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Lilburn, Douglas Gordon


Composer, professor of music, philanthropist

This biography, written by Philip Norman, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2010.


Douglas Gordon Lilburn was born in Whanganui on 2 November 1915, the seventh and youngest child of Robert Lilburn and his wife, Rosamund Louisa Shield. Home, until the age of nine, was the picturesque and prosperous sheep farm Drysdale Station in the upper Turakina River valley, 30 kilometres north-west of Hunterville. It was an isolated but idyllic childhood, ‘a richly varied and potent human and natural context to shape a young imagination’, as he later recalled.1

Douglas’s schooling began at the local Pukeroa School and continued at the New Zealand Friends’ School, Whanganui, after his parents retired to the city in 1925. His third- and fourth-form years, 1928 and 1929, were spent at St George’s Preparatory School, Whanganui, where he continued his piano lessons. From there, he was sent south to the character-building Waitaki Boys’ High School in Ōamaru under the rectorship of Frank Milner.

Shy by nature, unused to boarding and with little aptitude for organised sport, Douglas found it difficult to fit in at first. Gradually his confidence grew, and by the time he left at the end of 1933, Milner was able to declare him ‘gifted with fine literary taste and discriminating appreciation’ as well as ‘gentlemanly, responsive to ideals, loyal, courteous and devoted to his cultural pursuits’.2

Attending Canterbury University College from 1934 to 1936, Lilburn studied first towards a certificate of journalism, and then towards a bachelor of music under the tutelage of Dr J. C. Bradshaw. Here his talents as a composer were first revealed. While in his third year, and before he had seen a symphony orchestra perform, he won a national composition prize sponsored by visiting Australian pianist and composer Percy Grainger.

With financial assistance from his family, from 1937 to 1940 Lilburn attended the Royal College of Music, London, where Ralph Vaughan Williams was his principal composition tutor. Here he received several college awards including the Hubert Parry Prize for composition and the 1939 Cobbett Prize for string quartet writing.

Further successes followed. Lilburn entered three works – the Drysdale Overture (1937), Festival Overture (1939) and Prodigal country (1939) – in the New Zealand Centennial Celebrations competitions. On his return to New Zealand in August 1940 he learnt that he had won three of the four available prizes for composition. His Aotearoa Overture (1940) was also written at the Royal College for performance in a New Zealand Centennial Matinee concert held in London.

The 1940s

New Zealand in the 1940s was not a country where a career as a musician could be undertaken lightly. Nevertheless, there was a groundswell of professional activity throughout the arts, especially in painting and writing. Settling back in Christchurch, Lilburn worked as a freelance composer, conductor, teacher and music critic. He developed stimulating friendships with the writers Denis GloverAllen Curnow and Ngaio Marsh, and the artists Douglas MacDiarmid and Leo Bensemann. He had an affair with the painter Rita Cook (later Rita Angus), who became pregnant but miscarried. He also became aware of his homosexuality at this time and was to have several relationships with men.

Lilburn’s time in Christchurch during the 1940s was his most prolific period as a composer. His works included Landfall in unknown seas (1942, to poems by Allen Curnow), Allegro (1942), Diversions (1947), A song of islands (1946) and Symphony no. 1 (1949). These years also saw the composition of a majority of his chamber works: two violin sonatas (both 1943), a string trio (1945), a string quartet (1946), Sonatina for clarinet and piano (1948), and major works for solo piano including Chaconne and Sonatina no. 1 (both 1946).

Through most of the 1940s Lilburn was the only serious professional composer in New Zealand. Other composers focused on amateur performing resources, particularly community and church choirs, and school ensembles. Lilburn’s isolation ended in 1946 with an invitation to be composer-in-residence at the inaugural Cambridge summer music school in the Waikato. From the second to the fifth schools, Lilburn tutored a special composers’ group. This included students David Farquhar, Edwin Carr, Ronald Tremain and Larry Pruden, all of whom would contribute significantly to composition in New Zealand.

The post-war increase in professional music-making in New Zealand was accompanied by more opportunities in tertiary music education. A music department was established at Victoria University College, Wellington, in 1946, and the founder lecturer, Frederick Page, offered Lilburn a part-time position.

Lilburn accepted, and in 1947 and 1948 commuted between Christchurch and Wellington. The job became full-time in 1949 and he moved to Wellington permanently.

Compositional styles

Lilburn’s compositional output can be divided into three distinct style periods.

In his first period (1936–55) he showed concern for capturing the ambience of the New Zealand environment, the dominant theme of the New Zealand arts through the 1930s and 1940s. The prevailing quest was for a style that articulated New Zealand’s cultural independence. In Lilburn’s output it found its mature expression in his major works of the early 1950s: Symphony no. 2 (1951), and the two song cycles Elegy (1951, poems by Alistair Campbell) and Sings Harry (1953–54, poems by Denis Glover).

The catalyst for Lilburn’s change in style came with sabbatical leave in 1955, when he visited musical organisations in the United States, England and Europe. This was his first trip abroad since 1940 and he found the experience ‘painful ... I realised acutely how provincial and inadequate my musical knowledge and composition techniques were in face of the new musical context I found there’.3

A birthday offering, commissioned for the 10th birthday celebrations of the National Orchestra in 1956, was the first work Lilburn composed on his return to New Zealand. Evident in the writing was a greater diversity of orchestral colour and the beginnings of an interest in serial techniques, a 12-note system which, for a time, replaced tonality as the major compositional method. Lilburn was now endeavouring to speak with an international rather than national voice.

Though short-lived, Lilburn’s inquiry into serialism led to several notable works, including Symphony no. 3 (1961), regarded as one of the peaks of New Zealand orchestral writing. This was his last major composition for conventional musical forces. After Sonatina no. 2 for piano (1962) his attention turned almost exclusively to electronic music.

The beginnings of Lilburn’s ‘electronic period’ (1963–79) can be found in his early experiments with taped sounds, principally for use as incidental music for radio productions. Following overseas study in 1963, during which he spent time in electronic music studios in London, Wiltshire (with an ex-student, Peter Crowe) and Toronto, he began to explore the new medium in earnest.

His first major work was The return (1965), an electronic sound image of the poem by Alistair Campbell, realised in the Wellington studios of the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation. Appreciating the need for a custom-built electronic music studio, Lilburn persuaded Victoria University of Wellington to build one. The EMS/VUW, as it became known, began operations in October of 1966 and helped galvanise interest in electronic composition amongst younger composers.

Lilburn’s electronic output comprised over a dozen works, ranging from the introspective Three inscapes (1972) to the zestful sounds of Carousel (1976). His writing in this third period shows a return to the recurring theme of his first-period compositions: the quest to capture the ambience of the New Zealand environment. His final work Soundscape with lake and river (1979), for instance, is based directly on aural impressions of Lake Taupō.

Promoting New Zealand music

Though Lilburn ceased writing for conventional instruments in the mid-1960s, he remained interested in promoting all forms of New Zealand concert music. One of his first and most significant initiatives was the founding of Wai-te-ata Press Music Editions in 1967. This not-for-profit publishing venture was the first devoted to the works of New Zealand composers.

Lilburn also helped establish the Archive of New Zealand Music at the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, in 1974. A decade later, he set up the Lilburn Trust with his own savings, under the umbrella of the Alexander Turnbull Library Endowment Trust, to further the development of New Zealand composition.

In the latter part of his career and in retirement, Lilburn received many honours and awards for his accomplishments as a composer and for his work in promoting and encouraging the work of others. Awards included an honorary doctorate of music from the University of Otago in 1969, a Personal Chair in Music at Victoria University of Wellington in 1970, a Citation for Services to New Zealand Music from the Composers’ Association of New Zealand in 1978, and, in 1988, the rare honour of the Order of New Zealand.

Lilburn reduced his hours because of personality conflicts in Victoria University’s music department, and became increasingly reclusive, particularly after his retirement in 1980. A combination of tinnitus, alcohol dependency and a natural propensity for solitude curtailed his public appearances. At times, he retreated to his crib (holiday home) at Queensberry, Central Otago, to write and reflect. However, he remained keenly interested in the world around him, writing letters on behalf of various causes, supporting a range of charities and continuing to offer encouragement to composers through his work on the Lilburn Trust. He died in Wellington on 6 June 2001, aged 85. In 2005 his home at 22 Ascot Street, Wellington, was purchased for preservation as a composers’ residence.

In the 2000s Lilburn’s music, especially the smaller pieces, appeared in New Zealand concert and broadcast programmes, and a considerable number of recordings were available, including the complete symphonies, piano music and electronic compositions.

  1. Douglas Lilburn, A search for a language. Wellington: Alexander Turnbull Library Endowment Trust, 1985, p. 17. Back
  2. Frank Milner, ‘Testimonial in favour of Douglas Lilburn’, 2 March 1934, Alexander Turnbull Library, MS-Papers-7623-418. Back
  3. Douglas Lilburn, unpublished address to the Christchurch Society for Contemporary Music 1967, p. 15. Back
How to cite this page:

Philip Norman. 'Lilburn, Douglas Gordon', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 2010. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/6l2/lilburn-douglas-gordon (accessed 15 July 2024)