Douglas Gordon Lilburn was born November 2, 1915 in Wanganui, New Zealand. His first years, until 1930, were mostly spent at the family station (farm) they called "Drysdale", at which time he was sent to the Waitaki Boys' High School in Oamaru where he received his first formal piano lessons (His first piano Sonata in C minor was composed-1932). He enrolled in Canterbury University College in 1934 where he obtained a Diploma in Music by 1936.That same year he won a Percy Grainger prize for his first tone poem "Forest" This led his father to send him to the Royal College of Music in London where from 1937-40 he studied composition from Vaughan Williams. While there he won the colleges' Cobbett Prize for his "Phantasy for String Quartet" and his "Aotearoa Overture" was first performed during the New Zealand Centenary celebration at His Majesty's Theatre, London, in 1940.
Later in 1940 he returned to New Zealand to find that his "Drysdale Overture", "Prodigal Country", and "Festival Overture" had won prizes in the New Zealand National Centennial Music Competitions.Most of the time from 1941-47 was spent in Christchurch with compositions such as his "Prelude and Fugue in G minor" for organ, his "Four Preludes for piano", his "Landfall in Unknown Seas" and the "Chaconne for Piano" were completed. Lilburn moved back to Wellington in 1947 to take a position at Victoria University where he stayed until his retirement in 1980. During the '50s and early '60s he composed many more abstract styles of compositions finally resulting in his Symphony #3 in 1961. Shortly thereafter he established the Electronic Music Studio at Victoria University and devoted most of the '60s and '70s to experimenting within the electronic form. In 1967 he established the Waiteata Press as a music publishing forum, which still exist to date. Most of his scores, manuscripts, writings, recordings and others personal papers and ephemera are archived at the Alexander Turnbull Library in Wellington.
Although Mr. Lilburn acquired an early love of Jean Sibelius and had sincere regard for Ralph Vaughan Williams, he did not follow a nationalistic path, but developed a "naturistic" avenue that reflected his love of the landscapes of New Zealand. Being an avid tramper, he walked many of the treks and byways of the South Island and to this day, refers to his over-grown home lot in Central Wellington as "My Jungle". His collaberation with New Zealand poets and other writers resulted in a distinct New Zealand musical art. He took seriously Vaughan Williams' advice: "Don't be clever, don't be silly, don't try to impress – search for what is valid in your intuition, your understanding, and go from that". This undoubtedly was a factor in his leaving instrumental composition for electronic. His belief in the development of a New Zealand musical tradition apart from the Victorian one that was all too common until the mid- twentieth century, was well expressed in his talk given January 1946 at the Cambridge, NZ, Summer School of Music.
Lilburn died in New Zealand on June 6, 2001 at 5:32pm local time.
Further information can be found in The Oxford History of New Zealand Music by John Mansfield Thomson. The most extensive collection of his music for sale can be obtained from: Kiwi Pacific Records Ltd., PO Box 826, Wellington, NZ.
The Collection of Douglas Lilburn Manuscripts in the Alexander Turnbull Library.
1990 – National Library of New Zealand, PO Box 12-349, Wellington
Biographical Dictionary of New Zealand Composers, John Mansfield Thomson.
1990 – Victoria University Press, PO Box 600, Wellington
Bibliography of New Zealand Compositions, Philip Norman, Nota Bene Music Publishing,
PO Box 29-125, Christchurch
A Festschrift for Douglas Lilburn, Edited by Valerie Harris and Philip Norman, Second Edition.
July 1980, Composers' Association of New Zealand, Inc., PO Box 4065, Wellington
All but the Turnbull item, can be obtained from the NZ Music Centre Ltd., PO Box 10042, Wellington
All components for this page were contributed by Charles Eggen. Copyright © 1996.