'Douglas Lilburn: His Life and Music' by Philip Norman

From: the New Zealand Listener  May 27-June 2, 2006. Vol 203 No 3446. 

What if Mozart had lived another 30 years, what if Beethoven had found the marital bliss he seemed to crave, or, more relevant to us, what if Douglas Lilburn, in 1942, had become a father by issue of Rita Angus? Philip Norman's new biography of Lilburn exposes this and many other hitherto little-discussed facts of Lilburn's life and the personal relationships that flowed through it. Angus's pregnancy miscarried, although Norman cites evidence through her correspondence of her continuing desire to bear him a child. Lilburn's feelings at this moment of potential parenthood are not revealed, but given the fact of his predominantly homosexual inclinations, becoming a father at the age of 26 would have introduced an interesting complication into his life and, one surmises, would have had a significant impact on the development of his personality. Norman's biography is, in essence, a portrait of a man alone, of someone who felt cast in the role of an outsider throughout his life. Lilburn had bitter memories of his years at Waitaki Boys High, far from the family hearth in Taranaki, but acknowledged, ruefully, "I've not regretted the total experience for what it taught me about survival."

Whereas the road map of visual arts and literature in this country has been well documented through surveys, biographies and critical writings in books and journals, New Zealand music has not been so well served. John M Thomson's handsomely produced and well-written Oxford History of NZ Music (1991), is, as Norman rightly points out, not so much a history of New Zealand music as a history of music in New Zealand. Indeed Norman's account of the sad falling out of friends (Thomson and Lilburn), painful to both parties, over the commissioning and writing of the Oxford History, is one of many fascinating episodes in this biography. Indeed these "fallings out" constitute a kind of narrative thread through Lilburn's life, as though there was a defence mechanism at work to keep the world, that is, other people, at bay. Lilburn's life might have appeared uneventful to outside observers, but the emotional life of the man as revealed in this book makes it an enthralling read.

The later years of retirement (1980 until his death in 2001), years of musical non-production, might have proved a challenge to a less resourceful biographer, but Norman's chapter titles are astute - "Hell is other people", "Preparing for prosperity", "For silence to loom in" - as they trace a new phase in the composer's life, a gradual withdrawing from human company (refusing visitors with, "Oh, I'm over the hills and far away"), while at the same time sublimating his creative energies into various projects and "causes", such as the setting up and "hand of God" supervision of the Lilburn Trust at the Alexander Turnbull Library, and the (unsuccessful) campaign to prevent the destruction of the Radio NZ studios in Glenmore St. These latter chapters are a moving portrait of a man alone, confronting mortality, and struggling with failing health and alcoholism - he had been able to discard smoking, but the state of forgetfulness that vino brought was beyond his power of resistance. These chapters convincingly expose the threads in Lilburn's complex personality - the inherited puritanism, the mistrust of ego, the rare intelligence, the easily provoked sense of justice and the unstinting commitment to personal and artistic integrity. And yet, astonishingly, underlying all this, a deep insecurity. As Norman succinctly puts it: "He craved the reassurance of the accolades, but he felt uncomfortable receiving them."

This book is handsomely produced, rich with images, many of them like doors ajar, inviting further questions and discussion. Useful analyses and commentaries on Lilburn's compositions are collected in an appendix, available to musicians and other readers wanting to explore the music in greater depth. This book is a compulsory read, not only for those with some familiarity with the Lilburn the man, or Lilburn through his music, but also for anyone with a skerrick of interest in New Zealand's path to cultural maturity in the 20th century. Lilburn's contexts are peopled by an army of fellow travellers, poets and painters particularly, who are now regarded as our cultural icons. But also appearing in these pages are other long-time friends whose names we are not likely to know, but who are equally important for an understanding of Lilburn the man, friends such as Mrs Loo, the greengrocer on Tinakori Rd, who wrote signs "‘Chinese-wise', right to left: SNOINO $1-10 klo'". 

Being Douglas Lilburn by Jack Body.