ClassicsOnline Home » LILBURN: Orchestral Works
Known as ‘the elder statesman of New Zealand classical music’, Douglas Lilburn was instrumental in establishing a genuinely vernacular voice. All the works on this recording portray New Zealand’s culture through an idiom instantly recognisable to listeners familiar with the music of Sibelius and Vaughan Williams (one of Lilburn’s teachers). Amongst the best known are Aotearoa (Land of the long white cloud), A Song of Islands, a tone poem which finds its parallel in New Zealand regional paintings, and Lilburn’s first major orchestral work, the Drysdale Overture, a beautifully evocative depiction of the isolated hill country farm where the composer spent his childhood. Lilburn’s Three Symphonies can be heard on Naxos 8.555862.
By John Grant
Douglas Lilburn (1915-2001)
This comprehensive collection of Lilburn's orchestral music includes Aotearoa, regarded as a New Zealand classic, A Song of Islands, a tone poem which finds its parallel in New Zealand regional paintings, and A Birthday Offering which emphasizes the composer's interest in colourful sonorities.
Douglas Lilburn grew up on 'Drysdale', an isolated hill country farm leading to the mountain plateau at the centre of New Zealand's North Island. He often described his 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, sets an archetypal scene of summer days on the farm. The music begins with an introduction depicting in upward gestures the sharp-edged vertical contour of the Drysdale hills. An exposition section follows presenting two ideas, one portraying the linear motion of a valley stream and the other, beautifully sounded as an oboe solo, recalling the folk lullabies sung by the composer's mother. The central section, described by Lilburn as a 'sunlit rondo' nevertheless shivers with momentary excitement. This leads to a hymnal presentation of 'mother's tune', aurally close to Vaughan Williams's Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis, to express those special moments of vision sometimes experienced amongst the home hills. 'I'm left,' said Lilburn, recalling the impression of Drysdale, 'with that lovely Mark Twain image of Jim and Huckleberry drifting their barge down the great river, looking up at the stars and wondering "whether they was made, or only just happened."'
The restorative power of the natural world is also the theme of Forest (1936), an apprentice work for orchestra. In the music – a tone poem depicting autumn at Mount Peel in South Canterbury – we hear Lilburn tracking Sibelius through the shadowy woods, keeping his own distance, but measuring his own hesitancy until he takes his own road. Forest won a competition initiated by Percy Grainger for an orchestral piece projecting 'New Zealand cultural and emotional characteristics.'
Other prize-winning works resulting from his student days in London were Festival Overture (1939) and Overture: 'Aotearoa' (1940); the first of these works had its première at the Royal College of Music under Sir George Dyson and the second at His Majesty's Theatre, London, as part of the New Zealand Centennial Matinée. Festival Overture speaks of the consolidation of New Zealand nationality and character amidst the mounting tensions of war. It begins with a fanfare, marked at its peak by reverberating trills, from which emerges a propulsive idea generated by the cellos. If the general thrust of the overture is held in the thrall of the fanfare, then a secondary folk-like theme, introduced in a clarinet solo over a drone bass, turns the psychological direction to an abiding home ground, a remembrance of things past and the experience of nature.
Aotearoa, meaning 'Land of the long white cloud', is the indigenous name for New Zealand. The music opens with flutes floating at hawk-height over strings depicting the outlines of the hills below. The bird's eye view allows Lilburn to play with the sculptural shapes of the New Zealand landscape: orchestral undulations, capped by brass, accentuate the mountainous terrain portrayed. The clarity of the successive ideas of the exposition are set off by the thick anthem-like gestures into which they flow. Lilburn uses these anthem-like signals not only to focus on the curvature of the landscape but as a device to convey a sense of human attachment to the place. Furthermore, a Sibelian central episode suggests an uneasy atmosphere which pervades southern climes when cool change is imminent.
Returning to New Zealand, Lilburn settled in Christchurch where he had previously studied. Here he banded together with an innovative group of painters, poets, publishers and theatre directors who were to prove vastly influential. He now set about composing A Song of Islands (1946), an extended orchestral tone poem which prepared the way for writing the first two symphonies. Shaped in organic arch form, A Song of Islands pivots on the opening hymnal statement (not too distant from the 'Holy Grail' motive in Wagner's Parsifal) which recurs at the heart of the work plaited with woodwind murmurings to create an infinite sense of space and thereby mediating the music into revelation; a resonant brass version gravitates the work to its close. Music associated with the ocean and with the mountains dominates the geographical imagery of the score, serving as metaphors for transformation and elevation, to forge a link between the observable with the inner world and to connect the powers of the human mind with those of the physical universe. Lilburn associated A Song of Islands with Rita Angus's painting Central Otago (1940), which depicts a pioneer church, cottage, barn and furrowed fields against the backdrop of a jewel-like sea and snowy peaks.
In 1947 Lilburn joined the staff at Victoria College (now University) in Wellington, where, from 1970, he held a personal professorial chair in music. Processional Fanfare (1961/1985), a setting of the student song Gaudeamus igitur (So let us rejoice while we are young) in the mode of a Purcellian trumpet tune blended with Lilburn's stringy harmonies, was originally written for three trumpets and organ for the final congregation of the University of New Zealand. It was subsequently arranged for three trumpets and small orchestra for the use of the Victoria University orchestra at capping ceremonies. Lilburn himself accepted an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Otago in 1969 and the Order of New Zealand in 1988.
Lilburn wrote A Birthday Offering (1956) for the tenth anniversary of the National Orchestra (now the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra); the work employs full orchestral resources, triple woodwind, saxophone, piano, and a battery of percussion. The composer tells us that he devised the work in Baroque concertante style with the opening horn motto, derived from the 'dawn' music of Copland's Appalachian Spring (1954), serving as a generative melodic and harmonic device. The work also includes a self quotation from the song cycle Sings Harry (1954) set to poems by Denis Glover. Lilburn has a strong affinity to Harry, the 'old timer', who abides with the smell of gorse fires, the sparkle of mountain tarns and the reality of farmhouse dung. Behind the mask of Harry and the pioneering American landscape, A Birthday Offering turns out to be a personal declaration of independence, an orchestral experiment, and a voyage of spiritual discovery.