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Douglas Lilburn: His life and Music — by Philip Norman

Reviewed by Dorothy - 07/12/06

If you are looking for a present for someone who loves books you need look no further than Douglas Lilburn: His life and Music written by Philip Norman and published by Canterbury University Press.


Douglas Lilburn: His life and Music — by Philip Norman
Douglas Lilburn: His life and Music — by Philip Norman

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Phillip Norman is uniquely suited to the task of writing the biography of an outstanding musician and composer as he himself has been a very successful composer of a wide range of music — opera, ballet, stage musicals, choral and orchestral music. His PhD in music history written in 1994 was on the music of Douglas Lilburn. The thoroughness of his research makes it easy to believe that this is the work of a trained academic.

Why do I recommend this book with such enthusiasm?

Once you start reading this book you will find it hard to put it down. It presents a detailed picture of Lilburn's life and times. I realise that “life and times“ is a cliché but it expresses exactly what this book is about. A chronological account of Lilburn's life covers his development as a musician but also the personal aspects of his life — his friends, his relationships, his enthusiasm for poetry and contacts with poets of his time, his students who were to become composers themselves, his rivals in the music world, the places where he lived ….

This is a biography for the general reader, but chapters about his music need to be part of the book. At the end of the life story his musical works are discussed in a separate section of three chapters, “Introduction to the Music“

. Each phase of Lilburn's life is covered in great detail. This is possible because he kept detailed documentation of his life — diaries and correspondence – material which was deposited in the Turnbull library after Lilburn's death. Further supporting documentation is taken from newspaper reviews and correspondence. This material is so skilfully used that it highlights the narrative and gives it authenticity.

A wide range of photos gleaned from many sources and beautifully presented by Canterbury University Press adds another dimension to the impact of the text.

The early formative years are described with particular vividness. We read about his ancestors and his early childhood, and at the same time get a picture of life on a remote farm in Turakina Valley enriched by well-chosen photographs.

After his parents retired from the farm and settled in Wanganui, Douglas attended the New Zealand Friends School, the first such school in New Zealand. He later described the school as offering ‘the most enlightened and imaginative teaching that ever I had'. The basics were taught to the pupils, but apart from that they had individual assignments to be done within each term. What was of great importance for Douglas was that music was an integral part of the school life. The headmaster had noted ability as a musician and owned a fine piano. Miss Iris Eggers, an assistant teacher, was also musical and when Douglas asked for lessons on the piano she was his teacher.

Douglas's mother was selective about the children with whom he was allowed to play — with the result that he was lonely and filled his free hours with walking around the countryside. Problems with short-sightedness and being prescribed unsuitable glasses added to his sense of being a loner. Meanwhile he was successful at his schoolwork and passed his Proficiency Certificate when he was only twelve.

He expected to be sent to Wanganui Collegiate where his brothers had their secondary education, but instead was enrolled as a boarder at Waitaki Boys' High School in Oamaru. He felt that his parents were tired of parenting their seventh child, though Philip Norman suggests other reasons played a part in their decision.

A full and unbiased account of life at Waitaki BHS under its highly esteemed headmaster, Frank Milner - its philosophies, its rigid disciplines and the pupils' lack of any privacy - follows the picture of the sheltered life of Douglas up to his departure from Wanganui. It is hardly surprising that Lilburn later declared his hatred of the place. However, the author gives a balanced account of the difficulties the sensitive boy experienced and what he gained from leaving the Victorian atmosphere of his home, widening his musical horizons and being involved in extramural activities such as public speaking, debating, creative writing and reporting for the school magazine. His later years at the school must have been more tolerable as he enjoyed the opportunities and privileges offered to senior pupils at the school. His exposure to poetry and to the beauties of the South Island, especially the back country, was to have a lifelong impact on him. On leaving he received a glowing testimonial from Frank Milner, acknowledging his gifts in music and literature.

The chapter on the years at Canterbury University College, 1934-1936, portrays the stimulating environment of the University — “high spirits, high emotion, high ideals“ - the time of Professor Shelley who fostered drama and the Little Theatre, and Professor Sinclaire in the English Department who with help from Winston Rhodes fostered a two–weekly magazine to encourage young writers including Frank Sargeson, Monte Holcroft, R. A. K. Mason, Robin Hyde, Allen Curnow, A.R.D.Fairburn, Basil Dowling, Laurence Baigent. It also gives a picture of the musical culture of Christchurch in those years.

Lilburn was at Canterbury College to study journalism which his father regarded as a ‘sensible' career subject, but the course involved only two subjects, Principles of Journalism and Practice of Journalism. He also enrolled for papers in philosophy and music. By his third year he was specialising in music and he won the Percy Grainger prize for composition with a tone poem, “Forest“, inspired by a visit to Peel Forest and climbing Mt Peel.

Lilburn's first competition success is followed by others. He spent three years in London studying under composer Vaughan Williams. He won another competition success with “Prodigal Country“ based on poems by Allen Curnow and Robin Hyde. This is one sign of his homesickness and when war broke out that was a further reason for his return to New Zealand.

He arrived to news that his entries in the National Centennial Celebration Competitions were remarkably successful. “Drysdale Overture“ had taken first prize, and “Festival Overture“ was placed second in the orchestral category. “Prodigal Country“ had won in the choral class.

He spent five years in Christchurch hoping to support himself as a composer and musician, but it was a struggle financially. This was a productive period as a composer, especially in 1942. It was also a time of renewing the friendships he had made when a student at Canterbury College — Rita Angus, Frederick and Evelyn Page, Denis Glover, Allen Curnow, Lawrence Baigent and Ursula.Bethell. Christchurch was an important centre in New Zealand's cultural development in the creative arts at that time. He wrote the incidental music for Ngaio Marsh's Shakespearean productions and for Curnow's poem “Landfall in Unknown Seas“. Writing incidental music for drama productions and for poetry was to remain a lifelong interest.

In 1946 Lilburn was invited to be composer in residence at a summer school run by the Community Arts Service and held at St Peter's School in Cambridge. He was asked to write a small piece to be performed by those attending the course and to give one lecture.
Lilburn took this opportunity to express his views on music and the need for music that expressed what was special about New Zealanders. More summer schools followed and he formed a composers' group that met at other times.

Gradually the work of this New Zealand composer was being played further around the world, and in particular was played by the Boyd Neel Orchestra.

In 1947 Lilburn accepted an offer of giving some lectures in the new Department of Music established by Frederick Page at Victoria University College in Wellington. He also composed a range of music which received varying degrees of acceptance, as evidenced in the reviews quoted in the book. In 1949 he wrote Symphony No.1.

In 1950 he became a fulltime lecturer at Victoria which solved his financial problems. He missed the South Island scenery, but grew to love Wellington's hills. His compositions at the time included another Symphony, incidental music for a play put on by the new New Zealand Players, and “Sings Harry“, a song cycle set around Glover's poems.

His Festival Overture which won an award in 1940 was included in “Festive Overtures“, a group of overtures chosen for the first commercial recording by the National Orchestra.

The years 1955-60 included a sabbatical that failed to come up to his expectations, and composition of “A Birthday Offering“ to mark the tenth birthday of the National Orchestra. He also worked tirelessly for the recognition of local composers, and his submissions may well have influenced the Copyright Act 1962.

In 1961 “Symphony No 3“ was performed and received general acclaim. In 1962 the Colleges of the University of New Zealand were made autonomous, and Lilburn was commissioned to write a fanfare for the final congregation of the University of New Zealand at Victoria — music which has since been played at every graduation of Victoria University.

1963 brought an appointment as Associate Professor, recognition as New Zealand's premier composer, and more regular performances of his work. He retained his interest in theatre and in the work of New Zealand poets and wrote the soundtrack for Curnow's play, “The Axe“.

The second half of the decade brought an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Otago, the opening of the Electronic Studio at Victoria amid controversy among musicians, and a commission from the NZBC to participate in the creation of a New Zealand programme for Expo '70 in Osaka, Japan.

In 1970-71 Lilburn went overseas to experience more of the development of electronic music. Friction was developing between him and the Professor of Music, Frederick Page. Page was strongly supporting the musical skills and achievements of the young lecturer and composer, Jenny McLeod, who was appointed professor and head of department on Page's retirement.

Lilburn was disappointed by this turn of events and sought and obtained a half-time professorship with jurisdiction over the Electronic Studio.

He also bought a lonely retreat, an isolated property in Central Otago, an area which he had always found beautiful and restful. He spent time writing about trends in contemporary music. He kept in contact with his family but still expressed a sense of isolation. He continued to be interested in incidental music for theatre and music for which he drew inspiration from poetry.

Lilburn's sixtieth birthday in 1975 was marked with his being chosen as Composer of the Week by the YC programme which had not previously honoured a New Zealand composer. He was also honoured with a concert broadcast on radio. In keeping with his desire to help the new generation of composers he requested that it include mostly new work by young composers.

For the rest of the decade his compositions were entirely electronic.

In the 80s in retirement he chose to revise his earlier work and support young composers rather than compose new music himself.

He continued to receive honours. In October 1985 The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra gave a special concert in his honour in advance of his seventieth birthday. Among other gestures to mark his birthday he was again Composer of the Week.

In 1988 he was appointed to New Zealand's highest honour, the exclusive Order of New Zealand which has limited membership of twenty living persons. Other awards included an emeritus professorship, the Arts Council achievement award and the CANZ Festschriff.

He followed a simple lifestyle and devoted much of his time to systematic sorting of his manuscripts, papers and letters. He was also an enthusiastic letter writer supporting any campaign which caught his interest, and he continued a lifelong interest in gardening.

He set up a charitable trust, the Lilburn Trust, giving funds to people and causes which he felt deserved support — but inclining to favour those he believed also helped themselves. He was satisfied to be alone much of the time, even on Christmas Day.

He had seen his mother live on when unable to recognise anyone and was determined that a similar fate should not befall him. In 2001 he stopped taking his medication and when in hospital in his last illness he insisted on being taken home where he died on 7 June 2001.

My hope is that this summary of some of highlights in Lilburn's life and career will whet readers' interest in Philip Norman's biography, Douglas Lilburn: His life and Music.

The 484 page volume includes a section of coloured reproductions of Lilburn's collection of New Zealand paintings, appendices entitled Lilburn's Compositions, Lilburn's Writings, the map of Lilburn's New Zealand, extensive Notes, Select Bibliography, General Index, Index of Lilburn's Compositions, and Index of Photographers and Artists.

This meticulously researched, yet eminently readable, biography is available in hard copy with jacket for NZ$55.00.

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