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Hill, Alfred Francis (1869–1960)

by Andrew D. McCredie

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

Alfred Francis Hill (1869-1960), by May and Mina Moore, 1910-13

Alfred Francis Hill (1869-1960), by May and Mina Moore, 1910-13

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, H38782/397

Alfred Francis Hill (1869-1960), musician, was born on 16 December 1869 at Richmond, Melbourne, sixth son of Charles Hill, hatter, and his wife Eliza Ann, née Hulbert, both born at Bristol, England. In 1872 the family moved to Auckland, New Zealand, and from 1875 lived in Wellington, where Alfred attended Thorndon School. His father, a talented amateur violist, encouraged his children's musical abilities—at 9 Alfred played the cornet in Martin Simonsen's opera company, and toured New Zealand as first violin with Charles Harding's Grand Opera Company in 1884. With his elder brother John he studied in 1887-91 at the Royal Conservatorium of Music, Leipzig, Germany, under Gustav Schreck, Hans Sitt and Oscar Paul. He won the Helbig prize and played the violin with the Gewandhaus Orchestra under such conductors as Brahms, Grieg, Tchaikovsky and Max Bruch. While Hill was a student his Scotch Sonata and other works were published in Europe.

Returning to Wellington, Hill was active as a violin pedagogue, recitalist, chamber music performer, but principally as conductor of choirs and orchestras, including the Wellington Orchestral Society. His Maori cantata Hinemoa, with words by Arthur Adams, was performed at the Wellington Industrial Exhibition in 1896. He toured New Zealand with the Belgian violinist Ovide Musin and in March 1897 they opened in Sydney. Stranded there, Hill began teaching; he conducted the Sydney Liedertafel (in 1898-1902) and the Great Synagogue choir and played in Henri Staell's quartet. At St George's Anglican Church, Paddington, he had married a New Zealander Sarah Brownhill Booth on 6 October 1897; they gave their children the Wagnerian names Isolde, Tristan and Elsa.

On 1 January 1901 Hill conducted the Commonwealth Celebrations choir of 11,000 voices with ten brass bands. Next year he returned to New Zealand to write an opera, Tapu, or a Tale of a Maori Pah, which featured a visiting Australian politician modelled on (Sir) George Reid, first staged in Wellington on 17 February 1903. In August Hill was back in Sydney conducting for J. C. Williamson, whose Royal Comic Opera Company performed Tapu next year in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne. At the end of 1904 he became conductor of the Auckland Orchestral Society and the Auckland Liedertafel, and meanwhile wrote another opera, A Moorish Maid, or Queen of the Riffs, performed in Sydney in 1906 with Hill as musical director.

In July Hill was invited to recruit and direct a professional orchestra for the New Zealand International Exhibition of Arts and Crafts at Christchurch; he also composed an ode for the opening. In 1907 the orchestra toured New Zealand before being disbanded. Serious illness prevented him from going to London in 1909 to produce A Moorish Maid there. Williamson engaged him as deputy to Roberto Hazon for the Australasian tour of Madam Butterfly in 1910. Settling in Sydney in 1911, Hill became principal of the Austral Orchestral College and played the viola in Cyril Monk's Austral String Quartet (which lasted until 1917), and also conducted the Sydney Amateur Orchestral Society in 1912-14.

In the first phase of his creativity Hill wrote mainly for the theatre, including the comic operas The Whipping Boy (1893) and Lady Dolly (1900). With Fritz Hart he tried to create an Australian operatic tradition and founded the short-lived Australian Opera League (1913-14), which in 1914 presented in Sydney and Melbourne Hill's Giovanni and Hart's Pierrette, although neither was on an Australian theme. In 1913 Hill was a founder of the Sydney Repertory Theatre Society (for which he wrote three one-act plays under a Maori pseudonym, 'Arapeta Hia', in 1914) and was a foundation council-member (later president) of the Musical Association of New South Wales. With David Souter as librettist, he wrote The Rajah of Shivapore (performed in 1917), Auster (staged in 1922) and in 1923 set to music Hugh McCrae's poem The Ship of Heaven (staged in 1933). Unfortunately the librettos for his operas never reached the standard of his music.

Hill's instinctive love of Maori music and legends inspired some of his most notable works—the cantata, Hinemoa; the operas, Tapu and Teora (1913); the Maori Symphony (1896); and many songs including 'Waiata Poi' (made famous by Peter Dawson and Ada Crossley among others). He recorded Maori music and for many years tried to found an institute of Maori studies at Rotorua and worked for a New Zealand conservatorium of music. Meanwhile in 1913 Hill had been appointed to the advisory committee for the establishment of the New South Wales State Conservatorium of Music, and on 18 January 1916 became first professor of theory and composition—over the years distinguished pupils included Roy Agnew, F. M. and Bryce Carter, Monk and John Antill. The early years at the conservatorium under Henri Verbrugghen were inspiring. In 1916-25 Hill was conductor for the Royal Sydney Apollo Club and was deputy conductor of the New South Wales State Orchestra in 1919-22. From 1924 he played in the new conservatorium quartet.

In May 1921 Hill had divorced his wife and on 1 October, at Mosman Registry Office, married one his ex-students Mirrie Irma Solomon, a musician and composer teaching at the conservatorium; they lived at Mosman. Hill visited the United States of America and Britain in 1926, seeking publishers. He also conducted his own works for the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, now under Verbrugghen, and for Sir Dan Godfrey's Bournemouth Municipal Orchestra in England.

Between 1924 and 1938 Hill concentrated upon creating string quartets and concertos for piano, violin, viola, French horn and trumpet. He was a much practised chamber musician and his part-writing is characterized by its idiomatic assurance and easy execution. His best-known concert work is the Viola Concerto (1940); the soloist is offered an exceptionally graceful part, emphasizing both the lyrical and virtuoso personality of the instrument.

According to Roland Foster Hill was 'a temperamental virile musician who would have fitted perfectly into the scheme of Alfred de Musset's 'La Vie de Bohême' and been thoroughly in his element at the London Savage Club'. A forceful and outspoken member of the conservatorium staff, Hill was passed over twice in the appointment of a director. He resigned at the end of 1934 because of differences with the new director Edgar Bainton. In 1935 he opened the Alfred Hill Academy of Music, but it closed in January 1937. In the early 1930s he had conducted the Sydney Professional Symphony Orchestra; he was sometime president of the Sydney centre of the British (and International) Music Society and in 1940 first president of the New South Wales Guild of Composers.

Devoting all his time to composing from 1937, Hill revised earlier chamber music pieces to create twelve symphonies. Bubbling with energy in his old age, he was 'a short, alert man with a backswept thatch of iron hair and brown eyes'. He now clipped his once-swaggering waxed moustache. His works were better known overseas than in Australia, but in February 1946 Henry Krips conducted the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in an entire programme of Hill's works including the Life Symphony (1941). Neville Cardus commented that Hill was 'still the most substantial and comprehensively cultivated of Australia's composers'. In September 1953 he was guest conductor for the first performance of his Australia Symphony in B Minor by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. He was appointed O.B.E. in 1953 and C.M.G. in 1960.

Hill died in hospital in Sydney on 30 October 1960 and was cremated. He was survived by his second wife and by a son and two daughters of his first marriage. His daughter Isolde was well known as a singer. Hill was equipped with such an assured technical facility that his speed of composition would have frequently defied rigorous self-criticism—his oeuvres totalled more than 500. He adopted the conservative and professional stance of Leipzig romanticism, thereafter adapting Celtic, Maori and even Aboriginal musical folk-lore to meet its traditions and requirements. His major works bespeak the influence of his teachers, in particular the violin and viola concertos which recall works for the same medium by Hans Sitt. His string quartets in form and execution reveal a strong stylistic kinship to central and northern European mainstream works in the genre by Mendelssohn, Schumann, Gade, Gernsheim, Brahms and Dvorák. His music thus established new standards in technical accomplishment and professionalism and he can be regarded as an innovator of the existing Victorian tradition. This marked an historically significant advance in Australian musical composition at the start of the twentieth century.

Select Bibliography

  • Sydney Amateur Orchestral Society, Prospectus (Syd, 1913)
  • A. D. McCredie, Musical Composition in Australia and Catalogue of 46 Australian Composers and Selected Works (Canb, 1969)
  • A. D. McCredie, ‘Alfred Hill (1870-1960)’ in F. Callaway and D. Tunley (eds), Australian Composition in the Twentieth Century (Melb, 1978)
  • J. M. Thomson, A Distant Music: The Life and Times of Alfred Hill (Auckland, 1980)
  • Australian Musical News, 1 May 1931
  • People (Sydney), 30 Aug 1950
  • A. D. McCredie, ‘Alfred Hill (1870-1960): some backgrounds and perspectives for an historical edition miscellanea musicologica’, Adelaide Studies in Musicology, 3 (1968)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 18 Dec 1925, 9 Oct 1933, 16 Dec 1950, 12 Dec 1959, 31 Oct 1960
  • ABC Archives (Sydney)
  • Alfred Hill papers (State Library of New South Wales and Sydney Conservatorium of Music)
  • Hill family papers (National Library of New Zealand).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Andrew D. McCredie, 'Hill, Alfred Francis (1869–1960)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/hill-alfred-francis-6667/text11495, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 23 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

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