A troubled solitary, Peter Russell

Douglas Lilburn: His Life and Music
Philip Norman
Canterbury University Press, $55.00,
ISBN 1877257176

What serious music-lover can imagine the world without Bach? Yet we might easily not have had him. For Johann Sebastian was the last of eight children, born in 1685 to parents who had been married for 17 years, and to a mother who turned 41 that year, in those times an old woman. What if they had stopped at seven? Philip Norman’s study of Douglas Lilburn reveals that New Zealand might similarly have been without its pre-eminent composer. Douglas Lilburn was the seventh child of a seventh child. What if either his grandparents or his parents, farmers of the central North Island, had stopped at six?

That is but one piquant revelation of a book rich in revelations. To disclose at once the most surprising of them, for those who did not know it: at 27, Lilburn, homosexual and a lifelong bachelor, nearly became a father himself, when painter Rita Angus became pregnant by him. She miscarried. Resisting the temptation to embark on more “what ifs” (but think of it!), your reviewer will instead say at the outset what is most important: that Philip Norman’s book is marvellous not for its revelation of such mind-teasers, but for a number of much more significant reasons. It is marvellous because it does such thorough justice to its distinguished subject; because its portrait of Lilburn the man and musician is so balanced and persuasive; because it is so sane and just in its judgements; because it has been so painstakingly researched, mastering a mountain of materials (Lilburn himself left a “staggering quantity of written material”, and the acknowledgements alone run to four closely printed pages); and because it is well written and so very readable.

This readability is enhanced by frequent quotation – especially from Lilburn himself, a prolific letter-writer and closet diarist. The directness, clarity and austerity which typify his musical style also inform his prose style, with its taut elegance, its no-nonsense tone, its tight-lipped sallies into acerbity or wit. One of the joys of this book is that both author and subject write so interestingly and so well.

The book is also handsomely designed and produced, and generously illustrated. So abundantly does it document in word and picture both the life of its subject and the artistic and cultural contexts in which he worked – for Lilburn knew and was influenced by the best poets, writers and painters of his generation – that it enriches our understanding not only of the composer, but of the New Zealand he experienced in his lifetime from 1915 to 2001. The material in the footnotes is frequently itself fascinating. This biography is thus also a cultural history, refracted through the prism of a single extraordinary individual, a troubled solitary whose representativeness lies among other things in precisely that solitariness.

Philip Norman is ideally equipped for his large task: he knew Lilburn personally, is himself a composer of standing, and wrote a PhD on Lilburn’s life and work. However, as he explains in his preface, the present study was conceived as a biography, and he wanted to write it without assuming technical understanding of music on the part of the reader. Thus, while some discussion of Lilburn’s music is included, technical analysis of his work is reserved for a separate section at the end. This analytic section, a lucid and well-illustrated exposition of Lilburn’s music, is an excellent introduction to Lilburn’s oeuvre for the student – but constitutes only a tenth of the book. It is the other nine-tenths which will interest most readers.

And what a fascinating tale we read: of difficulty and struggle; brilliant early successes and then prolonged battle; only in later years a story of vindication, with honours flowing in and national recognition. Yet, even then, little apparent satisfaction – for all his life Lilburn was ill at ease with praise. In old age, when another artist of such confirmed achievement and stature might have relaxed and enjoyed the fruits of his success, Lilburn remained self-doubting, felt under-appreciated and became steadily more reclusive. Gardening and cooking became his chief pleasures – and the obliteration of sorrows in wine.

One of the strengths of Philip Norman’s study is the way in which it shows how the two major sources of difficulty in Lilburn’s career played one upon the other. One was of course the unpropitious environment in which he had to battle to get his music accepted: the obstacles he faced were daunting, and his experiences ranged from the maddening to the deeply depressing. But the other source of difficulty was his own problematic personality, in which the alliance of a powerful and sensitive intellect with a deep emotional insecurity made for an unusually introspective, socially awkward and shy person. Lilburn knew this: he wrote frequently and often self-accusingly in letters or journals of his inner conflicts, especially of a puritanism which he had inherited from his Presbyterian background and which he believed had embroiled him in long-lasting emotional and sexual confusions. A man who found himself difficult, he was often also difficult for others, including even loyal friends and allies. In this respect, too, he mellowed little with age. Although phenomenally supportive of others in his profession, and generous to those in need, in private life he was unpredictable: sometimes spontaneously warm and kindly, but at other times prickly, easily wounded, quick to take offence, and tenaciously unforgiving. The greater the intimacy, the greater the danger. As a result even valued friendships ended in estrangement. “Hell is other people,” one of the chapter-titles reads.

It cannot surprise us that such a man found his one period of unalloyed happiness in his childhood on a remote, hilly North Island sheep station. He called it “paradise”. This early experience of rural New Zealand helps to explain Lilburn’s unusually strong attachment to the New Zealand landscape – a landscape to which, in the view of most, his own music gives a first convincing musical expression. But even before he began the study of music, the paradise had been brutally terminated by the Victorian rigours of Waitaki Boys’ High School in Oamaru. As a music student in Christchurch, Lilburn did not earn very good grades, but was restlessly conscious even then that he needed something different from the conventional tuition of the day. More important to him was the friendship of such people as the poets D’Arcy Cresswell, Allen Curnow and Denis Glover. Yet as early as 1936, at 20, he won the Percy Grainger Prize for a tone poem titled Forest. Then came London, the Royal College of Music, study under Ralph Vaughan Williams, and sudden spectacular success: in 1939 he won three Royal College prizes, the Foli Scholarship, the Hubert Parry Prize, and the Cobbett Prize for his Phantasy for String Quartet. Here he also wrote Overture: Aotearoa, which would wait 20 years for its first public performance in New Zealand. His London successes were followed in 1940 by equally spectacular successes in New Zealand’s National Centennial Celebrations Competitions: his Drysdale Overture took first prize and his Festival Overture second prize in the orchestral category, and Prodigal Country won the choral class.

By this time war had been declared, and Lilburn returned to New Zealand – to life as a freelance musician in Christchurch. But once excitement over his prizes had ebbed, it was not easy:

It seemed to Lilburn that both his family and the New Zealand musical establishment were treating him with suspicion. Neither was used to having a composer in their midst. How did you treat a composer? What did a composer do? How useful could a composer be in New Zealand?


Not useful all, it appeared. But there were old friends and allies. Living in a single room on Cambridge Terrace, Lilburn forged on, writing both new orchestral works and pieces for piano and for chamber ensemble. In 1943 the first all-Lilburn concert included one of his best-known works, Landfall in Unknown Seas, music to accompany Allen Curnow’s poem of that title. More fine music resulted from his collaboration with Ngaio Marsh in her Shakespeare productions. He attended the first Cambridge Summer Music Schools. In 1947 Song of the Antipodes (later A Song of Islands) was premiered in Wellington by the new National Orchestra. In the same year Lilburn accepted an appointment to the Department of Music at Victoria University College in Wellington, joining there his old Christchurch friend Frederick Page, and after three years of commuting from Christchurch he moved finally to Wellington in 1950.

Lilburn’s early years as a lecturer in music at Victoria saw him compose, among other works, his two most popular works for solo voice, the cycles Elegy (1951) to poems by Alistair Te Ariki Campbell, and Sings Harry (1953) to poems by Denis Glover. In the mid-1950s he moved from the nationalism of his early style to explore international styles, including serialism; the changes in his musical language can be plotted in his three symphonies, which were completed in 1949, 1951 and 1961 and are regarded by many as expressing the heart of Lilburn’s creativity. His later years at Victoria were chiefly devoted to the foundation and development of Victoria’s Electronic Music Studio (the first such studio in the southern hemisphere), and an abandonment of conventional compositional methods for the electro-acoustic medium. At the same time Lilburn was increasingly active in promoting New Zealand composers, sometimes visibly as in his music publishing projects, more often anonymously and behind the scenes. This activity continued in his retirement after 1980, with his move to found an Archive of New Zealand Music in the Alexander Turnbull Library, and his institution of the Lilburn Trust, set up to foster and promote New Zealand music, and endowed by Lilburn himself. Although he ceased to compose from 1980, he could nevertheless look back on an impressive output, and on a profusion of awards and honours: among them an Honorary Doctorate from Otago, a Personal Chair at Victoria, the conferment on his retirement of the title Professor Emeritus and, to crown them all, in 1988 appointment to New Zealand’s highest honour, the Order of New Zealand.

Two suggestions for the second edition. Among Lilburn’s staunchest advocates was that dauntless fighter of philistines, Helen Young, who as manager of the Concert Programme throughout the 1980s vigorously championed Lilburn’s music, ensuring its frequent broadcast here and promoting it overseas. Lilburn enjoyed a cordial relationship with the programme, also helping it when need arose – by, for instance, assessing compositions submitted for the Paris Rostrum. Couldn’t Helen be mentioned in the book? Second, while celebratory events held for Lilburn’s birthdays are otherwise carefully detailed, the book curiously lacks an account of the 75th birthday concert of his works mounted by the National Library in Wellington on 1 November 1990 (and subsequently broadcast), which was followed by the launch by Ashley Heenan of the inventory of Lilburn’s papers held in the Archive of New Zealand Music in the Alexander Turnbull Library.

Some small slips have escaped the editors. Shelley was not a Lake Poet. T S Eliot’s poem is The Waste Land, not The Wasteland. A Rilke title in German has two errors. Plischke and Nordmeyer are mis-spelt, and there are one or two misplaced apostrophes and like oversights. And how I wish an editor had amended that horrid tautology, “up until”!

Writing to me in 1985 with thanks for birthday wishes, Douglas Lilburn conceded that New Zealand was a difficult country, and said he suspected his relationship to it had been “of a love-hate kind”. Then he referred to Robert Frost’s “I had a lover’s quarrel with the world”. Lovers’ quarrels are distressing and undermining experiences for those involved. But out of his own never resolved “lover’s quarrel” with his native country and its society, painful as it so often was, Lilburn tenaciously created a body of music which for breadth, variety and genius has no equal in this country. Since his death on 6 June 2001 his reputation has steadily grown, and this splendid book can only consolidate it further. I wish it a multitude of readers.


Peter Russell is a Wellington Germanist, musicologist and singer, who has performed works by Lilburn in New Zealand and Germany.

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