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ClassicsOnline Home » HILL, Alfred: String Quartets, Vol. 2 (Dominion String Quartet) - Nos. 4, 6, 8
While Hill’s first three string quartets were reminiscent of Dvorˇák and Tchaikovsky, these three demonstrate new directions. With the slow movement of Quartet No. 4 hinting at influences of Elgar, and Quartet No. 6 conceived in a kind of retro-classical idiom, Quartet No. 8 clearly marks the beginning of a new sound world, with hints of the musical language of the impressionists and a rather English sounding Finale. Hill’s trademark slow movement gems remain a feature in all three quartets with the outer movements offering memorable melodies and much finesse in his string quartet writing.
Alfred Hill (1869–1960)
String Quartets Vol. 2
While Australian by birth, Alfred Hill lived in New Zealand from the age of two until seventeen, principally in Wellington, after which he began studies at the Leipzig Conservatorium where he encountered Brahms, Dvořák, 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 shorter residencies in Australia. In 1910 he moved to Sydney, where he lived 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 with some absorption of later styles, though he rejected breaking from the long established traditions of Europe. His 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. The researcher and publisher Allan Stiles has noted that there are over two thousand 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 first three quartets on Volume One of this series demonstrate Hill’s early style, with strong influence of Dvořák and Tchaikovsky, Quartets 4, 6 and 8 span the two following decades and accordingly are excellent examples of how much his style evolved during this middle period of his output. While No. 4 marks the beginning of his career as inaugural Professor of Composition at the New South Wales Conservatorium, No. 6 is very much a work written to suit the needs of string students and No. 8, dating from just before his retirement, marks the beginning of his late period. After he retired in 1935, he continued to compose prolifically until his death in 1960 at the age of ninety.
The manuscript of String Quartet No. 4 in C minor bears the inscription ‘25th July 1916, Neutral Bay, Sydney’. This quartet was dedicated to Henri Verbrugghen and the members of his string quartet, with specific dedications of the second movement to the violist, David Nichol, the third to second violinist, Jenny Cullen and the fourth to Henri Verbrugghen himself. Though the inscription is missing one can reasonably assume the first movement was dedicated to the cellist, James Messens. The first two movements are familiar to audiences through Hill’s transcription of them as the first two movements of his Symphony in C minor, ‘The Pursuit of Happiness’. The Scherzo was composed while Hill was a student in Leipzig and was orchestrated to form part of Symphony No. 1 and the Finale also exists as a Rondo for cello or violin with piano. The second movement, Adagio ma non troppo, opens with an eight-bar melody in the viola, repeated by the first violin, and shows an English influence, with harmonic suspensions reminiscent of Edward Elgar. This is believed to be the first recording of the complete original work.
The manuscript of String Quartet No. 6 in G major bears the date 31 September 1927, indicating it was most likely composed in Sydney. Its nickname ‘The Kids’ refers to the fact that Hill was at the time Professor of Composition at the New South Wales Conservatorium of Music and intended this work to be performed by students. While it is relatively simple in both its construction and playability, it is nevertheless a most attractive work set in an earlier style, at times Schubertian, at other times Haydnesque, yet one cannot escape the unique mannerisms of Hill. The slow movement with its simple repeated chords accompanying a series of scale-like motives produces a surprisingly beautiful result, not unlike the music of Grieg.
Dated 6 December 1934, String Quartet No. 8 in A major was most likely read through by the string quartet with which Hill was associated at that time, though no evidence of a public performance or recording has been found. The late Cedric Ashton, cellist in that quartet, told the publisher Allan Stiles that he remembered playing through the 1930s quartets during their regular rehearsals. It would seem that from this quartet onwards, Hill had found a vehicle to explore a new-found harmonic idiom, no doubt influenced by the European impressionists, whose sound-world would have undergone some time lag before entering the mainstream of musical taste in Australasia. While he continued to maintain a more conventional style for his ‘public’ works, this genre enabled Hill some scope for experimentation, with the music remaining unheard by the public. He commented in a television interview in 1957 that his heavily impressionistic Quartet No. 11 remained his favourite work of the genre. Quartet No. 8 is unified by thematic ideas and is clearly conceived as a complete entity. After a 44 bar introduction, distinctly impressionistic, the first movement settles into a conventional sonata form with reappearances of the introductory material in the development section. The very short Intermezzo that follows could comfortably sit in Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite as a tableau movement. The third movement satisfies the expectation that Hill has created in earlier quartets that the slow movement will be a gem. This Andante opens with an exquisite viola melody accompanied by a falling chromatic line in the other parts, leading into a Ravel-like middle section with effective use of whole-tone melodies, before recalling the opening melody in the first violin. The Finale recalls the first movement opening, leading into a rather British sounding sonata form featuring an extended melody as the second subject that moves freely and very naturally between time signatures of 4/4, 3/4 and 2/4. An unusual element is the appearance of a fugue, introduced by the second violin, that dominates the development section of the movement.
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