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“My heart gave thanks” – Douglas Lilburn’s Overture: Aotearoa

May 1st, 2020 By Keith McEwing

For the start of NZ Music Month’s 20th anniversary today, the Turnbull Library is making available online the original score of New Zealand’s most iconic orchestral work – Overture: Aotearoa by Douglas Lilburn.

Composed in London 80 years ago to celebrate the New Zealand Centenary, the Overture expressed Lilburn’s deep feelings for his native country. We are making the digitised score open-access both in recognition of these two anniversaries and to honour the solidarity shown by New Zealanders during the Covid-19 crisis.

Black and white portrait of Douglas Lilburn wearing glasses.
Photograph of Douglas Lilburn in London in 1940 (photographer unknown). Ref: PAColl-2547-01. Alexander Turnbull Library.

Listen to Overture: Aotearoa

Embedded content: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tiSxbFieRgA

Overture: Aotearoa performed in May 2018 by the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra, conducted by Gemma New.

New Zealand music classic

On March 28th 1940, Douglas Lilburn finished composing what has become a New Zealand musical classic. Not three weeks later, on 15th April, Overture: Aotearoa was premiered as the opening of a matinee concert at His Majesty’s Theatre in London to celebrate the New Zealand Centenary. The Sadler’s Wells Orchestra played for the concert and was conducted by expatriate Warwick Braithwaite. It was Braithwaite who suggested the title of the overture to Lilburn. (See related materials to the concert in the Horace Emerton Hodge collection (ref: MS-Papers-0437-25))

Lilburn was only 24 years old at the time and had come to England in 1937 to study at the Royal College of Music in London. His tutors included the well-known British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, whose influence upon the young Lilburn can be heard in his music of this time. Nevertheless, the “New Zealand” qualities of Overture: Aotearoa have been identified and appreciated—at that first performance and with many performances since.

Handwritten music manuscript.
Title page and first page of Douglas Lilburn, Overture: Aotearoa (1940). Ref: fMS-Papers-2483-048. Alexander Turnbull Library.

Original score in Lilburn’s hand

The original holograph score of Overture: Aotearoa (ref: fMS-Papers-2483-048) was donated by the composer to the Alexander Turnbull Library around 1980, to form part of the Douglas Lilburn collection. The manuscript is the full orchestral score in Lilburn’s hand prepared for conducting. After being used for the April 1940 performance, the score was hired out with instrumental parts by Hinrichsen Edition Ltd for performances until 1962, when Lilburn parted ways with the publisher (see Philip Norman’s article on their somewhat fraught relationship).

The score has been heavily annotated by early conductors of Overture: Aotearoa. Lilburn himself revised the work in 1988. Making the digitised score available online thus gives music researchers convenient access to both Lilburn’s original version and evidence of the early performance history of this iconic work.

Score part of UNESCO Memory of the World Register

To acknowledge the significance of Overture: Aotearoa to New Zealand, in 2011 the Alexander Turnbull Library successfully nominated the holograph score for the UNESCO Memory of the World Register. It was the first Turnbull Library item or collection to be added to the New Zealand register.

signed certificate from UNESCO to Alexander Turnbull library.
In 2011 the Alexander Turnbull Library successfully nominated the holograph score for the UNESCO Memory of the World Register.

Writing in support of the nomination, Philip Norman, composer, and author of the award-winning biography Douglas Lilburn: His Life and Music, concluded that:

Overture: Aotearoa by Douglas Lilburn now stands as the first 'contemporary' orchestral composition to enter the national psyche as a New Zealand piece. It is also one of the finest compositions by a composer still regarded as New Zealand's premiere composer.

Also supporting the nomination, pianist and long-time friend of Lilburn’s, Margaret Nielsen wrote about hearing the Overture performed by the New Zealand National Youth Orchestra in 1975 while she was in London: “it immediately transported me back into the New Zealand landscape of mountains, sea and paddocks… a whole world away from London’s bustling, noisy and overcrowded environment…”.

Most frequently performed orchestral work

Overture: Aotearoa, observed fellow composer Jack Body, “is the most frequently performed orchestral work by a New Zealand composer, and is likely to remain so”. Many commercial recordings have been made of the work—released alongside other orchestral works by Lilburn and on compilations of pieces chosen to represent New Zealand. As well, there are many more recordings online.

Many of these are from concerts of orchestras, both in New Zealand — including Christchurch Symphony Orchestra conducted by Benjamin Northey — and international, such as Deutsche Radio Philharmonie, conducted by former musical director of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, Pietari Inkinen. There is another of a synthesized rendition, and other online uses providing a musical accompaniment to images of New Zealand landscapes or New Zealand themes, such as artworks by C.F. Goldie and Petrus van der Velden. In acknowledgement of the overture’s significance, SOUNZ, the Centre for New Zealand Music, offer several study resources for Lilburn and for this work.

Lilburn’s work and influence

In June 1940, shortly after the premiere of Overture: Aotearoa, Douglas Lilburn returned to New Zealand from England. On the 9th August, he finally caught sight of New Zealand:

From the deck of a scruffy little trans-Tasman boat at 4pm on a clear Wintry day, I saw Mt Cook and Tasman, their summits shining on the distant horizon, and my heart gave thanks with recognition that I’d returned.

Lilburn would go on to compose many more celebrated works and become an influential figure in the development of New Zealand music, including as music lecturer at Victoria University of Wellington from 1947 to 1980. In 1988, he was appointed to New Zealand’s highest honour, membership of the Order of New Zealand. Douglas Lilburn passed away in 2001.

In 2014, the Australasian Performing Right Association (APRA) also acknowledged Lilburn’s contribution to New Zealand music by inducting him into the New Zealand Music Hall of Fame. Of the 26 inductees to date, Lilburn is the only classical composer to be named. A recording of the induction ceremony is also available online.

To mark the eightieth anniversary of Overture: Aotearoa and twenty years of New Zealand Music Month, the Alexander Turnbull Library has made the digitised version of the score open access.

Final page of Douglas Lilburn, Overture: Aotearoa (1940). Ref: fMS-Papers-2483-048. Alexander Turnbull Library

The musical copyright of Douglas Lilburn is held by the Alexander Turnbull Library Endowment Trust, for the benefit of the Lilburn Trust. For all enquiries relating to performance, publication and public use of Overture: Aotearoa and Lilburn’s other works, please contact Songbroker Music Publishing.

This blog was co-authored by Michael Brown, Curator Music at the Alexander Turnbull Library.

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Keith McEwing
23 June 2020 3:28pm

While writing this blog it was brought to my attention that an early recording of Lilburn's Aotearoa Overture existed in the Radio New Zealand Sound Archive, now housed at Nga Taonga Sound and Vision. Recorded in 1944, this is probably the earliest extant recording. The recording is in two parts — two sides of a 78rpm disc — and is described in NTSV's catalogue here.
The recording was made by the BBC Scottish Orchestra for a BBC programme to mark New Zealand Dominion Day on 26 September 1944. It was conducted by Guy Warrack. Further details of the programme and what else it included can be found here.

2 May 2020 11:16am

An interesting, informative read Keith. Thanks.