About this Recording
8.570491 - HILL, Alfred: String Quartets, Vol. 1 (Dominion String Quartet) - Nos. 1, 2, 3
English 

Alfred Hill (1869–1960)
String Quartets Vol. 1

 

While Australian by birth, Alfred Hill lived in New Zealand from the age of three to seventeen, principally in Wellington, after which he began studies at the Leipzig Conservatorium where he encountered Brahms, Dvorák, Tchaikovsky, Strauss and many other luminaries of the era. After completing his studies in violin and piano in 1891 and receiving the prestigious Helbig award for composition, he lived principally in Wellington for almost twenty years with some brief periods in Australia. In 1910 he moved to Sydney where he resided for the rest of his life. He was the only significant composer of Australia and New Zealand representing the Late Romantic era. While the influences of his immediate predecessors are clearly obvious in his early works, his style evolved to a limited degree with some absorption of later styles, though he rejected breaking from the long established traditions of Europe.

Hill's prolific output included ten operas (some on Maori themes), thirteen symphonies, seventeen string quartets, many choral works, concertos, chamber music, sonatas, songs and short works for a variety of instruments. Researcher and publisher Allan Stiles has noted that there are over 2,000 titles attributable to Alfred Hill and of those, many have never been published and relatively few commercially recorded. His use of Maori music and references to Maori culture were enduring and he later developed an interest in the music of the Australian aborigines. He is remembered by Maori as Arapeta Hira.

While the music of Alfred Hill has suffered from neglect over recent decades, with attention being focused more on the newer styles of Australasia, broadcasts, recent recordings and public reception indicate a renewed interest in this richly romantic music and we may well see its return over the coming years to the regular concert repertory.

Although some of the original ideas in the String Quartet No. 1 in B flat major, 'Maori', date from Hill's student days in Leipzig the middle two movements were substituted after 1896 to incorporate some Maori ideas, though the music remains clearly in the style of the folk-music inspired works of Europe. The first Maori melody that caught Hill's attention is reputed to have arrived in New Zealand with a Rarotongan chief. This melody became the principal theme for Hill's first 'Maori' work, the cantata Hinemoa (1896). Perhaps not surprisingly, it also found its way into String Quartet No. 1 where it appears in the finale. The work had its première in Sydney in 1911.

The composer provided the following narrative and music notes for his String Quartet No. 2 in G minor, 'A Maori Legend in Four Scenes' (1907-11):

"In the forest guarded against man by the potency of a Karakia (talisman) grew the giant kauri (a beautiful New Zealand tree), from which Rata, the hero, would fashion the canoe to bear him across unknown seas. Entering the forest as Taniwha (the grim monster) and Kotuku (a beautiful crane) were engaged in deadly combat, Rata felled the tree. That night he dreamt he heard Kotuku's cry for aid. Changing into a beautiful Maiden, she told how the wicked Tohunga (priest) has cast a spell on her and Taniwha was endeavouring to make her reveal the Karakia. She informed Rata that his labours would be in vain unless he knew the magic formula, and promised to teach it to him if he would kill Taniwha. Next day Rata found the kauri waving gloriously again and beneath it lurked Taniwha. Rata boldly slew the monster and in its place stood the lovely maiden of his dream. From her he learned the formula which he recited to Tane (the forest god). As he did so the air became full of the cry of countless birds. Circling the tree they pecked and pecked until it fell, then fashioning it into the noblest canoe that the world has seen. Dedicating it to Tane, the lovers and birds chanted the mystic Karakia, Ki te urunga te waka.

"The first movement, The Forest (Allegro agitato), carries the hearer into the mysterious shades of the forest, upon which break sounds of the struggle between the Kotuku and the Taniwha. Viola and cello are heard against the double pizzicato which here suggests the tapping of the woodpecker in the silent forest, and later, transferred to the cello, is employed to signify the thudding strokes of the Taniwha. Music suggestive of distant trumpets heralds the approach of Rata, whose splendid theme is allotted to the first violin and afterwards taken up by the cello. The vigorous development section illustrates the progress of the fight, while the reappearance of Rata's theme once more transfers the interest to the forest. In the Coda the hero's work is accomplished, and as evening falls restfully faint echoes of the combat reach the ear.

"In the second movement, The Dream (Adagio), the opening theme exquisitely evokes the fabric of the hero's vision – a dream flight. Fugitive thoughts of the noble canoe float across Rata's awakening sight until the second theme appears with a complete change of tonality. Again is heard the sad cry of Kotuku, hard beset by the grim monster. The music swells in a great crescendo as the dream grows more vivid. Then, as it fades, the slumber motive reappears, giving a sense of complete rest.

"The third movement, The Karakia (Scherzo), opens Adagio with the theme of the spell. The solemn revelation is followed by an ethereal tremolando, illustrative of the call and the coming of the birds. The Trio shows the birds felling and shaping the giant Kauri, and as they work 'sweet jargoning' embroiders the theme of Rata and the dream maiden.

"The fourth movement, The Dedication (Finale), opens Adagio with the Karakia motive sounded as the dedication of the canoe to Tane. Then the main theme appears, telling of the festivities at the launching. A lull in the gaiety is expressed by an impressive ritardando, and the hero's motive is heard once more, significant of the realization of a noble dream. The exuberant Coda sounds the note of high festival, and the legend ends in music of thrilling quality."

The Quartet No. 3 in A minor, 'The Carnival', was written in 1912 after the composer had settled permanently in Australia. The work demonstrates a style with a more mature voice, no longer drawing on pre-existing melodic motives. It draws on folk elements of Europe but more in character than by direct quotation. This was the earliest of the string quartets later to be expanded into a symphony and is better known as Symphony No. 5 'The Carnival' (1955).

 

A Note on Alfred Hill's Date of Birth

Alfred Hill has long been noted as born on 16 December 1870. This is hardly surprising as this is the date shown on his birth certificate. However after a detailed examination of the birth certificate and of Hill's diary entries between 1887 and 1891, it is clear that the date on the certificate is wrong. He was actually born on 16 December 1869 in Bridge Road, Richmond, Melbourne, but his birth was not registered until 12 March 1870. That date is recorded on the certificate by Charles and Eliza Hill, and witnessed by Dr Gregory, Nurse Ritchie and the registrar of births, Mr William H Lagoe. It is entered as record No. 676, between 675 James Thompson born 1 March 1870 (registered on 10th March 1870) and 677 Elizabeth Compton born 14 February 1870 (registered on 12 March 1870).

The delay in registering the birth until after three months led to someone inadvertently writing 1870 instead of 1869. This mistake is further confirmed by the stated age of Charles on the certificate as 37 – he was born in 1832. Alfred himself confirms he was born in 1869 in at least two places in his Leipzig diary where he notes his age on his birthday. The final pieces of evidence are his entry documents to the Leipzig Conservatorium where his birthdate is consistently recorded as 16 December 1869.

This demonstrates that Alfred Hill actually celebrated his ninetieth birthday on 16 December 1959 and that any discussion about his age in any given year needs to be reviewed in light of this information.

Donald Maurice

 


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