About this Recording
8.573079 - LILBURN, D.: String Quartet in E Minor / Phantasy / Canzonettas / Duos / String Trio (New Zealand String Quartet)

Douglas Lilburn (1915–2001)
String Quartet in E minor • Duos for Two Violins • String Trio • Canzonettas for Violin and Viola • Phantasy for String Quartet


Lilburn’s string chamber music adheres to the dictum he liked to quote from painter Toss Woollaston: ‘International influences may give our work manner, but environment should give it character’. In each of these works there are signs of cunning adaptation, while hitting their own stride and taking their own road.

Douglas Lilburn grew up on ‘Drysdale’, a hill-country farm bordering the mountainous centre of New Zealand’s North Island. He often described his boyhood home as ‘paradise’ and the source of his ‘imaginative awareness of sounds’. Lilburn recalled as a small boy ‘singing from high branches of trees a wordless song, intuitive, affirming’. While a student under the aegis of Ralph Vaughan Williams at the Royal College of Music in London, Lilburn wrote his first major orchestral works, including a cantata Prodigal Country (1939), which expressed national pride. His Phantasy for String Quartet was another product of his student years. Returning to Christchurch, Lilburn banded together with an innovative group of painters and poets who were to prove influential. The 1940s saw the composition of several important works, including an orchestral tone poem A Song of Islands [Naxos 8.557697], the Chaconne for piano, the String Trio, and the String Quartet. In 1947 Lilburn joined the staff at Victoria University College in Wellington and completed several works to high acclaim, including two symphonies [Naxos 8.555862], two piano sonatas, two song cycles, and the Duos for Two Violins. Lilburn composed Symphony No. 3 (1961) [Naxos 8.555862], in response to a stimulating period of sabbatical leave and from that point until his retirement, chose to take on the new territory of electroacoustic composition. Lilburn’s final years were spent quietly at home in Wellington, tending his garden and, until the onset of arthritis, playing his beloved piano. He received the Order of New Zealand in 1988.

Lilburn’s String Quartet in E minor, completed in 1946 and first performed in 1950, is notable for its pliant lyric power. We need look no further than the opening pages to apprehend the spaciousness of the movement, where the upper strings seem to waft upwards from the cello theme in a gesture analogous to a hawk rising above the mountain escarpment. The second theme extends the analogy with its sleight of wing pulsations giving the music an elegiac edge. What follows is a physical push downward, as if the hawk is swooping for its prey. But then, with an idea in minims (heard over fluttering rhythms) and repeated notes that formulates a bird’s metallic cry, comes an expansive passage that glides as if on motionless wings. The second half of the movement intensifies these processes in a wonderful, supple, representation. The upward waft of the opening material is less stable tonally and interrupted by a stormy outburst that catapults the first violin higher into the ether. The second idea is now compressed, so that the swooping gesture prematurely plunges like a beaked lance. The metallic bird cry ushers in the final paragraphs which, now much extended, serve to clear the emotional air and to rise infinitely, over a whispering viola melody, with slow and effortless beats. The second movement is a folk dance, moving animatedly over 3/8 and 12/8 patterns that betoken an occasion of joy. The finale signals the same upward waft as the first movement but is inflected with acerbic rhythmic punches that create as much tension as anticipation, as if to apprehend fleetingly a bleak balance against the emphasis on rhapsodic or vernal folk elements.

Duos for Two Violins were composed in 1954 and dedicated to Ruth Pearl and Jean McCartney, who gave the first public performance and broadcast. The Duos represent the ‘modernist’ style Lilburn found in the music of Bartók and Copland and developed in his song cycle Sings Harry for baritone and piano (1953), a setting of six poems from Denis Glover’s sequence (1951). In these songs, Lilburn, relishing the dry enchantment of Harry’s voice, invites us to perceive connections between the archetypal man alone and the austere wilderness setting. The Duos likewise convey the new sense of aesthetic expression breathing energy and clarity into Lilburn’s music via striking harmonic and rhythmic inflections, spare contrapuntal lines and a freely treated modality. Furthermore, these pieces express what Copland was achieving in his ‘Appalachian’ music (Lilburn sent Copland the score of Duos and he quite liked it), and Bartók in his exploration of folk idioms. Lilburn’s preoccupation seems to be with the landscape of his youth and rural lore: No. 2, for example, is a rousing ‘hoe-down’, while Nos. 3 and 5 seem to recall Harry’s meditations looking into the still depths of a mountain tarn; No. 4 evokes Bartók’s gypsy music and No. 6 suggests the presence of the river from Harry’s boyhood farm.

Lilburn’s String Trio, composed in 1945, was the first chamber work by a New Zealand composer to be published abroad (by Hinrichsen in London). Margaret Sicely (violin), Vera Robinson (viola) and Valmai Moffett (cello) gave the premiere of the trio in Christchurch, followed by a performance in Dunedin. Lilburn says that the first two movements reflect ‘a phase of Schubert-worship that [the Hungarian pianist] Lili Kraus brought to Christchurch in the mid-1940s’. Schubert’s voice can be heard in the Quartettsatz-like shiver of the opening bars, the bittersweet march of the second subject, and the passionate sensibilities of the central movement. Schubert’s influence reveals itself in a number of Lilburn works at this time, for example in the 1949 Sonata that takes its cue from the A minor Sonata D784. Lilburn made a perceptive comment in 1946 when he spoke of the influence of composers like Schubert as ‘a deliberate process of selection, of sorting out from the world’s music those ways of expression that come closest to meeting one’s own needs’. The tone of the finale is of a springing resilience.

The three canzonettas for violin and viola were composed as separate short works in 1942, 1943 and 1958. Canzonetta No. 1 and Canzonetta No. 2, quasi-Elizabethan in tone, are the fruits of Lilburn’s preoccupation with composing incidental music for Ngaio Marsh’s productions of Shakespeare’s plays in Christchurch at this time. The lute-like Canzonetta No. 1 originally underscored the Players’ mime scene in Marsh’s 1943 production of Hamlet (he later transcribed it for piano solo, tenor recorder and for string orchestra). Canzonetta No. 3 has the atmosphere of a dream-like reflection and reminiscence.

Phantasy for String Quartet (1939) is a product of Lilburn’s student years at the Royal College of Music. He composed it as an entry for the annual Cobbett Prize (which he won) that aspired to revive the Jacobean ‘Fancy’, ‘Fancie’, or ‘Phantasy’ by requiring competitors to write a single-movement rhapsodic work consisting of different sections varying in tempo and metre. Lilburn based his piece on the Jacobean ballad ‘Westron Wynde’, which he inscribed on the front page of the manuscript:

Westron Wynde when wilt thou blow
The small rain down doth rain
Christ, that my love were in my arms
And I in my bed again.

The pizzicatos of the Sibelian opening may well depict the falling rain and the first full entry might be the poet’s taut cry to the Almighty; quicker tempi suggest breeziness. This is intensely lyrical rather than dramatic music, creating an expression of quiet sorrow. Students at the Royal College of Music gave the premiere of the Phantasy Quartet and this was followed by a performance in New Zealand. Since neglected, it warrants a timely revival.

Robert Hoskins

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