Douglas Lilburn has been described as the “grandfather of New Zealand music”, an influential composer and music teacher who inspired generations of local composers.
Born in Whanganui in 1915 his early years were spent on the family farm in the upper Turakina River valley. He was schooled in Whanganui and Waitaki Boys’ High School in Ōamaru before attending Canterbury University College. There he studied journalism and, later, towards a bachelor of music. Here his talents as a composer were first revealed, winning a national composition prize.
From 1937 to 1940 Lilburn attended the Royal College of Music, London, where Ralph Vaughan Williams was his composition tutor. While there he received several college awards, and he also won three of the four available prizes for composition at the New Zealand Centennial Celebrations competitions, learning of his wins only after returning to New Zealand.
Lilburn settled back in Christchurch working as a freelance composer, conductor, teacher and music critic. This time was his most prolific period as a composer. He also developed stimulating friendships with writers Denis Glover, Allen Curnow and Ngaio Marsh, and the artists Douglas MacDiarmid, Leo Bensemann and Rita Angus.
In 1946 a music department was established at Victoria University College, Wellington, founded by Frederick Page. Lilburn took a part-time position, commuting between Christchurch and Wellington until the job became full-time in 1949 and he moved to Wellington permanently.
Lilburn’s compositional output can be divided into three distinct style periods. His first period was nationalism, where he showed concern for capturing the ambience of the New Zealand environment, with the prevailing quest for a style that articulated New Zealand’s cultural independence.
His second period was internationalism and serialism, the catalyst for which was a 1955 sabbatical when he visited musical organisations in the United States and Europe. His writing showed a greater diversity of orchestral colour and the beginnings of a short-lived interest in Schoenberg’s serial techniques.
Lilburn’s third period was electronic music. In 1963 he spent time in electronic music studios while overseas on study. He began to explore the new medium in earnest and persuaded Victoria University of Wellington to build an electronic music studio which began operations in 1966 spelling the end of Lilburn’s writing for conventional instruments, but galvanising interest in electronic composition amongst younger composers.
Among the numerous awards are an honorary doctorate of music from the University of Otago in 1969 and New Zealand’s highest honour, an Order of New Zealand, in 1988.
After his retirement in 1980 he split his time between Wellington and his holiday home at Queensberry, Central Otago. He died in Wellington in 2001, aged 85.