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Source: Australian Variety Theatre Archive
Alfred Hill Alfred Hill i(A59781 works by) (a.k.a. Alfred Francis Hill)
Born: Established: 16 Dec 1870 Melbourne, Victoria, ; Died: Ceased: 30 Oct 1960 Sydney, New South Wales,
Gender: Male
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Composer, conductor, music director, teacher, playwright.


A gifted violinist and composer of over 500 compositions (including comic operas, film scores, and a variety of classical genres, from string quartets to full orchestra works), Alfred Hill was both New Zealand's first fully professional composer and the man most responsible for introducing the country's indigenous music to western styles of composition. His pioneering efforts not only led to the promotion of Maori music in New Zealand and Australia, but also assisted his own career advancement. Indeed, he is now seen as the most significant antipodean composer of the early 1900s, with his influence being seen in the development of key mid-twentieth century Australian composers such as John Antill and Roy Agnew.


1870-1890: Alfred Hill's interest in Maori music came about as a result of having spent much of his early life in New Zealand. His father, an amateur violinist and Bristol-based hat-maker, had initially sailed for Australia to attempt his luck on the gold fields, but found more success with his instrument than he did finding gold. The family moved to Auckland when Alfred was about eighteen months old and later settled in Wellington, where Hill's father set up his own hat-making business on Lambton Quay. It was while living in Wellington that Hill's father formed several small amateur orchestras, with membership of each ensemble invariably made up of family members. At one stage, the family even toured a Christy Minstrel-style show called Hill's Brigands.

Alfred Hill's siblings included brothers Edward (described as a fine tenor), Charles (an accomplished flautist), and John (also regarded as a gifted musician) and sister Mabel (who excelled as an artist). It was Mabel who designed the cover of Alfred's first publication, 'The Organist', which appeared in 1886 when he was sixteen years old ('Alfred Hill', pp.217-18). As a child, Hill learned the cornet and violin, playing the former instrument with Martin Simonsen's opera company at the age of nine and the latter on tour with Charles Harding's Grand Opera Company at the age of fourteen. Realising that Alfred and John were exceptional musical talents and that they had moved beyond the point where local music teachers could help, the father arranged to send them to Europe.

In 1886, the brothers travelled to Leipzig, where they studied at the Royal Conservatorium of Music between 1887 and 1891. During his time at the conservatorium, Alfred won numerous awards, including the Helbig Prize, and eventually graduated with an honours diploma in both teaching and performance. The letter accompanying his Performer's Diploma (Reifezeugniss) noted that Hill's 'exemplary energy, diligence and perseverance, assisted by good inborn talent enabled him to make a professionally very valuable progress in his musical education... the delicacy of invention, great fertility of resource, and tasteful instrumentation, for which his works are distinguished, bear no light testimony to his ability as a composer' (qtd in 'Some Backgrounds' p.188). During his time at Leipzig, Hill also wrote his first cantata, New Jerusalem (ctd. in Sydney Morning Herald 24 Dec. 1910, p.4). After graduating from the Leipzig Conservatorium, he was invited to play second violin with the Gewandhaus Orchestra, which he did for a short period under the conductorship of such composers as Brahms, Grieg, and Tchaikovsky.

1891-1901: In 1891, Hill returned to New Zealand, setting himself up as a violin teacher, recitalist, chamber musician, and conductor of choirs and orchestras, notably the Wellington Orchestral Society (1892-96). Over the next six years or so, he nevertheless moved quite often between New Zealand and Australia in an attempt to pursue a fully professional musical career. He also devoted much of his time to the study of Maori music. This led initially to the creation of several works in this idiom, including two string quartets and the cantata Hinemoa (1895), which was composed to a text by Arthur H. Adams. Hill's comic opera The Whipping Boy (1893), also with a libretto by Adams, is similarly based on a story from indigenous New Zealand culture. Interestingly, despite Hill's fascination for drawing upon the musical materials of Maori culture, his compositions were largely written using conventional western music forms, particularly his romantic comic operas.

The opportunities offered in Australia eventually forced Hill to move to that country on a more permanent basis. He settled in Sydney in 1897 and remained there for a number of years, teaching and conducting ensembles such as the Sydney Liedertafel (for which he was appointed conductor in early 1898) and the Great Synagogue Choir. During this period, he also frequently performed at various high-profile concerts, notably as a member of specially organised string quartets. His comic opera Lady Dolly was staged, for example, in 1900 with the assistance of members of the Sydney Liedertafel. While his application that same year for the professorship in music at Auckland University was unsuccessful, his reputation in Australia was becoming increasingly more high profile. One highlight of Hill's early years in Australia occurred when he conducted the Commonwealth Celebrations choir of eleven thousand voices and ten brass bands on New Year's Day, 1901.

1902-1911: Hill continued to move between Australia and New Zealand on a regular basis during the first decade of the twentieth century. For most of that period, he conducted musical comedies and operatic works for J. C. Williamson's touring companies, while at the same time researching Maori culture/folklore and composing new works. In 1903, he wrote the music for the highly successful pantomime Sleeping Beauty, which was produced at Sydney's Theatre Royal over Christmas and the New Year. His romantic opera Tapu also had its first staging that year. One of his final collaborations with Arthur Adams, Tapu had been initially written sometime around 1897-98 and accepted for production by Williamson at that time. (Adams is said to have been offered a position as Williamson's literary secretary partly on the strength of his libretto.) When Williamson decided to delay the opera's premiere due to other commitments, Hill eventually tired of the wait and subsequently gave Pollards Opera Company permission to stage the work in New Zealand during its 1903 tour. When Williamson did eventually decide to produce the opera in Australia in 1904, Adams had by then left his employ. Unbeknown to to the librettist, Williamson hired David Souter to rework the text, while Bert Royle was engaged to write additional lyrics to accompany some new music scored by Hill.

Sometime around late 1904/early 1905, Hill moved back to New Zealand to collaborate with music and drama critic J. Youlin Birch on the romantic opera A Moorish Maid; Or Queen of the Riffs. It was given its theatrical premiere in New Zealand in September 1905. Although the Auckland and Wellington seasons were critically and financially successful, producer George Stephenson found it necessary, as J. C. Williamson did with Tapu, to 'improve' on the original for its Australian tour, and either rewrote the libretto himself or employed someone else (as yet unidentified) to do it. During this period, too, Hill composed several new Maori songs, including 'Waiata Poi' (with lyrics based on a Maori myth). It is arguably his most popular song in that genre. In 1906, he began conducting New Zealand's first professional orchestra in a highly successful series of concerts at the Christchurch International Exhibition (1906-07). Hill is believed to have also begun composing around the same time the music to a libretto by W. H. Beattie on the subject of Don Quixote. Although no details of a staging of this work have yet been located, the Theatre magazine records in July 1909 that Beattie's 'book' for Don Quixote In La Mancha, despite being a 'very awkward subject for the stage', demonstrates that as a librettist he 'has a great talent' (p.11).

1912-1929: By 1912, Hill had slowed down his trans-Tasman movements, deciding to reside more or less permanently in Sydney from that time onwards. In some respect, his unsuccessful attempt to establish an institute for the study of Maori music in Rotorua in 1910 may have been a factor in his decision to live in Australia. In Sydney, he became Principal of the Austral Orchestral College, and the viola player with the Austral String Quartet. He also conducted concerts at the Town Hall for the Sydney Amateur Orchestral Society around this time, performing with other distinguished professionals, including Fritz Hart. In 1913, he and Hart founded the Australian Opera League in an attempt to create an Australian operatic tradition. While Hill was concentrating his energies on the establishing of both the AOL and his own compositions, including a new opera, Giovanni, his London representative, Cunningham Bridgeman, was working hard to raise the composer's profile in English circles. Bridgeman had been instrumental in having Hill's Maori Symphony produced at the Sydenham Crystal Palace in 1912, and on 23 January 1913, he staged A Moorish Maid, under the subtitle Queen Of The Riffs, at London's Savoy Hotel. Whether the opera was staged elsewhere in London following this production is not yet known.

Hill's involvement with the Sydney Repertory Society, which he co-founded in 1913 with Arthur Adams and David Souter, among others, saw him present regular entertainments at the newly built Sydney Repertory Theatre (previously Federation Hall) in Grosvenor Street. These concerts, involving both music and drama, utilised some of the best amateur talent available in Sydney. According to Hill, the idea behind this enterprise was 'to get together and train a little body of earnest, sincere amateurs, who will act on this stage of ours the works of some of those men who seem to have pierced a little more deeply into the heart of things than others' (Sydney Morning Herald 2 June 1913, p.3). The society even staged a revival of The Moorish Maid over a short season (beginning 18 July 1913). That same year, Hill was appointed to the Advisory Committee establishing the N.S.W. Conservatorium of Music (it was eventually founded in 1916), and completed a one-act opera, Teora, the Weird Flute, again based on a Maori story. Although Hill indicated that he was considering presenting Teora as his contribution to the first evening of opera staged by the AOL, it is not believed to have been staged until 1928.

In 1914, the Australian Opera League presented Hill's Giovanni and Fritz Hart's Pierrette in Sydney and Melbourne to mixed critical attention. The company folded soon afterwards, however, due in part to the advent of the First World War. Not content to remain within the confines of music, Hill had his one-act play Wattle Tree Farm staged on 28 July 1914 at the Sydney Repertory Theatre. 1914 also saw him co-found the Musical Association of New South Wales (later becoming its president). During this time, he also continued to actively push for both a New Zealand Conservatorium of Music and the foundation of an institute of Maori studies at Rotarua.

In January 1916, Hill was invited to take up the position of the first Professor of Theory and Composition at the NSW State Conservatorium (he had been involved with the advisory committee for the establishment of the Conservatorium for some two years). The following year, his comic opera The Rajah of Shivapore premiered in Sydney and, over the next year or so, was staged in several other major Australian centres. The Brisbane Courier's 'Music and Drama' column also records that Hill had already begun working on another opera, this time based on a dramatic poem by Mrs E. Congeau (1 December 1917, p.12). That opera, Auster, was given its Australian debut in Sydney in 1922, the same year in which Hill was appointed both deputy conductor for the N.S.W. State Orchestra's tour of New Zealand and chief conductor of the State Symphony Orchestra.

1930-1960: In 1935, Hill established his own Academy of Music, an institution that was to concentrate on the study of harmony, counterpoint, chamber music, and opera. This enterprise failed to live up to its expectations, however, and eventually closed in January 1937. From that point onwards, Hill devoted himself full time to composition. Several pieces of music he composed during his later years were incorporated into locally produced motion pictures, with one of these being Ken G. Hall's The Broken Melody (1938). During the 1940s, he also contributed additional incidental music to Charles Chauvel's Australian classic Forty Thousand Horsemen (1940) and another Hall film, Smithy (1946). Two New Zealand motion pictures also had their scores composed by Hill. The first, filmed at Lake Tapu in 1930, was commissioned by American producer Alexander Marky, who apparently took off with the film stock and Hill's score. The other score was for Rewi's Last Stand, produced in 1938 for New Zealand film pioneer Rudolph Hayward.

Most Referenced Works


  • Alfred Hill's strengths as a composer lay in his ability to construct pure melodic lines and the overall charm and fluency of his composition style. Sir Bernard Heinze once said that 'composition in Australia owes much more to Hill than any other person who has ever written music here' (qtd. in Dictionary of Arts in Australia, p.110), a factor that can be seen in the length of his career, spanning the period in which traditional European music and early twentieth-century Australian music first began to separate.

  • After his death, Hill's manuscripts were donated by his widow, Mirrie Hill, to the Australian Broadcasting Commission's Federal Music Library. His papers were given to the Mitchell Library (State Library of NSW) and his books and instruments to the NSW State Conservatorium. The composition award that now bears his name was also founded by Mirrie Hill. Alfred Hill's service to Australian music was also recognised a number of times during his lifetime. In 1953, for example, he was an Officer of the Order of the British Empire and in 1960 he was appointed Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George (CMG).

  • Entries connected with this record have been sourced from on-going historical research into Australian-written music theatre being conducted by Dr Clay Djubal.
Last amended 8 Jul 2014 11:43:56
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