Douglas Gordon Lilburn – musical pioneer

CoverDouglas (Gordon) Lilburn 1915 – 2001 is considered to be New Zealand’s foremost composer. Sometimes referred to fondly as the ‘elder statesman’ or ‘grandfather’ of New Zealand composing it is interesting that Lilburn said of his young self – ‘I was not born into a musical family and had no proper musical training before a late age of 17. But rather than regret this , I’ve always remained grateful for a childhood on a central North Island sheep station, a richly varied and potent human and natural context to shape a young imagination.’

However, from that point on, his natural talent blossomed and his impressive, unfaltering, musical journey began. First he studied at Canterbury University College,  then the Royal College of Music, London where he was tutored by Ralph Vaughan Williams. This was the beginning of a long friendship between the pair.

Like Vaughan Williams, Lilburn was intensely inspired by the beauty of nature, poetry and art, albeit that his works have a unique New Zealand  perspective. As an industrious student under Vaughan Williams’ patronage he made rapid progress writing several acclaimed works. These include the Drysdale Overture, a musical tribute to summer days on his parent’s farm and the classic Aotearoa Overture which pays homage to the New Zealand landscape.

On his return home he moved to Christchurch and worked as a composer and teacher.

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Ralph Vaughan Williams – Painter of musical canvases

This month marks the anniversary of the birth of  Ralph Vaughan Williams (RVW) 1872-1958. He was a popular and prolific English composer of orchestral works, choral music, operas,  symphonies, chamber music and film scores.

As well as composing, which he did into his eighties, he conducted, lectured and edited other music, notably the English Hymnal.
He also became interested in English folk music and song. He was concerned that they would become extinct, and travelled about transcribing and preserving material, some of which he later included in his works.

It has been said that RVW could paint a picture in sound. His Lark Ascending is typical of his pastoral works and is thought to be one of the finest pieces of English music ever written. Based on a poem by George Meredith, it evokes images for the listener – beautiful summer days, birdsong, flowers, gentle water and languid peace.

Recently, a CD of his Sancta Civitas and Dona Nobis Pacem was short-listed for Best CD in the Choral section of the Gramophone Awards. These are considered to be two of RVW’s finest choral works.

Sancta Civitas – The Holy City, is a powerful oratorio written in the early 1920s. RVW drew inspiration from the Book of Revelation and it is a musical depiction of the battle between Good and Evil. It was said to be his favourite choral work.

Dona pacem nobis– Grant us peace,  is a cantata written in 1936 as the war clouds were beginning to gather again in Europe. He sourced his texts from the Mass, the Bible, Walt Whitman poems and a political speech. Even though he was older and it was not required, RVW chose to enlist in the Royal Army Medical Corps in WWI. This work is viewed as his plea for future peace.

RVW was born into the privileged intellectual upper middle class being related to both the Wedgewoods and the Darwins but it is said he never took his fortunate situation for granted and worked all his life for the democratic and egalitarian ideals in which he believed.

Arvo Part – Holy Minimalist

CoverThis month  Estonian composer Arvo Part celebrates his 75th birthday,a fact I came across inThe Guardian recently which prompted me to explore his music  – I am hooked!

According to allmusic guide, Arvo Part is considered one of the most important living composers of concert music and is known for creating an entirely new form of music. He discovered how to create profound music with the simplest of structures.

‘I have discovered that it is enough when a single note is beautifully played. This one note, or a silent beat, or a moment of silence comforts me.’ he famously said. One reviewer has called his work a “shimmering, forever changing tonal landscape”

He is deeply religious and a devout follower of the Eastern Orthodox religion, spiritual themes and serenity  are important themes in his sacred music which is also inspired and influenced by Gregorian  Chant.

Reception of his early work was subject to the political vagaries of the communist Soviet system, but in 1977 he developed a radical new style and wrote several works based on the concept of ‘tintinnabulation’  these are still known as his best, Fratres, Cantus for Benjamin Britten and Tabula Rasa

His work was not known in the west until the 1980s when he emigrated to Austria and then to West Berlin.

Since then he has travelled the world, created a vast body of work, gained several honorary music doctorates and his  overwhelmingly beautiful music has  featured in over 50 films.

Further information:

  • Search our catalogue for Arvo Part
  • Search for Arvo Part in Gale Biography in Context (access with your library card and PIN)

Robert Schumann – complicated musical genius

Cover2010 marks the 200th anniversary of  the birth of Robert Schumann, one of the most beloved composers and an influential music critic of the Romantic Movement.

According to cellist Steven Isserlis, writing in Gramophone, Schumann was a complicated musical genius who embodied the passion and imaginative spirit of his age, yet he remains one of the most misunderstood and under-valued of all the great composers.

Now thought to be bi-polar, Schumann was plagued with debilitative bouts of depression. Received wisdom has been that his depression had an unhealthy effect on his compositions, but significantly he actually tended not to compose while unwell, therefore his works cannot be described as a product of madness.

Tragically he did spent the last two years of his life in a mental asylum at his own request after an attempted suicide.

Isserlis surmises that Schumann’s enduring popularity with modern composers is that he seemed to compose without rules, that he swung  from conservative music forms to stream- of -consciousness and that there was always experimentation hidden just beneath the surface:

His restless spirit is constantly searching, probing finding or needing new ways to express his strange inner life . Perhaps more than any other composer, Schumann can take us into the land of dreams.

Resources you may enjoy

Selection of popular Schumann pieces on our music databases

Schumann in our collection