Page 3: Compositional styles
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.
Lilburn’s compositional output can be divided into three distinct style periods.
First period: nationalism
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).
Second period: internationalism and serialism
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’.1
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.
Third period: 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.