Carnival for Guy Fawkes’ Day – the music of Alfred Hill

St.Andrews-on-The-Terrace Lunchtime Concert Series:
Alfred Hill on Guy Fawkes Day

ALFRED HILL (1869-1960)
Quartet No.3 in A minor “The Carnival” 1912 (orchestral version)
Movements: In the Streets / Andantino / Scherzo / Finale

The Dominion Strings, conducted by Donald Maurice

St. Andrews-on-The-Terrace, Wellington

Wednesday 5th November 2014

This work was the earliest of Alfred Hill’s string quartets to be expanded later into an orchestral version, and is better known as Symphony No.5 “The Carnival”. He frequently “recycled” existing works into new formats, and this transcription benefitted from the larger forces which could very successfully convey the bustling, crowded atmosphere of a fiesta.

The opening street scene was graphically depicted with vigorous, sunlit writing and attractive melodies, propelled along by dancing triplet rhythms. Closing gently, as though the fading light of evening were approaching, it could easily have been an evocative film score, no less effective for the absence of visual effects.

The Andantino was full of gentle melody passing from voice to voice, supported by rich harmonies that conjured up the balmy night air, and the pleasures of wandering hand in hand, somewhat apart from the noisy revellers. The languid, surging phrases eventually subsided into a pianissimo close, as though the moon were sinking, heavy with sleep, below the horizon.

The Scherzo woke to a new, sunlit morning, a bright breezy romp full of the new day’s energy, evoking colourful stalls selling wild flowers and sweet treats. It led quite naturally into the energetic Finale which opened with the vigour of almost flamenco rhythms and colour, then moved into a central contrasting section of lilting melodies, with almost a hint of pathos, before returning to the opening mood. There was a dramatic accelerando coda to round off the work with brilliant, festive flair.

This was a thoroughly attractive, almost programmatic work, from a composer who understood the appeal and art of skilful melody writing. The familiar tonal structure made it easy listening, while never sounding tired, but always fresh and creative. The players were clearly enjoying themselves, and their enthusiastic and lively engagement in the work spilled over easily to the appreciative audience.

This concert marked the release of Vol.5 of Hill’s string quartets from Naxos, recorded on CD by the Dominion String Quartet. The last recordings are just complete, with the final Vol.6 due next year. Before the concert, Donald Maurice spoke of the genesis and development of this project over a number of years, then Chris Blake (NZSO CEO) gave some background to Hill’s life and work.

The latter’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. (Programme notes.)

Chris Blake spoke of Hill as “the only significant Australasian composer representing the Late Romantic era”, but I would put Richard Fuchs (1887-1947) very firmly in that category too, although he was a naturalised New Zealander who lived here only from 1939 to 1947. Like Hill he was prolific in many genres, and all his surviving works have been published by the Richard Fuchs Archive, though as yet only a handful of his beautiful songs are available on CD (see

Both these composers have been too little heard and enjoyed by New Zealand audiences, but those who attended today’s concert obviously appreciated this opportunity, judging by the turnout and their most enthusiastic applause.

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