Story: Lilburn, Douglas Gordon
Lilburn, Douglas Gordon
Composer, professor of music, philanthropist
This biography was written by Philip Norman and was first published in 2010.
Douglas Gordon Lilburn was born in Whanganui on 2 November 1915, the seventh and youngest child of Robert Lilburn and his wife, Rosamund Louisa Shield. Home, until the age of nine, was the picturesque and prosperous sheep farm Drysdale Station in the upper Turakina River valley, 30 kilometres north-west of Hunterville. It was an isolated but idyllic childhood, ‘a richly varied and potent human and natural context to shape a young imagination’, as he later recalled.1
Douglas’s schooling began at the local Pukeroa School and continued at the New Zealand Friends’ School, Whanganui, after his parents retired to the city in 1925. His third- and fourth-form years, 1928 and 1929, were spent at St George’s Preparatory School, Whanganui, where he continued his piano lessons. From there, he was sent south to the character-building Waitaki Boys’ High School in Ōamaru under the rectorship of Frank Milner.
Shy by nature, unused to boarding and with little aptitude for organised sport, Douglas found it difficult to fit in at first. Gradually his confidence grew, and by the time he left at the end of 1933, Milner was able to declare him ‘gifted with fine literary taste and discriminating appreciation’ as well as ‘gentlemanly, responsive to ideals, loyal, courteous and devoted to his cultural pursuits’.2
Attending Canterbury University College from 1934 to 1936, Lilburn studied first towards a certificate of journalism, and then towards a bachelor of music under the tutelage of Dr J. C. Bradshaw. Here his talents as a composer were first revealed. While in his third year, and before he had seen a symphony orchestra perform, he won a national composition prize sponsored by visiting Australian pianist and composer Percy Grainger.
Study in London and further awards
With financial assistance from his family, from 1937 to 1940 Lilburn attended the Royal College of Music, London, where Ralph Vaughan Williams was his principal composition tutor. Here he received several college awards including the Hubert Parry Prize for composition and the 1939 Cobbett Prize for string quartet writing.
Further successes followed. Lilburn entered three works – the Drysdale Overture (1937), Festival Overture (1939) and Prodigal country (1939) – in the New Zealand Centennial Celebrations competitions. On his return to New Zealand in August 1940 he learnt that he had won three of the four available prizes for composition. His Aotearoa Overture (1940) was also written at the Royal College for performance in a New Zealand Centennial Matinee concert held in London.