This is Classical Break on Somer Valley FM, and I’m Rupert Kirkham. Today’s Programme, researched and written by Mike Burrows, is another in a series based on the works of the Australian composer, doyen of both the Australian and New Zealand musical establishment of his day, Alfred Hill.
Intro Track: Waiata Poi (orch version), Hill (3.30m)
Known to many by Waiata Poi, a popular song based on Maori poetry and music, Born in 1869, Alfred Hill, the son of an English hatter, failed gold-prospector and amateur musician, was trained as a violinist, orchestral player and composer at the prestigious Leipzig Conservatoire, where he took
a Helbig Prize and played underconductors of the rank of Brahms and Tchaikovsky…
He remained a Leipziger in compositional style, though not a pedantic one. His music has many influences besides those of Mendelssohn, Bruch or Brahms. One finds at different moments, Wagnerian harmony, Dvorakian directness, Tchaikovskian sensibility – but also Debussyan whole tones and Griegish freshness and terseness. As Hill spent a good deal of his life conducting and playing, he had a very practical sense of what worked and what didn’t, and long experience of
writing opera and operetta taught him to aim for both lyricism and the bold gesture, apparent, easily-apprehended shapeliness and colourful orchestration. What worked for soloists, a chorus and pit-band might be made to work for a full orchestra or chamber group. The challenge spurred him to extraordinary lengths in self-discipline and aptness. Another strength was a lifelong refusal
to regard himself as a genius or indulge in the artistic temperament. There was little in the way
of ego or self-importance in Alfred Hill.
Here’s a short character-piece for orchestra, a song without words in but name, The Moon’s Golden Horn.
Here, the flute – always a magical presence in his music – the woodwind, upper strings (including harp) and horn are in exquisite mood. The lower strings and brass are added, pedal notes sounded, to add gravitas to melody that is little more than a projection of harmonies that are smooth and yet a touch uncanny. Brassy and bass-defined astringency makes itself felt at precisely the right moments, as does refulgency or a pathetic longing that reminds one of the film-music of Bernard Herrmann –
feeling for the moon’s serene shining is, after all, unrequitable. That this work dates from 1937
does not devalue its distinction. As Brahms might have said, “One cannot imagine it different.” The Wagnerian close is no less beautiful than what has led up to it.
Track 1: The Moon’s Golden Horn, Alfred Hill (5.25min)
A very different work, now. Hill was an indefatigable writer of chamber music. In two phases, his early and middle-period, he wrote of which he knew as a player. There are 17 string quartets alone.
In 1912, he wrote a single piano quintet, entitling it simply, “Life”.
Three movements of this work are rooted in Schumann’s masterpiece, springily rhythmical, imaginative in harmony, making the most of motivic themes in ingenious transformations and
counterpoint. The slow movement is a slow processional with contrasting section, though not a Schumannesque funeral march. Another composer one may think of as one listens is Sibelius, whose early chamber music is marvellous for the ease shown in classico-romantic expression.
But then comes the finale. And the finale is an adapted cantata – now setting the composer’s own poem, Life!
It is also related to a song inspired by Maori folksong, Tarakihi, that is, Cicada…
Eight voices are employed in this Paean For The Joy of Life – two each of sopranos, mezzo-sopranos,
tenors and basses – note the canny choice of registers. Every register remains distinct.
Beginning in a Gloria In Excelsis, this movement is a living reproach to shallow thinkers who upbraid Hill for his supposed conservatism. Rising and falling in waves and asides, it may remind one of Schumann’s superb final chorus in Scenes From Faust, The Ever-womanly Leads Us On, but
tts matter relates logically to what has gone before and the ebb and flow of subjects and counterpoint is a perfect evocation of the words of the poem, a maritime piece. Its benign and intelligent uproariousness would have gone down well with Percy Grainger, who was, in fact, to be counted among Hill’s many friends and admirers. It is big stuff.
Track 2: Piano Quintet, Life, 4th Movt, Hill (13.41min)
At Leipzig, Hill met many important musicians. What he thought of Brahms, for example, was that he was a very large man, not at all like a German, who got very excited when he conducted, and shouted and stamped; if the string-sections, whose players included Hill - didn’t use uniform bowing, he stamped and swore; as to his observantness of the band, the great man – who in fact suffered from extreme short sight and peered through owlish lorgnettes - must have had eyes in the back of his head. Tchaikovsky, on the other hand, was simply as nervous as a cat!
Hill himself was a small-built man, virile and peppery, singleminded and direct in manner. He wasn’t excitable in Brahms’ manner, and he would have found Tchaikovsky’s “nerves” – as distinct from the man’s music – tiresome. Both the masters had been shy; Hill wasn’t. As private a man as Brahms
and as sensitive to feeling as Tchaikovsky, he created visions with both skill and self-criticism. As an artist, he preserved himself in a state of absolute artistic integrity.
Grieg’s music struck a lasting chord at Leipzig. Significantly, students regarded it highly for its unusual form. In Hill’s eyes, such music perhaps an abiding example of a composer’s using form only as it served his expressive goals. Then, Grieg’s fresh rhythms, themes and harmonies trumped
“form” as they do to this day. And what are Hill’s scores notable for? Trumped form, the hallmark
of a true master. Like Grieg, Hill was an inspired miniaturist; again, like Grieg, his so-called miniatures wereof a significance not to be called little…
Hill’s Third Symphony has as its epigraph verses by George Essex Evans:
Her song is silence, unto her
Its mystery clings
Silence is the interpreter
Of deeper things.
O for sonorous voice and strong
To change that silence into song!
To give that melody release
Which sleeps in the deep heart of peace
With folded wings.
Three of the movements of a String Quartet (Number 14 in B Minor), were scored for orchestra as
they stood. Replacing a short “Menuet” intermezzo, a tone poem was recycled to form an effective 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.
The composer gave us these clues to the poetic meaning of this music and also the piece’s key within a tonal plan.
1 Introduction – The lonely, silent land
(home-tonality B minor-major)
Allegro (a) The Workers (b) The Thinkers
The heart of Australia is lonely and silent. On the fringe of the great island continent, men crowd like ants into the cities they have made. Some seek quieter places.
Hill’s orchestration adds to what was to be heard in his quartet. Woodwind, brass, a full string section and colour and sweep to this movement. The ritornello-theme is now trumpet-capped, weak woodwind adding plangency. The strings’ restatement of the introduction-theme is almost Tchaikovskian in its pathos. All is yet economy and beauty of lively but fastidious blends of instrumentation.
Track 6 Symphony in B Minor, Australia, Movt 1 Adagio-Allegro Molto (9.08m)
The composer’s programme here is,
2 Australia, mysterious and beautiful (B minor-major) Australia with its vast plains, forest ranges, and subterranean caves is an eerie place and very beautiful.
There’s no denying that again, here, the Adagio gains in breadth and blend of sound. Hill is immune
to mawkishness, but the moments of passion and sadness are there, formal but somehow unstereotypical and unsanctimonious in effect. This is one Leipzig-shaped movement that won’t cloy, that leaves the Max Bruchs of this world far behind.
Track 7 Symphony in B Minor, Australia, Movt 2, Adagio (5.56m)
We come to the movement that replaces the Fourteenth Quartet’s Menuet. This is one of Alfred Hill’s most impressive inspirations, binding the Two Australias – colonial Australia and Aboriginal Australia – together. One of the marvels of Hill was that he was able to create consistency within a work while using Leipzigerische idiom, Wagnerian, folk-song modal, impressionist whole-tone and other stylistic elements. Here, a bold repeated-note horn theme is positively heroic in its bluff humour and defiance. It is unique in symphonic literature – worse luck! Percy Grainger’s ballet, The Warriors, is made to seem overwrought, overwritten and bombastic in comparison. The material of the movement as a whole came from music for a film, Arnheim Land, and a tone-poem of that name.
Exotic percussion – woodblocks? - win a place in a mostly modestly-scored symphony. The movement is an excellent one of plan and contrasting incidents.
3 The Aborigines (G major) In the deep recesses of the Australia they once owned, a few aboriginal tribes still go walk-about. They have their food, sing their songs and dance their tribal rituals.
Track 8 Symphony in B Minor, Australia, Movt 3, Allegro (6.42m)
The finale is a summation of the symphony, but short and without any evident pictorial element. From the brass-led upward scale (going teasingly wrong), it moves through its moods of determination and ideals with occasional resemblances to Edward German – without the blandness or sententiousness – and to a young Sibelius in use of strings and warbling woodwind. The coda is curt and without magniloquence, yet very satisfying.
4 The Challenge (B minor-major)
There is a challenge to Australians to build a world worthy of their race and country.
This was Classical Break on Somer Valley FM, and I’m Rupert Kirkham. Today’s programme on music by Alfred Hill was written and researched by Mike Burrows. We hope you enjoyed it and will tune in again soon. Goodbye!
Track 9 Symphony in B Minor, Australia, Movt 4, Maestoso-Allegro (5.26m)