Alfred Francis Hill was born in Richmond, Melbourne, Australia, on 16 December 1870, the son of Charles Hill, a hatter and talented violinist, and his wife, Eliza Ann Hulbert. In 1872 the family emigrated to Auckland, New Zealand, where Charles and his brothers-in-law opened a hat shop on Queen Street with a factory elsewhere. Charles had a rich tenor voice, and encouraged regular glee singing at the family home – part of Alfred's earliest musical memories. In 1875 the family moved to Wellington, where Charles opened his own hat shop on Lambton Quay. Their home was again the scene of intense musical activity. A patron introduced Alfred to the cornet, which he played in the Wellington Garrison Band, in the family orchestra and in 'The Patchwork Company', a performing and touring company run by the Hill family. The company's performances included sentimental ballads, comic songs and recitations, and often ended with a topical burlesque written by one of the cast.
Alfred made rapid progress on the cornet, helped by a principal of the visiting Simonsen's Opera Company. He began regular appearances in concerts and toured with the Simonsen company. The leader of the orchestra, Rivers Allpress, gave invaluable tuition when Alfred turned to the violin. Along with the viola it was to become his main instrument. He had also begun composing, although he was greatly handicapped by the lack of suitable tuition despite the help of the composer and arranger G. H. Clutsam. Proper instruction had to wait until his father sent him to Leipzig in 1887, with his brother Jack, a singer.
Alfred entered the Leipzig Conservatory as a violinist, and soon began playing at the last desk of the Gewandhaus Orchestra under the conductor Carl Reinecke, who was also a pianist and teacher at the conservatory. Alfred's principal teachers were Gustav Schreck for harmony and Hans Sitt for violin, the former imparting a strict Germanic compositional system to which Hill remained steadfast throughout his life, and the latter a thorough performing technique, the basis of Hill's subsequent string quartet and orchestral playing. The Gewandhaus Orchestra provided incomparable experience and a foundation for Hill's later conducting. Eminent composers conducted the orchestra and notable soloists performed with it. Meanwhile Hill's composition advanced to the point where in 1891 he performed his Scotch sonata at a concert and his Air varié for violin and orchestra with Sitt's ensemble. Several of his works were published in Leipzig. At the end of his last term Alfred was awarded the Helbig prize as a distinguished student and graduated with a diploma in July 1891.
Hill returned to New Zealand and embarked on a comparatively short and principally unhappy period as conductor of the Wellington Orchestral Society, from 1892 to 1896. Unco-operative older players resented his youth and no doubt his overseas experience. Nevertheless, he composed a cantata, Time's great monotone, in 1894, as well as smaller works, and acquired a glowing reputation as a violinist. He presented model classical programmes which gave the orchestra a reputation as the best in New Zealand. Tensions between conductor and orchestra reached their climax in October 1896 following a public fracas over a visiting pianist, Antoni Kątski (known as Antoine de Kontski), who advertised himself as the only living pupil of Beethoven and used to play at least one piece in each concert with his hands under a folded blanket placed on the keyboard. Unwilling to associate himself with what he considered charlatanry, Hill resigned and joined the touring company of his supporter and friend, the visiting Belgian violinist Ovide Musin.
Hill returned to Wellington in November for the première of his cantata Hinemoa (to words by the poet and novelist Arthur Adams). Its widespread success as the first work of such stature to illustrate a Māori legend and display the influence of Māori musical themes in a European harmonic setting, launched Hill on his career as a composer and into a musical association with a number of Māori, including the Rotorua guide and scholar Mākareti (Maggie) Papakura.
After the dissolution of the Musin Concert Company in 1897, Hill settled in Sydney. He married a New Zealander, Sarah (Sadie) Brownhill Booth, at Sydney on 6 October 1897, and the following year became conductor of the Sydney Liedertafel. With Lady Dolly (1900) he began writing a series of light romantic operas that brought him recognition. The Hills returned to New Zealand in 1902. Tapu, to a libretto by Arthur Adams, with help from Edward Tregear, was premièred in Wellington on 16 February 1903 by the Pollard Opera Company and was thereafter toured by them with much success. It was taken up in a revised form by J. C. Williamson in Auckland and Sydney in 1904. A Moorish maid (1905) introduced the New Zealand singer Rosina Buckman in the Wellington season, launching her on what became an international career. An English impresario subsequently endeavoured to promote the work in London but without success.
Hill's interest in Māori music had meanwhile intensified. Through his friendship with Charles Goldie he was able to record much material in the painter's studio from his Māori models, and there wrote his bestseller, the song 'Waiata poi', about 1904. In 1906–7 he formed and conducted the first fully professional orchestra in New Zealand, which gave regular popular and classical concerts at the New Zealand International Exhibition in Christchurch, and subsequently toured. Despite critical acclaim the orchestra was soon disbanded and Hill returned to Sydney in 1910, conducting, composing, and playing regularly in the Austral String Quartet from 1911 to 1913. In 1913 he wrote an opera on Māori themes, Teora, or 'The enchanted flute', to his own libretto, but it was not performed until 1929. In association with the Australian composer and musician Fritz Hart, he launched the Australian Opera League in Sydney in 1914, performing his own Giovanni and Hart's Pierrette. This venture was brought to an end by the outbreak of the First World War.
In 1916 Henri Verbrugghen, the first director of the New South Wales State Conservatorium of Music, appointed Hill first professor of harmony and composition. He held the position until the end of 1934 when he resigned and started his own Alfred Hill Academy of Music which ran until 1937. Alfred and Sadie Hill were divorced on 10 May 1921, and in Sydney on 1 October Alfred Hill married Mirrie Irma Solomon, a former pupil. From 1915 he lived and worked in Australia, but continued to visit New Zealand. He composed the music for Rudall Hayward's film Rewi's last stand in 1939 and returned to give concerts the same year. He continued to write comic and light operas.
Hill subsequently developed strong interests in Australian Aboriginal and New Guinean music and in Australian folksong. His major compositions included the Joy of life symphony for chorus and orchestra (1941), the Welcome overture (1949) and the Australia symphony (1951). He had revisited New Zealand in 1952 when he told the children of Whangamarino Māori School near Rotorua to 'Keep on learning your crafts – your weaving and your carving. The Maori culture should never be forgotten.'
Concerts in his honour took place in Sydney in 1950 and 1959 and he was regarded as the 'Grand Old Man of Australian Music'. He died in Sydney on 30 October 1960, survived by his second wife, Mirrie, and the three children of his first marriage.
Alfred Hill is the most significant of the first wave of European composers in New Zealand and Australia: the way in which he left his mark on the musical occasions and opportunities of both countries reflects the close musical and artistic links of the period. A miniaturist, he was at his most accomplished in his works for strings, such as his second ('Maori') and 11th string quartets (he wrote 17), in his viola concerto, and in individual movements of his 13 symphonies (all adapted from his string quartets). His style scarcely developed from the Leipzig training of his youth, but he shared with his sister Mabel, a painter, a lyrical freshness of vision, manifest in smaller-scale works. His ideas could not always support the large-scale structures he frequently burdened them with, and some compositions lapse into academic formulas. Nevertheless, he holds an assured and honoured place in an emerging tradition.