A Search For Tradition And A Search For Language, by Douglas Lilburn (Lilburn Residence Trust, with Victoria University Press, 2011) 112 pp., $29.
We missed out on a first-class prose writer when Douglas Lilburn decided to devote himself to music instead of literature. His language in these two essays is lucid and elegant, perceptive, and easily carries a huge range of reference without being in the least bit dry or pedantic. He might have developed into a philosophical writer in the vein of Jose Ortega y Gassett (1883–1955) or of the German, Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860). His writing combines Schopenhauer’s understanding of musical essence with the clear expression of social perspective by the Spanish Gassett.
These are large claims to make about a New Zealand composer, but we must remember that Lilburn’s sheer talent as a musician — one which compares favourably with mid-twentieth century peers such as Samuel Barber (1910–1981) and Benjamin Britten (1913–1976) — indicates a major artistic intelligence and a fine grasp, at the very least, of the sound and rhythm of language. Also, he never abandoned literature. It remained at the centre of his life. His direct engagement with it as a composer is significant in our cultural history. His settings of poems by Allen Curnow, Ruth Dallas, Alistair Te Ariki Campbell, Denis Glover, ARD Fairburn and others make up in themselves a major body of work.