Frankly, I had never heard of Alfred Hill when I bought Marco Polo’s CD with String Quartets Nos. 5, 6 and 11 by the Australian Quartet (1997), didn’t know when he lived and composed and didn’t know what to expect – or rather, I imagined that he was composer at the turn of the 19th to 20th century, or maybe early 20th century, Australian or New-Zealander rather than British, and I expected music to be a little more advanced than what it actually is, although I didn’t expect anything avant-garde.
Turns out that, for the man, I was right on the spot, since Hill was born in Melbourne, so it makes him an Australian indeed, and he lived from 1869 (apparently the date 1870, still used in the liner notes to the CD, has been disproven, see Hill’s entry on Wikipedia) to 1960, which makes him, indeed, a composer at the turn of the 19th to 20th century, although he straddled more of the latter. Stylistically, Quartets Nos. 5 & 6, written respectively in 1920 and 1927, sound strikingly like Dvorak, and the 11th, from 1935, makes a huge leap… to Ravel (whose own quartet is from 1903).
If you want to look at it negatively, Hill certainly illustrates the old-cliché that British – let me enlarge it here to “commonwealth-” – music of that era was hopelessly backward-looking, conservative, reactionary, you name it, and trying to cling on the 19th century when the 19th century was long gone. Hill’s musical training was in Leipzig, a bastion of musical conservatism indeed, and Carl Reinecke (1824-1910) was his model – certainly no paragon of the avant-garde either. All those factors probably explain his compositional outlook.
If you want to look at it positively – and I do – just forget the dates, the historical perspective, the derivativeness. If you like Dvorak’s or Ravel’s Quartets, why not add a couple more songful and beautiful ones? I’ll be exploring the series recommenced in 2006 by Naxos with the Dominion Quartet: vol. 1 (Quartets 1, 2, 3) 747313049172, vol. 2 (4, 6, 8) 747313209774, vol. 3 (5, 7, 9) 747313244676, vol. 4 (10, 11, Piano Quintet) 747313284474, vol. 5 (12, 13, 14) 747313326778, vol. 6 (15, 16, 17) 747313341672.