Alfred Hollins 1865
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
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 childs 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 composers 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 Johns
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. Georges 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
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 Georges. 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
organists 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.
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
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 Listzs 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 composers 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
3. Spring Song another joyful excursion into the dappled English
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 Choeurs 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
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.