Story: Lilburn, Douglas Gordon

Page 2: The 1940s

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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.

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 Glover, Allen 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).

Professional composer

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.

How to cite this page:

Philip Norman. 'Lilburn, Douglas Gordon - The 1940s', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 2010. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 9 August 2020)