Worth playing, Samantha Owens

A Search for Tradition and a Search for Language
Douglas Lilburn
Lilburn Residence Trust, $24.99,
ISBN 9780473183790


When Douglas Lilburn died at his Thorndon home in June 2001 at the age of 85, numerous obituaries, published both here and overseas, celebrated the life of one of this country’s most significant composers in the western art music tradition. A decade on, this beautifully produced little book marks the 10th anniversary of Lilburn’s passing with the re-issue of two of his lectures, originally published separately by the Alexander Turnbull Library Endowment Trust in the 1980s.

An indication of Lilburn’s tremendous importance to New Zealand’s cultural life can be seen in the structure of John Mansfield Thomson’s pioneering Oxford History of New Zealand Music (1991), in which the three chapters covering composition are tellingly labelled “Forerunners”, “Douglas Lilburn” and “Composers since Lilburn”. And although more recently, in a 2009 essay on New Zealand’s music historiography, Martin Lodge wisely suggested that more time needs to elapse before Lilburn’s contribution can be considered “through the correcting perspective of historical distance”, there can nevertheless be no doubt that his influence on subsequent generations of New Zealand composers and musicians has been immense.

The two lectures which form the body of the volume were originally given by Lilburn in 1946 and 1969 respectively, and represent, in essence, snapshots taken at two very different points in the composer’s career. The original introductions to each, written by Thomson for the 1984 and 1985 publications, are also reproduced here, together with a new afterword by New Zealand composer Jack Body. In his first introduction, Thomson provides a brief biographical sketch of the composer, from his childhood on Drysdale Sheep Station near Hunterville to studies at Canterbury University College and his first compositional success – the tone poem, Forest, which won a prize offered by Percy Grainger in 1936 and resulted in the work’s performance by the Wellington Symphony Orchestra.

Further study followed in London at the Royal College of Music under Ralph Vaughan Williams, and when the young New Zealander finally returned home from England in 1940, he discovered he had been awarded three of the four prizes for compositions marking New Zealand’s Centennial celebrations. By 1941, Lilburn had settled in Christchurch, where he worked for some years as a freelance musician, composer and teacher.

The first of the lectures, “A Search for Tradition”, was originally presented at the inaugural Cambridge Summer School of Music in January 1946. These annual events, organised by Auckland’s Owen Jensen and held at St Peter’s School in the Waikato, were to have a profound influence on the country’s musical life. By 1969, Lilburn was describing this early lecture as “a heartfelt sort of manifesto” which “sprang from a very real musical isolation”. It is hardly surprisingly that students who were present at the summer school that year recall the lecture as having been particularly “memorable”, for Lilburn’s eloquent but down-to-earth prose fairly sings off the page.

He has the wonderful knack – common to many excellent teachers – of bringing an experience or a moment to life for his audience in order to make a specific point. In a particularly vivid example, Lilburn recounts a train journey in which a moon-lit glimpse of Ngauruhoe and Ruapehu drew him to hang out of the carriage door as the train descended from National Park to the foot of the Raurimu Spiral:

There was something very strange about that experience of speeding through the night with the vivid night smell of the bush country all around me. At that moment the world that Mozart lived in seemed about as remote as the moon, and in no way related to my experience.

It is the search for ways to express such human experience, unique to a specific time and place, that concerns Lilburn throughout this first lecture and which for him represented a crucial part of the ongoing process of “becoming New Zealanders”, a striving for “a living tradition of music created in this country, a music that will satisfy those parts of our being that cannot be satisfied by the music of other nations.”

The natural environment as reflected in rhythm – a fundamental element of musical expression – was critical: “everything about us, the patterns of our landscape and seacoasts, the changing of our seasons, and the flow of light and colour about us . . . all these things show patterns of movement or characteristic rhythms.” But Lilburn also pointed to the potential offered by drawing upon Polynesian musical traditions, noting wryly that earlier attempts by Pakeha along these lines had used tunes that were not in fact Maori at all, but were instead heavily influenced by missionary hymns and other sources; furthermore, “the Maoris [sic] have shown themselves much more able and willing to absorb our culture than we to absorb theirs.”

Lilburn is refreshingly realistic in acknowledging the difficulties which lay ahead for the next generation of composers engaged in this search for identity. While noting the absence in 1940s New Zealand of either a conservatorium or a symphony orchestra, he makes a number of practical suggestions to young composers, many of which remain equally valid to this day. Recalling his own rigorous, textbook-based training in harmony and counterpoint under Manchester-trained A C Bradshaw at Canterbury College, he recommends instead that students alternate “strict study” with periods of free composition, while also stressing the importance of listening to as much music as possible and ensuring that wherever practical their compositions be performed (although “not necessarily in public”).

Similarly useful guidance and encouragement is also offered to young composers in the second lecture reprinted in this book, “A Search for a Language”, which Lilburn originally presented as an open lecture at the University of Otago in 1969, prior to being awarded an honorary doctorate. By this stage in his career Lilburn was well positioned to be proffering such advice, as associate professor in composition at Victoria University, having initially moved to Wellington in 1947 to take up a position as a part-time tutor in music. The intervening decades had seen many, often radical, developments in western art music, and Lilburn met these challenges head on – most notably by establishing New Zealand’s first electronic music studio in 1963.

Once again, in this second lecture, Lilburn writes with an engaging sense of immediacy and realism, laced with occasional touches of humour. He speaks candidly of the personal difficulties he had faced in coming to terms with new musical advances and of the alarming reality of spending “one’s life keeping up with the Darmstadt Joneses.” It was to be his discovery of electronic music and the exhilaration of exploring this medium that gave Lilburn access into this brave new world, allowing him to engage with “my own total heritage of sounds, meaning all sounds, and not just the narrow segment of them, traditional, imported, that we’ve long regarded as being music”.

As one might expect, Lilburn’s lectures make frequent references to other artists, including poets, musicians and painters, from both New Zealand and abroad. The volume itself also features a selection of colour reproductions of paintings and sketches by his close friend and neighbour Rita Angus, and there are some nice photos of the composer at various stages of his life. Among the latter is a delightfully relaxed image of Lilburn as resident composer at the Cambridge Summer School in 1947, in the company of a roll-call of Roman-sandalled figures who were to later play a prominent role in New Zealand’s musical life (including Dorothea Franchi, Edwin Carr, Larry Pruden, David Farquhar and Ronald Tremain).

Rather less satisfying are the reproductions of a number of pages from Lilburn’s autograph scores. These are disappointingly small – too small, in fact, to really be able to see properly. A timeline of his life, incorporating major compositions, is provided at the end of the book, along with lists of selected scores, publications and recordings, making this a useful resource for anyone coming to Lilburn for the first time (or, indeed, returning).

This handy and thought-provoking volume adds to the rich resources now available for studying Lilburn and his music, among them Philip Norman’s award-winning biography of the composer; Roger Smith’s and Gareth Watkins’s excellent radio documentary, Douglas Lilburn: The Landscape of a New Zealand Composer; and recordings by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and from pianists Margaret Nielsen and Dan Poynton. Yet paradoxically a statement in the book’s preface notes that “Lilburn and his music are still not familiar to most New Zealanders”.

This set me to reminiscing about my own first encounters with the composer’s work. It was certainly in my teens: either performing the Aotearoa Overture (1940) with a regional youth orchestra or when studying Carousel for electronic tape (1975) for School Certificate (alongside an aria by Mozart, Beethoven’s third piano concerto and Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony – superior company indeed). Somewhat later, again as an orchestra member, I repeatedly enjoyed playing his Processional Fanfare (1961, arranged 1985) at numerous graduation ceremonies of Victoria University. Each of these early experiences undoubtedly awakened my own awareness that New Zealand music was “worth” playing. I wonder whether today’s students and, indeed, the general public, continue to have such opportunities to experience the music of one of our most important composers at first hand. I very much hope so.


Samantha Owens lectures in historical musicology at the University of Queensland.


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Posted in Lecture, Music, Non-fiction, Review
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