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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    



Alfred Hollins 1865

 

Life

Alfred Hollins was in many ways an eclectic composer & performer. Many of his contemporaries thought that he was a much finer pianist than organist. This is a contention we can probably no longer decide on one way or the other. Furthermore he played the organ at a Presbyterian church in Edinburgh for some 45 years of his life, yet he felt able to write a number of anthems of a particularly Anglican and Roman Catholic nature.

The majority of organists and organ enthusiasts estimation of Hollins today is based on two key facts - firstly that he was blind and secondly he wrote a piece of music for the organ called ‘A Song of Sunshine.’ This is the sum total of the received wisdom on this very accomplished performer and composer.

Hollins was born a Yorkshireman, and notwithstanding his extensive travels in the course of giving recitals and his residence in Scotland for more than half his life, was proud of his birthright. He was born blind –although an apocryphal story tells that he had sight at the moment of his coming into the world and then promptly lost it.

Hollins mother died early in the young child’s life. There is little known about his father. Young Alfred was moved to York to live with his ‘Aunt Mary’ This was fortuitous as he was to receive his very first piano lessons from this lady. A degree of hagiographic detail has sprung up around the composer. It is rumoured that he was able to pick out tunes on the piano at an extremely early age. Furthermore it is believed he had perfect pitch at the same age. He could name any two notes struck on the keyboard and give their relationship! His aunt noted his early ability to improvise at the piano. However, the budding composer’s grandmother is reputed to have ordered him to ‘stop that strumming’.

It was in the year 1874 that his somewhat remarkable education began. He was enrolled into the Wilberforce Institution for the Blind at York. By a strange coincidence he was taught by a certain William Barnby who was the eldest brother of the then popular church composer Joseph Barnby.

Four years later Alfred was moved south of the Thames and was entered at the Royal Normal College for the Blind at Upper Norwood. Almost at once he was able to impress the principal at that time, a certain Sir Francis Campbell of his potential as a musician. He was given the opportunity to study the piano under Fritz Hartvigson and the organ under Dr. E.J. Hopkins who was then organist at Temple Church just off Fleet Street. His genius was soon recognised. Concert success followed concert success. He played the solo part in the Emperor Concerto under the bâton of August Manns at Crystal Palace. He was only sixteen years old. A year later he was performing at a private concert at Windsor in the presence of Queen Victoria.

The opportunity presented itself for the young man to study with the great and magisterial Hans Von Bulow in Berlin. Whilst in Germany he did a series of concerts – at one time playing three concerti in the one evening - The Liszt Eb, the Schumann A minor and the ‘Emperor’. He played before the royal families of Germany and the Low Countries.

His first ‘professional’ appointment was as organist at St John’s Redhill in 1884. He appeared at the Music and Inventions Exhibition in 1885 – this time he was playing the concert organ. Shortly afterwards another period of study presented itself at the Raff Conservatorium in Frankfurt.

The following eleven years found Hollins as organist at Upper Norwood Presbyterian Church, as the first appointed organist at the Peoples Palace (Crystal Palace) and a period of professorial activities at his old ‘alma mater’ – teaching piano and organ at the Royal Normal College.

In-between all this activity he managed to find time to sail to the United States and make a major tour of the concert halls of New York and Boston. He played with many important orchestras and on many impressive organ consoles.

Soon there was to be a sea change in his life. The Reverend Hugh Black was the assistant minister at Free St. George’s Church in Edinburgh. He was a popular preacher who attracted quite a crowed of auditors. He had rebelled somewhat against the strict ‘no music’ attitudes of his predecessors. At that time the ‘Free Church’ had little to do with music – either secular or religious. In fact the founder of the church the Reverend Robert S. Candlish had virulently opposed the installation of the ‘kist of whistles’ into his church. He regarded it definitely as the thin edge of the wedge – to the sacramental system of popery and the work of the very devil himself! He even authored a pamphlet called ‘The Organ Question.’

However the Reverend Black was able to persuade the Presbyterian kirk session to move with the times – after all it was nearly the beginning of the Twentieth Century. An organ was procured and an organist had to be found. The tale goes that Black journeyed all the way to Nottingham to hear Hollins play and offered him the job there and then. Hollins accepted and from that moment was committed to the life and worship of St George’s. Of course that is not to say that he did not continue with his tours. In 1904 he sailed by liner to Australia and New Zealand. In 1907 and again in 1909 and 1916 he travelled to the Union of South Africa to deliver a series of concerts in Johannesburg and Capetown. In fact he gave the opening recital at the new Town Hall there. He had been instrumental in developing the specification for the organ.

He gave a major recital tour of the United States in 1925/26 where he visited some sixty five cities.It has been estimated that he travelled some 600, 000 miles on his recital tours – a remarkable achievement for any person – let alone a blind man.

In the latter years of his life he wrote down his reflections on his life as an organist and teacher. The book he published was called "A Blind Musician Looks Back". It makes entertaining reading and gives great insight into an organist’s existence at the turn of the century. Hollins died in 1942.

The Musical establishment saw fit to award him an Honorary Doctorate of Music from Edinburgh University in 1922. This was in addition to being made an Honorary Fellow of the Royal College of Organists in 1904.

Achievement.

His organ recitals were not only entertaining but were also instructive. He introduced the practice of discussing the programme with the audience before each piece. He would describe the main elements of the composition and would pick out the key themes on the keyboard. He brought a tremendous enthusiasm to both his playing and teaching. His ability to entertain & instruct was based on a sound musicianship derived from a profound understanding of the music and a thorough knowledge of the musical instruments. It is well known that he had models of various organ actions. He was able to explain the mechanisms to all enquirers. They were even designed so that a blind person could ‘feel’ their way to an appreciation of the construction of the organ. From this understanding of the mechanics of the organ he was able to develop the principles of the tonal characteristics of the pipework and build on this appreciation when contracted to design specifications for new and rebuilt organs.

His style of playing was colourful. The Sydney Sunday Sun is reported as stating:- "…from the moment he placed his fingers on the keyboard, Mr Hollins showed his confident command of the instrument." His earlier expertise on the piano was transferred to the organ. His fingering and hand action was freer than was normal for organists. Perhaps it resembled the type of playing developed by the ‘cinema’ organists of the later generation? However Hollins did not appreciate jazz. His main inspiration was the classics.

In those days organ recitals contained many more ‘transcriptions’ than would now be the case. In the days before wireless and good quality records it was far harder for audiences to regularly hear the standard orchestral repertoire. So the recitals would contain a variety of transcriptions and original works. The tonal balance of the organ was often designed to parody the instrumental capabilities of the orchestra.

Hollins himself believed in contrast in his programmes. He would always include a ‘scherzo’ like piece. He tried to balance heavy and light classics. He contrasted works in key, tone colour and style.

Hollins favourite composers seemed to be the romantics. He included the Meistersingers Overture and the Prelude and Liebstod to Tristan, the Schumnan Quintet and Listz’s Les Preludes as being amongst his key formative works. In the ‘organ loft’ he had a lifelong appreciation and enjoyment of Alexander Guilmant and the Englishman Henry Smart. A brief overview of a series of concerts reveals pieces originally written for organ by Bach, Wolstenholme, Willan, Boelleman & Rheinberger. Transcriptions included the Largo from the New World Symphony and three pieces by Edward MacDowell.

Hollins was a prolific composer. He wrote much for the organ – there are some fifty five pieces. However, he composed surprisingly little for his other instrument – the piano. He contributed to the repertoire of songs and choral works. Unfortunately, due to changing fashions these have become virtually unknown.

Typically his music was light and airy. More often than not tuneful with fairly conventional harmonies. The music of Hollins was written as if he had an orchestra in mind – not necessarily parodies of the various instruments- but a genuine feel for orchestral tone and colour. All his pieces for organ display a consummate musical skill – and a quite a degree of original ideas. His writing was eloquent displaying many of the tools in the composer’s toolbox. His works freely utilise both harmonic and contrapuntal styles. Hollins was a great improvisor, however virtually none of his extant compositions are based on any performed improvisation. It would be fair to say that most of his music is suffused by an improvisatory character worked out in pen and ink to a high degree of sophistication.

The three pieces which have best stood the test of time are:-

1. The Trumpet Minuet, written in a Handelian style.

2. A Song of Sunshine, perhaps his best known and best loved work – really one of those pieces where we feel better after having listened to it.

3. Spring Song – another joyful excursion into the dappled English landscape!

However after the release by Priory Records of David Liddle ‘The Organ Music of Alfred Hollins’, listeners have become more aware of Hollins’ compositional skills. Many of his less remembered works are beginning once again to find their ways into the repertoire of recitalists – both on CD and in the concert hall. For example, the Concert Overtures and the Grand Choeur’s are now beginning to find a slot in the discographies. Even the lighter salon piece such as the Intermezzo in Db has its enthusiasts.

It is to be hoped that one day an enterprising record company may bring out some of the lesser known pieces and a few of the better choral works and songs.

Estimation

W.T.Best once claimed that Hollins ought to have the epithet ‘Alfred the Great.’ And this summed up the respect in which he was held. Perhaps he was the Carlo Curley of his age?

Hollins himself is quoted as having said that the "happiest days of his life had been spent at the church organ." Surely there are no finer testimonies to one of the most charismatic organists of the past 150 years.

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