Born at Faversham, Kent, on 19 April 1870, Alfred Charles Hobday was a member of a distinguished musical family. His father Charles Dunn Hobday had a music-selling business; younger brother Claude (1872-1954) was one of the great British bassists; elder sister Bessie was a pianist, organist, violinist and singer. His younger sisters Maud and Gertrude were respectively a violinist and pianist and a pianist and singer; and Alfred’s Irish-born wife Ethel (née Sharpe) was a splendid pianist who had been part of Brahms’s circle in Vienna. Hobday was the best-known violist in England before the rise of Lionel Tertis, with whom he was on good terms – his wife made records with Tertis.
Winning an open scholarship in 1886 to the Royal College of Music, he studied violin and viola with Henry Holmes, piano with Herbert Sharpe (no relation to his wife, but father of cellist Cedric Sharpe), organ with Dr Gladstone and theory with Sir Frederick Bridge. In 1895, the year he married, Hobday became principal viola in Queen Victoria’s private band, directed by Sir Walter Parratt. This post brought him a Diamond Jubilee Medal from the Queen and a Coronation Medal from King Edward VII. He led the Philharmonic Society violas for several years and in 1900 played the obbligato in Harold in Italy under the baton of Sir Frederic Cowen ‘with great accuracy and expression’. In 1900 he was appointed solo violist at the Royal Opera under Hans Richter, remaining there until 1934. When Tertis turned down the leadership of the viola section in the fledgling London Symphony Orchestra in 1905, Hobday was offered the post, and he remained in it until he turned 60. In 1908 he performed Harold in Italy ‘with great beauty of tone’ with the LSO and Richter. Hobday led the violas at all the great British festivals at various times. He taught at the London Academy of Music. As an Associated Board examiner he went three times to South Africa, where his sister Bessie taught music in Kingswilliamstown.
Alfred Hobday was in high demand as a chamber musician. As early as 1890 he made his début at the South Place concerts. In 1894 he took part in the first British Chamber Concerts series at Queen’s Small Hall, with violinists Jasper and Wallace Sutcliffe and cellist W.H. Squire. In 1897-9 he and Squire were in the quartet who inaugurated the Sunday Evening Chamber Concerts alongside violinists Enrique Fernández Arbós and Ferdinand Weist-Hill. Hobday played in the Popular Concerts at St James’s Hall with both Joseph Joachim and Lady Halle; and he was second viola with the Joachim Quartet on several occasions. In 1903-5 he succeeded Émile Ferir in the Kruse Quartet (Tertis replaced him). He and brother Claude played in the 1905 première of Vaughan Williams’s C minor Quintet with the ‘Trout’ instrumentation: of course they often played the ‘Trout’ itself, as well as Richard Walthew’s work with the same scoring.
Alfred participated in the first British performances of Fauré’s two Piano Quartets, with the composer at the piano; and in 1903 he played Richard Strauss’s Piano Quartet in Birmingham with Strauss as pianist. In 1915 he and LSO colleagues W.H. Reed, Charles Woodhouse and Charles Crabbe formed the British String Quartet. In the 1930s he and Ivor James played both Brahms Sextets in Oxford with the Busch Quartet. A photograph shows Schubert’s C major Quintet being played in the music room at the Netherton Grove home of Alexandre Fachiri and his wife Adila (née d’Arányi). Adila leads, with Hobday on her left and her sister Jelly d’Arányi, playing second violin, opposite her in the old-fashioned seating pattern. Alex Fachiri, surely playing second cello, is in the centre with Gaspar Cassadó between him and Jelly.
Alfred and Ethel Hobday sometimes gave recitals, usually with a singer sharing the platform: they often played Joachim’s Variations and in 1916 their programme with Gervase Elwes included Brahms’s F minor Sonata, Dale’s Romance and Bowen’s C minor Sonata. Hobday was a typical pre-Tertis violist, playing in the 19th-Century manner, and behind his back younger colleagues called him ‘Cold Mutton’ – unfair, as he was a most elevated artist. For Edward Elgar he was ‘the Prima Donna’. Hobday and his wife took part in chamber music sessions at the Elgars’ London home Severn House; and as a member of the LSO, Hobday recorded several Elgar works under the composer’s baton. He missed out on the solo in the overture In the South – when it was recorded in September 1930 as he had just handed over the principal viola chair to Anthony Collins.
Alfred Hobday made no solo records, but he took part in an abridged acoustic Mozart G minor Quintet with the London String Quartet, led by Albert Sammons. Recorded in the top-floor Columbia studio at Clerkenwell Road. Issued in 1920, this performance can be dated to 13 June 1917, when the first daylight Zeppelin raid took place.
‘We were startled by a loud report,’ Sammons recalled, ‘but thought it was nothing more than a burst motor tyre: but on hearing a second and louder report, and seeing people running about in the street below, we knew what was taking place. After all was over we returned to our work, and struck a lucky hit in making a splendid record of the work. I say lucky, because of the different position in the seating formation of the quintet. A lot is left to chance, when more than two players join forces, and are crowding into a small space with scarcely bowing room, etc.’
At Abbey Road Studios in the 1930s, Hobday took part in a number of HMV sessions as second violist with the Quatuor Pro Arte. He recorded three Mozart Quintets, the G minor (complete this time), C major and D major, and Brahms’s B flat Sextet. With the Budapest Quartet he did Brahms’s F major Quintet and G major Sextet – Anthony Pini was second cellist in both Sextets. In all these performances, Hobday showed himself to be a thoroughly sympathetic chamber musician. He owned a magnificent instrument, the ex-Villa 1781 Giambattista Guadagnini, which he used for his solo work. Among the pieces written for him were two by Ernest Walker, a beautiful Brahmsian sonata and a set of variations based on his and his wife’s initials in German notation. He died at Tankerton, Kent, on 23 February 1942 following a freak accident: walking on the pavement near his home, he was knocked down by a squad of marching soldiers and suffered a fractured thigh from which he never recovered.