An Aotearoa overture: Lilburn’s music lives on

Issue: Volume 94, Number 13

Posted: 27 July 2015
Reference #: 1H9crh

Pioneering New Zealand composer Douglas Lilburn was born 100 years ago, and to honour this centenary, a myriad of teaching resources is now available to music educators.

“I want to plead with you the necessity of having a music of our own, 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.”

So said composer Douglas Lilburn in 1946, in his talk A search for tradition at the inaugural Cambridge Summer School.

Sometimes described as the grandfather of New Zealand art music, Lilburn’s legacy is a body of work that expresses a rich imagination and inner life; a deep love of the New Zealand topography and everything in it.

Douglas Lilburn was born in Wanganui in 1915. He attended Waitaki Boys’ High School from 1930 to 1933, before studying at Canterbury University College. Originally interested in training as a journalist, Lilburn chose to immerse himself in the study of music.

In 1936, he entered the Percy Grainger composition competition and won with a tone-poem called Forest. His prize money paid for his ticket to England, where he studied at the Royal College of Music under the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams.

An independent exile

Author and music academic Rob Hoskins has written extensively on Lilburn, and believes his work is unique in that it expressed a conscious ‘New Zealand-ness’ before other classical composers were doing the same.

A contemporary of painters Rita Angus and Leo Bensemann, and writers Ngaio Marsh and Allen Curnow, Lilburn is regarded as an important figure in the creation of a New Zealand artistic tradition, interpreting the New Zealand ambience through composition.

“In his music, Lilburn was expressing a rich inner life. He was creating a natural sound for New Zealanders; claiming a kind of musical independence for us, those who live in this topography. I think he was aesthetically owning the isolation of New Zealand,” says Hoskins.

In his book Douglas Lilburn: Memories of Early Years, Hoskins collects together pieces of Lilburn’s formative years, and describes how these shaped his life and work.

The writing reveals Lilburn’s strong connection to the New Zealand environment, fostered in his boyhood at Drysdale Station in the upper Turakina Valley, where his family ran a sheep farm.

He relates a story told by Lilburn of his childhood on the farm (he referred to this place later in life as ‘paradise’), in which he would climb to the tops of trees and sing out over the land.

Hoskins says Lilburn’s music was “quietly searching, trying to form an argument for a New Zealand way of life; a simplicity and clarity of conscience. I think he was coming to grips with nature; which may include our nature as a people too.”

Overture: Aotearoa was composed for the 1940 London commemoration of the centenary of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, and is described as an ‘alpine’ work – “distilling a visionary idea about this place,” says Hoskins. Lilburn himself said he felt it expressed a ‘freshness and optimism.’

From the mid-1960s Lilburn concentrated nearly exclusively on electronic music, studying overseas and then in 1966, overseeing the creation of a custom-built electronic music studio at Victoria University.

Regarded as a pioneer in electronic music, Lilburn experimented freely with the possibilities of the medium. The technology allowed him to incorporate recorded birdsong, waves and wind, as well as replicating sounds from the landscape in his compositions.

He was also a gifted teacher, undertaking a lecturing position at Victoria University in 1949, and being appointed senior lecturer by 1955. In 1963 he was made associate professor of music, and remained at the university as director of the electronic music studio until his retirement.

Celebrating Lilburn, 100 years on

Lilburn was posthumously inducted in the New Zealand Music Hall of Fame at the 2014 APRA Silver Scroll Awards.

This year is the centenary of his birth and SOUNZ are marking this by promoting events where his music, or music inspired by him, will be performed around the country.

Teaching resources

Find a list of Lilburn centenary events(external link) at SOUNZ.

Overture: Aotearoa SOUNZwrite study guide (revised 2013) and Three Sea Changes SOUNZwrite study guide (revised 2012), both including an accompanying CD and a study score(external link), for study at NCEA Level 3: 

Further readings for teachers and students(external link): Just Like Us (2011), a guide to the art of NZ music, emphasising the pleasures of listening to it, and introducing follow-up activity material on a variety of genres including Lilburn’s orchestral and electro acoustic works.

Home, Land and Sea: Situating Music in Aotearoa New Zealand (2011), the first comprehensive academic study(external link) incorporating contemporary popular, experimental and art music practices in Aotearoa/New Zealand, including a look at the electronic and instrumental music traditions made more local by Douglas Lilburn.


SOUNZ is a non-profit organisation that champions the music of Aotearoa/New Zealand by collecting and curating resources and connecting them to audiences.

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 6:37 pm, 27 July 2015

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