From Where I Sit: Who has heard of Douglas Lilburn?

Playwright, columnist and former musician Dave Armstrong talks about one of New Zealand’s greats – iconic composer Douglas Lilburn…

Dave Armstrong

Dave Armstrong

Having been a classical trumpet player in my youth, I am familiar with the work of Douglas Lilburn. After all, he is probably New Zealand’s best-known classical composer. I played in his Third Symphony and the ubiquitous Aotearoa Overture when I was younger, and back in 1980 I was lucky enough to perform in the world premiere of his Quartet for Brass Instruments. The tale of that piece is in some ways a sad one and perhaps typical of the shoddy treatment New Zealand composers received in earlier days.

When Lilburn wrote the piece in the early 1960s, he sent it to some brass players in the NZSO who deemed it ‘unplayable’. It went, unperformed, straight into Lilburn’s bottom drawer. Twenty years later, composer Martin Lodge saw it listed in a bibliography of Lilburn’s works, and asked the man himself about it. Lilburn retrieved it, and three other Victoria University music students and I played through it.

With the exception of one tempo marking, which Lilburn happily changed, it was totally playable. We loved it and performed the world premiere. It was later recorded by various groups, and has gone on to become a staple of the New Zealand brass repertoire. Rehearsing the piece with Lilburn was one of the musical highlights of my life.

And what of Lilburn’s other music? By 2010 I had become a full-time playwright and was fascinated to learn that Lilburn had bequeathed a large number of letters from Rita Angus, which detailed their strong yet stormy relationship, to the Alexander Turnbull Library on his death in 2001.

Self-portrait (Wanaka) 1939 (unfinished) Oil on Canvas 480 x 420mm Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, on loan from the Rita Angus Estate

Self-portrait (Wanaka) 1939 (unfinished)
Oil on Canvas 480 x 420mm
Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, on loan from the Rita Angus Estate

They made such good reading that I could see their possibilities as a play. But though there were many wonderful letters from Rita to Douglas, where were the ones from Douglas to Rita? Though Lilburn kept all his letters from Rita, the ones he sent to Rita did not survive.

I realised that Lilburn’s piano pieces would make an ideal musical ‘response’ to Rita’s letters. That led me on a journey of discovery of Lilburn’s wonderful piano works. There are beautiful diatonic works from the 1940s, some inspired by Lilburn’s Scottish heritage, such as ‘The Lassie’s Lament’. Other ‘functional’ works written for the stage or short films, such as Incidental Music for Hamlet and Moths and Candles are beautiful pieces in their own right.

These ‘lollipops’ contrast with later serial-inspired modern works like Six Short Pieces, written in the early 1960s. I have fond memories of Margaret Neilsen, that inspiring interpreter of Lilburn’s piano music, playing and talking about these wonderful piano works to my university analysis class.

Douglas Lilburn, 1945 Watercolour, 444 x 336mm Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, on loan from the Rita Angus Estate

Douglas Lilburn, 1945
Watercolour, 444 x 336mm
Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, on loan from the Rita Angus Estate

My play Rita and Douglas was also a voyage of discovery for pianist Michael Houstoun. Though he had performed and recorded some Lilburn works, there was ‘wonderful and valuable music’ he had not. ‘I made study of all of Lilburn’s compositions for solo piano, a much larger corpus than I realised,’ writes Michael in the booklet to Lilburn, his award-winning CD.

But though many classical music lovers greatly enjoy Lilburn’s music, how well-known are his pieces to ordinary New Zealanders? I would say not very well-known. The poems of Baxter and Glover, especially The Magpies, are studied in most schools. Janet Frame’s novels are relatively well-known, and her autobiography was turned into a TV mini-series. Rita Angus’s Island Bay boats adorn many a Kiwi fish and chip shop, and ‘Cass’ was recently voted by viewers of a television arts show as New Zealand’s best painting.

But Lilburn? As we performed Rita and Douglas around the country, the most common audience reaction was, ‘it was wonderful to see all Rita’s paintings which I knew so well, but I didn’t realise Douglas Lilburn wrote such beautiful piano music’. Hopefully Rita and Douglas, and Michael Houstoun’s Lilburn CD, have gone a little way to rectifying the situation. I look forward to the day that our greatest classical composer takes his rightful place in the Kiwi consciousness alongside other cultural icons of the twentieth century.

Rita and Douglas is touring to Circa Theatre in Wellington this April 2014 – and more details can be found at



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