This is Classical Break and I’m Rupert Kirkham. Today’s music is by the long-lived Australian composer Alfred Hill, who was born in Australia in 1869 and died there as recently as 1960. Hill lived most of his life in New Zealand and Australia, at a great remove from the Eurocentric musical world and, in spite of having written at least 500 works in all Art-music genres, is perhaps known here only for his (very effective), popular song of Maori inspiration, Waiata Poi – once sung by many famous singers.
Born in Australia in 1869, the son of an English hatter turned gold-prospector and then useful musician, Alfred Hill began as a cornetist in a New Zealander military band. Next, he learned the violin and viola, with a sequence of teachers and patrons. His father formed a family ensemble. In his late teens, Alfred’s prowess was well known, and he was sent to study at the Leipzig Conservatory – a tremendous distinction.
At the Con, as it was known to him and others - he learned well from fine teachers as a performer, an orchestral player and composer. Significantly, when he wrote a violin sonata using Scottish inflections, he holidayed in Scotland in order to study its folk-music. He graduated well enough to be one of 17 students of his year awarded the Helbig Prize, reserved for only the most distinguished members of an intake.
Here's Hill’s most popular piece, the Maori culture-inspired Waiata Poi, as recorded by Peter Dawson.
Track 1 Waiata Poi, Hill
The Lost Hunter is a tone-poem in sonata-form. Opening in sounding and replying horn-signals and arpeggios, it tells the story of a man out hunting who is drawn away from his friends by the beauty of the forest and becomes lost, unable to make his way back to them owing to the tangle of growth about him.
He tires and falls asleep, but his dreams become menacing, the trees closing in on him. He winds his horn and sees the wood as sunlit and beautiful as before. Woodland creatures befriend him; he plays with them until twilight steals over everything as darkly as in his dream, and he is left alone. He winds his horn – and his call is answered – his friends have found him, and the piece ends in happiness as it began.
This is the scenario, and like a formal analysis, it yields little, though the music inhabits its Romantic territory as happily as any. Both based on sonata form and filled with beautiful incidentals of melody, harmony and scoring, The Lost Hunter contains features of many men’s music – Wagner, Franck, Delius, Debussy – controlled by a single mind of distinction. Modalism, Chromaticism, whole-tone harmony are blended as necessary. The orchestra gleams, shimmers and glows with youthful ardour; at moments of lostness, menace, twilight, the lower parts of the orchestra, muted brass and solid bass shape nodding, chant-like phrases reminding one somewhat perhaps of The Ring or the Curse-music in Franck’s Accursed Huntsman…
Debussy occurs in whole-tones, possibly to introduce a strange dreaming state.
One theme develops in the harmonically clinching manner of Franck, sensuous without self-indulgence, but over it all is a sense of charades that may actually cause one to take even its scenario seriously. The horn of the huntsman seems as magical in pantheism as any composer’s, placed as it is in a work of sincere, Romantic longing, lostness and joy, all from the intelligent heart.
Sonata form and hackneyed scenario are both played for all they’re worth.
This piece was dated by its composer “Sydney, 7th January, 1945.”
Track 2: The Lost Hunter, Hill
Completed in the November of 1937, Alfred Hill’s String Quartet Number 14 in B Minor, minus its third movement, was later arranged for orchestra, to form his Third Symphony. A tone poem was recycled to form the scherzo – its origins were in music for a film about Aborigines of Arnheim Land. This new work was done in 1951 and subtitled simply, Australia.
It is a lovely work in both forms. Not common in any idiom, this kind of music is not to be thought old-fashioned or superficial: good music is above considerations of fashion and nothing so spellbinding can ever be seen as superficial.
What evolves out of the rapt opening is enchanting, effortlessly elevated and plangent and utilizes the Quartet’s harmonic and timbral qualities to the full. Beginning in Borodin-like harmonics, a real adagio introduction, quickens to andante.
If the allegro that succeeds the andante marking is Mendelsohnian in harmony, shape and ornamentation, the melodic subject that counters it is superbly memorable. It recurs with pathos intact throughout the movement, like a refrain or ritornello. The writing for strings is better than assured, the music in no way merely pastiche, but timeless and utterly moving in every sense. One is scarcely conscious of sonata form, only of a controlling intelligence that knows precisely how to pace and elaborate its matter. The surprises are of a Sibelian order, perfectly fitting and evocative of personal, deep-feeling aspects of a controlling thought. As a member of a String Quartet, Hill was in an unusual position among composers to devize effective music in this genre.
Track 3: String Quartet in B Minor, No 14, Movt 1, Adagio-Andante-Allegro, Hill
The slow movement, Adagio, is as appealing – solemn melody and asides doing nothing surprising, but doing it well. It is a serious music drawn in equal measure from study of Dvorak, everyday life and ordinary people – a song from a heart of humility and honesty. It may be also music of the open air, being fresh in conception and execution. A very beautiful time in its composer’s company, grown out of First Movement thematic and subsidiary material.
Track 4: String Quartet No 14 in B Minor, Movt 2, Adagio, Hill
The intermezzo-like Menuet of the String Quartet draws closer to folk music, being akin to a song of love or beauty sung by a countryman - would one find such music up-country? Where the Adagio-andante of the First Movement began, perhaps? Something of the invitation to that lovely ritornello-like phrase in the first movement begins to hover over the music. I’ll tell you the secret of Hill’s works: it is that within the idioms of many years ago, he wrote in utterly original forms, completely his own man, as were the composers whom he took as models.
Track 5: String Quartet in B Minor, Movt 3, Menuet, Hill
The finale opens with an upward figure of determination repeated a step higher. The music then moves into a quiet more enfolding tune and this in turn folds out into another still quicker – where a fugato might begin we are returned to the opening – a good subject for fugue, but no fugue appears at first, and the music subsides into a Schubertian dwindling into sadness. Consolatory music begins fugally with absolute smoothness. Back comes the faster theme, again with fugue – back comes the upward figure strongly, then wanly, then a quick coda rises out of a falling away.
Track 6: String Quartet in B Minor, Movt 4 Finale
An excellent String Quartet of any epoch. Only the closed-minded modernist could scorn it or find it less than a fine work from the pen of a very gifted composer. One finds with surprise that it is less than twenty-five minutes long in all. Each little movement exists self-standing, and as a logically expounded extension of its predecessor – one doesn’t have to be a musicologist to feel this.
At the centre of Antipodean music for most of his life as a composer, conductor, performer in a string quartet, studier of folk-music, teacher, administrator, advocate of State-supported music – the list goes on - Alfred Hill was strong-minded, virile, spry – seriously ill only once in his life, when he contracted empyema, fluid on the lungs, when he was about 40; incidentally, the illness prevented his travelling to Britain. He was capable of demonstrating the haka to children at the age of over eighty-two. His only biographer so far was shown similar displays of energy even later on, and was drawn into things sufficiently to take sometimes peppery harmony lessons from his quarry – as a lifetime in working with others showed, Hill had great powers of persuasion. He believed in his own and in the Antipodean nations’ distinctness.
Why does his music inhabit the world of his Leipzig training and yet do so in a manner peculiarly original? Because he was also a brilliant mind, modest, scrupulous, but also utterly determined to express life and write music in his own way. One discovers a spirit in listening to his music that means that one can hear one string quartet or symphony after another, relishing the very sound of the music. His themes are always personable, frequently deeply meaningful and their development is as neat and attractive as it is terse. It is suspiciously like finding another Romantic genius of the high rank. Everything is both feeling and perfectly judged, page after page unfolding with the same rightness whatever its mood; the affective qualities of the music, like the technical, are not shallow but very hardwonly articulate.
It is a sad thing to consider that Alfred Hill is thought to have written as many as 500 works and 2000 separate pieces during his long working life, and very few of the more ambitious pieces were given international currency by publication.
Here is another of his miniatures for orchestra, As The Night Falls. Something of a mild Tristanesque hangs about this piece. The pellucid skeins of strings and woodwind that are worked about one are of the open air nevertheless. The flute is perhaps the most personable creature in Hills’ orchestra, and here is supported by oboe and clarinet, discreet horns, et Cetera. The melodic line is fragile but refuses as ever to turn into stereotypical light music of a certain age. It is sensitively, not crassly and cloyingly, chromatic, and is devoid of the cringingly vulgar “sentiment” of Ketelby or Nevin.
This was Classical Break, and I’m Rupert Kirkham. Today’s programme on the music of Alfred Hill was researched and written by Mike Burrows. We hope you enjoyed it and will tune in again soon.
Track 7: As The Night Falls, Hill