Douglas Lilburn: the preeminent composer of New Zealand

Thus far, the composers profiled in my blog cover three different continents: North America, Europe, and Asia. Today, we’ll move to Oceania with a profile of the New Zealand composer Douglas Lilburn.

Douglas Lilburn, 1940
Lilburn in 1940 (The Encyclopedia of New Zealand)

Lilburn was born in the city of Whanganui (in southern North Island) in 1915. Unlike many of the composers I’ve written about so far, he did not come from a musical family; his parents, Robert Lilburn and Rosamund Louisa Shield, were farmers, and he grew up on his family sheep farm at Drysdale Station. In 1925, Lilburn’s parents retired to Whanganui, and around this time he began taking piano lessons. Four years later, he was sent to a boarding school, Waitaki Boys’ High School, where he stayed until 1933.

Upon enrolling in Canterbury University College in 1934, Lilburn intended to study journalism, but his growing interest in composition led him to change his plans; he obtained his bachelor of music with Dr. J.C. Bradshaw in 1936. In his final year (and having never seen an orchestral performance), Lilburn won the Percy Grainger prize for composition, the first exhibition of his compositional talents to the wider world.

The following year, he took probably the most pivotal step of his career, attending the Royal College of Music in London to study with the renowned Ralph Vaughan Williams. During his time at RCM, Lilburn won several awards, including the Hubert Parry Prize for composition and the Cobbett Prize for string quartet writing; he also wrote several early works inspired by his homeland, such as the Drysdale Overture in 1937 and Festival Overture and Prodigal Country two years later. Vaughan Williams remained close with Lilburn after the latter’s departure in 1940; Lilburn would often send him jars of New Zealand honey, of which Vaughan Williams was a connoisseur.

Just before leaving the Royal College, he wrote one of his best known works, the Aotearoa Overture. Written in a grand, unabashedly late Romantic style like much of Lilburn’s other early work, the overture is rich and dramatic at every turn, and this performance by the Auckland Philharmonia certainly seems to do it justice.

After returning home in 1940, Lilburn spent three months guest conducting the NBS String Orchestra. The following year, the composer moved to Christchurch, where he freelanced as a composer, conductor, teacher, and music critic. (Remarkably, for almost a decade, he was practically the only professional composer in his country!) During the 1940s, Lilburn also became active in the general arts scene in New Zealand, developing friendships with many influential artists and poets which aided his creative output. This period was the most productive of his career; Lilburn’s major works composed during this time include his Sonatina No. 1 for solo piano and his String Quartet in E Minor, both completed in 1946.

In the same year, Lilburn’s compositional isolation finally ended with the establishment of the Cambridge summer music school in the Waikato region, where he was appointed composer-in-residence. For four years, he tutored a small group of students at the school, among them David Farquhar, Edwin Carr, Ronald Tremain and Larry Pruden; these students would go on to become the preeminent New Zealand composers of their own era. After being offered a part-time position at the newly-established music department of Victoria University in Wellington in 1946, his position was made full-time in 1949.

The 1950s saw a sharp change in Douglas Lilburn’s style of composition. While his works up to that point had been nationalistic and very tonal in nature, a trip to the U.S. and Europe on sabbatical in 1955 led him to have doubts about his music; in his own words, “I realised acutely how provincial and inadequate my musical knowledge and composition techniques were in face of the new musical context I found.” This led him to turn towards dodecaphony, a technique which is most prominent in his acclaimed third symphony of 1961. Although it maintains something of a late Romantic feel, the third symphony is harmonically very different and uses sparser orchestration than his earlier orchestral works.

In a sense, Lilburn’s changes in style are a microcosm (if slightly delayed) of the changes in 20th-century music; having moved from late Romanticism to twelve-tone music, he abandoned writing for traditional instruments in 1963 and turned to electronic composition instead. Over a period of sixteen years, Lilburn wrote a variety of electronic works, from the light sounds of his 1976 work Carousel to the ambient atmosphere of his final piece, Soundscape with lake and river (an attempt to recreate his impressions of Lake Taupo on North Island.)

Outside of his compositional contributions, Lilburn is also known for his efforts to promote New Zealand music even after his withdrawal from conventional composition. In 1967, he helped found Wai-te-ata Press Music Editions, the first publisher dedicated to the works of New Zealand composers; in 1974, he played a key role in establishing the Archive of New Zealand Music in Wellington, and a decade later he set up the Lilburn Trust to promote composition using his own funds. (The Lilburn Trust is still alive and well, by the way; if you need funding for work related to New Zealand or Maori music, the deadline for grants this year is May 31!)

In recognition of his musical and philanthropic efforts, Lilburn was awarded the Order of New Zealand in 1988. Although he donated to several charities and continued working on the Lilburn Trust after his retirement in 1980, he became reclusive and stopped composing altogether. Lilburn passed away at his home in Wellington on June 9, 2001, at the age of 85.

Although a national figure in New Zealand, Lilburn is rarely, if ever, performed outside his homeland. All three phases of his work – his lush late-Romantic writing, serialist-influenced works, and electro-acoustic music – contain unique and powerful elements that deserve much more appreciation worldwide.

Thank you again for reading! I pieced together this post from information provided by Wikipedia and The Encyclopedia of New Zealand.



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