Summer is a perfect example. [listen]

Alfred and Sadie Hill spent five years in Sydney. During this time he conducted amateur choral groups (such as the Sydney Liedertafel), but his primary work involved composing and performing light operas. The first of these, Lady Dolly, was a huge success at its premiere in 1900.

In 1902 the Hills returned to New Zealand, where he continued to successfully write light operas, such as Tapu, which was premiered in Wellington in 1903 and successfully toured around the country. In 1904 JC Williamson took up an option on the piece and toured a new version of it to Auckland and Sydney.

1904 saw the composition of what became Hill's most famous song, Waiata poi. He had continued his interest in Maori music and Waiata poi was composed to be included in a revival of Tapu. At the start of this post I provided a link to Henry Krips's orchestral arrangement of the song; here it is in its original version as recorded by Peter Dawson in March 1938. [listen]

And for a fascinating survey of the song’s evolution between 1917 and 1968… [listen]

Peter Dawson (1930)

Alfred Hill continued to enhance his reputation as a conductor in New Zealand. In 1906 he formed the first fully professional orchestra in New Zealand, which performed at the New Zealand International Exhibition in Christchurch and also toured, but it disbanded in 1907.

In 1910 the Hills returned to Sydney. Hill's work involved conducting, composing and playing, and from 1911 to 1913 he was a member of the Austral String Quartet. It was at this time his own string quartets started to be performed regularly, and by the start of the war in 1914 he had composed the first four of his eventual total of seventeen string quartets. The third string quartet dates from 1912 and has the title of The Carnival. This was the first of the quartets which Hill was later to arrange as full orchestral symphonies; nearly all of his 12 symphonies are in fact arrangements of pre-existing chamber works and the third quartet later became his fifth symphony. This is part of the opening movement of the original quartet version, called "In the streets". [listen]

Alfred Hill

Hill also continued to write light operas after his return to Sydney, with Teora, an opera on Maori themes composed in 1913. This was not performed, though, until 1929. In Sydney in 1914 he launched, in association with Fritz Hart, the Australian Opera League. This managed to mount two seasons, one of Hill's opera Giovanni and another of Hart's opera Pierette, before the venture was scuttled by the outbreak of the first world war.

Sydney's musical life took a major step forward despite the first world war, though, when in 1915 Henri Verbrugghen arrived to be the first director of the new NSW State Conservatorium of Music, as it was then called. The Con opened in 1916 and one of Verbrugghen's first appointments was to install Alfred Hill as foundation professor of harmony and composition. He held this post for 18 years, until 1934.

NSW State Conservatorium Quartet: Alfred Hill (R, seated) played viola. The other musicians are Gerald Walenn, Lionel Lawson and Gladstone Bell. (After 1924)

During this time Hill continued to compose string quartets; their arrangement as symphonies was some time in the future. But he did compose orchestral works; a trumpet concerto in 1915, for example. This recording, released on LP in 1970, features Donald Johnson as the soloist. [listen]

During his years at the Sydney Con, and after, Alfred Hill frequently visited New Zealand to perform there, but his base was to be Sydney for the rest of his life. In 1921 Alfred and Sadie Hill divorced, with the end of the marriage becoming official on 10 May. Less than five months later, on 1 October, Hill married Mirrie Irma Solomon, who had been one of his students and who was by that time teaching harmony and aural culture at the Con. Mirrie Hill was a gifted composer in her own right, and her output includes orchestral works, chamber music, film music, songs and piano works. This link shares a recording of her symphony, Arnhem Land, composed in 1954. [listen]

Mirrie Hill

In September 1932 Alfred Hill composed a concerto for violin and small orchestra, most likely designed for the newly-formed ABC Sydney Orchestra. It was indeed given its premiere in a radio broadcast in 1932. This substantial and beautiful work in three movements for his own instrument, only recently published, deserves to be better known. It, too, had a 1970 LP release, with Alwyn Elliott as the soloist. [listen]

After leaving the Sydney Con in 1934, Hill opened his own music school, the Alfred Hill Academy of Music. This folded after only three years, and from then on he devoted himself full time to composition. It's from this time that his growing interest in Australian Aboriginal music becomes evident, an ethnomusicological interest to parallel his earlier championing of Maori musical culture.

In 1935 Hill composed his eleventh string quartet, the quartet he himself considered his favourite. It shows a move away from the German Romantic style and contains elements which suggest a more French Impressionist style. It is certainly a very beautiful work which shows the composer's superb craftsmanship and gift for invention. [listen]

In 1940 Alfred Hill wrote one of his most important works, and one which is still played occasionally today, his viola concerto. This is more substantial in concept than the violin concerto and is a part of most Australian violists' repertoire. This link takes you to the classic recording conducted by Sir Bernard Heinze, with Robert Pikler as the soloist.

In 1947 Alfred Hill was made President of the Composers' Association of Australia, a sure indication of the esteem and influence he had in Australian musical life at the time. His later years saw the production of a large number of works, especially the symphonies, and in 1949 he also produced his Welcome Overture.

In 1951 Hill completed his third symphony, known as Australia. This was largely an arrangement of his string quartet no 14 (composed in 1937), but some of the symphony's music originated in a score he composed for a film called Arnhem Land. It's a work of immense optimism, in parallel with the second symphony. The earlier work, a choral symphony called The Joy of Life, was adapted from the quintet for piano and strings, a work which adds eight voices in the finale singing a hymn of praise to God. In the third symphony the optimism is focused on the nation of Australia itself, something made clear in the program details Hill appended to the score.

It evokes the natural and man-made landscapes of Australia in its first two movements; the third movement describes indigenous Australians and their culture. But the ultimate optimism of the work is made clear in the finale, called "The Challenge". Hill's note for this says, "There is a challenge to Australians to build a world worthy of their race and country". [listen]

In the 1950s, his final decade, Alfred Hill was regarded as the "grand old man" of Australian music. His enthusiasm for indigenous music both sides of the Tasman remained undiminished. On a visit to New Zealand in 1952 he visited the Whangamarino Maori School near Rotorua. He told the children, "Keep on learning your crafts, your weaving and your carving. The Maori culture should never be forgotten".

In 1953 he was awarded the OBE, and in 1960, shortly before his death, he was made a Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George. Alfred Hill died in Sydney on 30 October 1960, six weeks before his 91st birthday. His place as a leading figure in the musical life of post-colonial Australia and New Zealand is assured. He left music which is almost always firmly anchored in the German Romantic traditions of his youth, but this is not said in any pejorative way. His music grew increasingly well-crafted and assured throughout his life, yet the decades immediately after his death - in which tonality was abhorred - largely regarded him as an irrelevant fossil.

Thankfully with the passing of time and the reappraisal of tonality in our own time, we can view the music of Alfred Hill more fairly, and more of his work is being recorded. Alfred Hill is a composer of whom Australians and New Zealanders can be proud, and it's my hope that his work will appear more often in concert programs before long.

I'll finish with one of Hill's many orchestral miniatures, deliberately chosen because of its title: Tribute to a Musician. This celebrates Hill's musical forebears and the traditions in which he was raised. [listen]

Alfred Hill

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in April, 2013.

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