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ClassicsOnline Home » LILBURN: Symphonies Nos. 1 - 3
By Grant Chu Covell
Douglas Lilburn (1915-2001)
The Three Symphonies
Lilburns three symphonies represent the heart of his creativity. The first and second are the composers response to the elevating power of landscape whilst the third is an admission that the natural world is beautiful, restorative and necessary, yet also vulnerable and transient.
Douglas Lilburn grew up on "Drysdale", an isolated hill country farm leading to the high mountain plateau at the centre of New Zealands North Island. He often described his boyhood home as "paradise" and his first major orchestral work, the Drysdale Overture (1937), written whilst a student under the aegis of Ralph Vaughan Williams at the Royal College of Music in London, explores the home hills, bush and stream as primal sites of imaginative wonder. "Im left," said Lilburn, recalling the impression of Drysdale, "with that lovely Mark Twain image of Jim and Huckleberry drifting their barge down that great river, looking up at the stars and wondering whether they was made, or only just happened."
Returning to New Zealand, Lilburn set about writing a number of orchestral works, the most extended being A Song of Islands (1946), a single movement work which adopts a meditative tone fit for a stupendous and humbling coastline. The fluency of
A Song of Islands prepared the way for composing full-length symphonies.
The First Symphony, compacted into three integrated movements, was completed in 1949 and premiered in 1951. The opening is majestic and immediately symphonic: a trumpet motto, shadowed by timpani, is braided into the main string theme, over which woodwind begin the first steep climb. Lilburns long melodic lines convey the scenic severity of a mountain range, with brass fanfares announcing summit points. The second subject, which swirls like a morning mist, invests the music with mystery. At once austere and exuberant, it partakes of an impressive physical space and a uniquely visionary quality. By the end we understand that the depicted vistas of mountain range and open sky map heroic aspiration and an enduring passion for life. The lyrical second movement, based on two long-breathed melodic ideas, has a dream-like solitariness which allows the listener to dwell undisturbed on an inner world. The string-led music of the opening dissolves into the woodwind solos of the second theme in a continuous flow. These ideas burgeon into expansive paragraphs, whilst underlying rocking rhythmic patterns seem to identify with the nurturing forces of nature. The finale, built on four thematic ideas, derives from what Lilburn calls "the naïve, generous country that gave one its joyous force."
The Second Symphony, completed in 1951 and first performed in 1959, has always been associated with the curve and grain of New Zealand landscape. The opening Prelude begins with a sense of uncertainty, creating an impression of something larger about to happen. This hidden, gorge-like start opens up to a solo oboe tune which seems to hover at hawk height. What follows is a sheer rise which culminates in an impressive peak-like moment, actually a combination of the previous ideas, capped by brass. In the flute-led paragraphs which follow the explosive central development, we are unleashed from the explicit images of physical nature into a trance-like apprehension which links the observable to the inner world. The reappearance of the peak-like theme confirms this higher order of symbolic meaning before the music slips back into the shadow of its valley-like beginnings. The scherzo, which follows, seems to bring human beings into the landscape with galloping-horse rhythms and tunes as fresh as musterers whistles. The central section sounds like it could be a nostalgic song sung over a crackling campfire. Introduction, on the other hand, is presented as a welling up of something out of silence something which takes in a universal solitude to give out a heart-lifting truth: in spite of the intensifying inwardness, the psychic direction of this movement is skyward. The Finale, reflecting the free spirit of the mountain frontier, overlooks a panorama of steep and rocky slopes, wide river plains and on the horizon, the glistening sea.
Lilburn composed the Third Symphony, a single movement work of five connected episodes, in response to a stimulating period of sabbatical leave from Victoria University of Wellington. It was completed in 1961 and received its first performance the following year. Lilburn described the work as "a harsh, didactic personalised piece of searching rhetoric" and indeed it represents the monumental upheaval of his voice finally breaking away from romantic expression to absorb certain features of twelve-note serial technique. Lilburns synopsis reads: "The first [episode], introductory, develops an idea heard from a solo bassoon. The second is an Allegro set going by solo trumpet. This reverts to the mood of the introduction until the side drum decides on another Allegro. The fourth section is a slower one, again launched by trumpet and concerned with some dialogue for brass. This also returns briefly to the introduction, and the final section is in the nature of a fragmented Coda."
Embedded in the opening statement is an all-important three-note rising figure which directly recalls the Sings Harry motto from Lilburns setting of Denis Glovers poems. This motif generates the works vigorous, sometimes fierce dialogue. If we imagine the voice of Lilburn masquerading behind Harry, then the Third Symphony becomes not so much a description of the visionary power of landscape as the ability of landscape to infiltrate ones own temperament. But to know Lilburn is first to know Harry, and so Glover commentator Dr William Broughton writes helpfully when he projects the quintessence of Harry for us:
"Harry is not in any orthodox sense a character, fictional or historical, created by Glover and therefore subtly distanced from him. He is rather as close as Glover will allow us to the poet himself, expressing in lyrical songs of sometimes exquisite subtlety the poets dreams and values, his aspirations and regrets, and above all his sense of the necessity of accepting his own human fallibilty and mortality. The songs that Harry sings tell of romantic aspirations, of vitality and of human effort rewarded less by measurable achievement than by an awareness that all human experience is finally put into context against the power and beauty of the natural world. They speak often of a point of bitter-sweet balance at a moment between youth just past and age about to come. The songs are not Glovers autobiography but they capture, as well as anything else that he wrote, the essence of what he most valued and the qualities that made him so memorable a poet at his best. It is that essence, I think, that Lilburn acknowledges when in the symphony he repeats the motif that echoes from his setting of the songs."
Nature for Lilburn as for Harry is the measure of a man. It is neither friend nor foe, nor is it a backdrop for human drama; it is a tight and taciturn self-portrait but one which nevertheless achieves a vernacular elation because it confirms human potential without pretending it can last for ever.
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LILBURN: Symphonies Nos. 1 - 3