Douglas Lilburn was born in Wanganui in 1915. He moved to Christchurch to study at Canterbury University College, and went on to the Royal College of Music, London. He was tutored in composition by Ralph Vaughan Williams and remained at the College until 1939.
He returned to New Zealand the following year, and worked in Christchurch as a freelance composer and teacher. In 1947 Douglas Lilburn shifted to Wellington to take up a position at Victoria University, and moved up the ranks to a Professor. In 1966 Lilburn founded the Electronic Music Studio at the University and was its Director until 1979, a year before his retirement. He was presented with the Composers’ Association of New Zealand (CANZ) Citation for Services to New Zealand Music in 1978. In 1988 he was awarded the Order of New Zealand. Douglas Lilburn, described as “the elder statesman of New Zealand music” and the “grandfather of New Zealand music,” died peacefully at his home in Wellington on 6 June 2001.
Landfall in Unknown Seas for string orchestra and narrator is set to text by New Zealand poet Allen Curnow. The poem, entitled Abel Janszoon Tasman and the Discovery of New Zealand is based on events 120 years prior to the arrival of James Cook. The poem is in three ‘movements’: the first sets a historical scene of setting voyagers into the unknown, in recitative style. The second recounts the landfall, the dramatic clash between Tasman’s crew and Māori, after which Tasman departed; and the third is a lyric meditation, and in Curnow’s words, ‘harmonizes the vision and action of the first two parts, and offering a possible meaning for the whole to our own age and nation”. Curnow wrote the poem in 1942 when the threat of Japanese ships entering New Zealand was very real.
Landfall in Unknown Seas received its premiere on 13th December 1942, three hundred years to the day since Tasman first sighted New Zealand. The premiere was performed by the National Broadcasting Service String Orchestra with conductor Andersen Tyrer in Wellington.