AS the fierce flames threatened to engulf him the young man suddenly recalled moments of mischief in dear old Hereford - and those beautiful big banisters in Bodenham Road.

Musician Donald Heins was visiting a violin maker in the top storey of a building in Ottawa in 1902 when a terrible blaze took a grip.

Forced back by darting tongues of fire and thick smoke, he ran back to the workshop to give the alarm. There appeared to be no escape, for the stairs were alight and crackling with the heat.

But young Donald, like many an English boy, had frequently enjoyed the childhood pastime of cruising down banisters. Such moments in Hereford were jolly japes; now, in Canada, it would be a slide to safety.

He beckoned to workmen to follow his example and down he went from storey to storey to storey - and survival.

In the early hours of the next morning he re-visited the scene and was confronted with devastation. Cutting a bizarre sight were the burnt-out frames of grand pianos caught on iron girders as they were falling.

Suddenly, Donald was handed a singed violin by a nearby fireman who asked him to play a tune.

The Herefordian obliged with a rendition of 'Yankee Doodle' so spirited that members of the brigade and other bystanders began dancing ... and only stopped once the shell of the instrument collapsed in the player's hands!

Such good-natured fun was typical of the young virtuoso and was manifested at a sad moment. His valuable Stradivarius violin and a viola had perished in the blaze.

Magnificent instruments had been lost, but a brilliant talent had been saved.

Donald was born in Hereford in 1878 and at the age of four was given a violin suitable in size for his tiny hands.

That he showed early talent was hardly surprising for his parents had attained considerable musical distinction and fostered the skill and joy of the art shown by their little boy.

Donald's father, Nicholas Heins, who lived in Bodenham Road, was a successful composer of church music and a former tenor soloist for Queen Victoria at Her Majesty's Chapel Royal.

His mother, Frances Heins, was a sister of Sir George Donaldson, mastermind behind the magnificent building housing the Royal Academy and donor of the world-famous collection of musical instruments still found today at the Royal College of Music.

Both Nicholas and Frances Heins sang at the great Handel Festivals held at the Crystal Palace under Sir August Manns.

In 1871 Nicholas Heins bought a music shop in Hereford, which was to become the first of several he acquired in Herefordshire and over the border in Wales.

Such was the world of music in which young Donald lived and his progress was rapid. At the age of seven he made his concert debut with a performance of Raff's 'Cavatina' and before long the boy was among the first violins of Hereford Orchestral Society.

When the great violinist Sarasate visited Hereford to give a concert arranged by Donald's father, the superstar heard the young man play and advised he be sent to the famous Leipzig Conservatory for further specialised training.

In 1892 Donald headed for Leipzig where he studied violin with Hans Sitt and theory with Gustav Schreck. He learned to play all the instruments of the string section and in an emergency could fill a position as double bass player or cellist.

In Germany he became friends with famous composers. In later years he would tell his children how Brahms would play the banjo for him! Greig was another companion of his youth.

In 1897 he returned to Hereford and made his professional debut in London performing the Saint -Saens 'Rondo Capriccioso'.

He also played under the baton of Sir Edward Elgar and became a great friend of Hereford Cathedral organist Sir Percy Hull. In 1898 he and the young Hull boosted the stage lighting for Hereford Gilbert and Sullivan Society's production of 'The Sorcerer' by using their bicycle acetylene lamps!

Donald was teacher to another Herefordian destined to become a renowned violinist - Evangeline Anthony, daughter of the owner of The Hereford Times and granddaughter of its founder.

The two fell in love but never tied the knot. Evangeline travelled the world, making marvellous music, but died tragically young at the age of 27 in Germany. She is buried at Tupsley.

Donald left Hereford for fame on foreign shores, too.

His brother-in-law who had opened the Canadian Conservatory of Music in Ottawa encouraged Donald to join him. Donald liked the idea and set sail for Canada in 1902.

He taught at the conservatory and conducted its orchestra. It became the Ottawa Symphony Orchestra in 1910 and he continued to conduct it until 1927 when he moved to Toronto to become concertmaster of its mighty symphony orchestra.

In 1931 Ernest MacMillan became music director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and Donald gave up the concertmaster's chair to become the TSO's first assistant conductor as well as its principal violist.

Despite the very active life of performance, Donald managed to find time to compose. One of his earliest pieces was a symphonic poem 'The Awakening' and this was followed by several motets and a short mass - 'Messe de Sainte Ursule - for ladies choir and small orchestra.

Two short operas were composed - 'An Old Tortugas' in 1936 and 'Yellow Back' in 1939, but possibly his major work was 'Concertina in D Minor' for violin and orchestra. The TSO gave the first performance of the work in 1928 with von Kunits as conductor and Donald as soloist.

Donald's writing skills caught the eye of Queen Victoria's third son, the Duke of Connaught, and when Governor General of Canada he 'commanded' the Herefordian to give his daughter, Princess Patricia, tuition in theory and composition.

Donald was also engaged to teach the Ladies Dorothy and Rachel Cavendish, daughters of the Duke of Devonshire, during his term as Governor General.

But Donald was not a dour and intense musician. He was a charismatic character who had a rich sense of humour and once brought out his violin in a national park to gauge whether or not bears had a liking for music!

When his son was born Donald plus fiddle soon appeared at the bedside to assess the new arrival's musical ear. The boy became head of one of Canada's biggest insurance companies, having heeded his father's advice about music - "keep out of this racket if you want to make money".

However, Donald did insist that his heir 'ting the triangle' at least once in his orchestra!

Donald's philosophy illumined his daily life and is best illustrated by one of his favourite quotations: "Nobody grows old by merely living a number of years. People grow old by deserting their ideals."

The beginning of 1949 marked the close of Donald's life. He died on January 1 having only hours earlier played his beloved viola and then rejoicing in some special whisky his son had bought from a small Scottish distillery.