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The following article was first published in the January 2002 issue of Strings magazine (


As Remote as the Moon

Contemporary New Zealand viola music celebrates the land and its cultures

by Timothy Deighton


FULL OF RUGGED MOUNTAINS, DENSE RAINFORESTS, and fast-flowing rivers, and rimmed with miles of surf-pounded beaches, the New Zealand landscape has always exerted a major influence on its artists. Not surprisingly, few of its composers have been able to resist its siren call. In a speech made at the Cambridge Summer School of Music in 1946, Douglas Lilburn, referred to by many as "the father of New Zealand composition," recounted the following story: "On the way up here in the night train we stopped at National Park, and in the moonlight I could see an uncanny picture of Ngauruhoe and Ruapehu [volcanoes]. I was so excited by this that I hung out of the door of the carriage. . . . There was something very strange about that experience of speeding through the night with the vivid night smell of the bush country all around me. At that moment the world that Mozart lived in seemed about as remote as the moon, and in no way related to my experience."

But to describe New Zealand composers as mere "landscape artists" would be insufficient. Many of them have drawn heavily on, or paid tribute to, the music of indigenous cultures in and around New Zealand. And, of course, music from the Western tradition has had a profound impact on them. All of these musical influences have contributed, in a relatively short time, to a rich and varied output, full of fresh, individual works. During my undergraduate years as a music student at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand, the faculty encouraged me to be active in the area of new music - especially local new music. While still a young performer, frequent collaborations with student composers and a little dabbling with my own composing got me hooked. Over the years I have continued to perform new music, and, although I've lived in the United States for the past 12 years, I have retained strong feelings for the musical culture of my homeland. This body of music for viola by New Zealand composers represents an exciting new area of exploration for violists around the world.


New Zealand's first composer of international stature, Douglas Lilburn (1915-2001) grew up in a farming community on the North Island and went on to study with Ralph Vaughan Williams in London in the late 1930s. Returning to New Zealand in 1942, he carved out a career as a composer. Lilburn's importance lies not only in his own music (including several works for viola), but also in his efforts to define a national musical identity, and in his support of and influence upon later composers. He also established the country's major publisher of New Zealand music: Waiteata Press.

Lilburn's best-known work involving the viola in a solo role is Three Songs for Baritone and Viola composed in 1958. Set to poetry by three of New Zealand's preeminent poets, the songs explore a range of moods: The darkness and foreboding of "Warning of Winter" by Ursula Bethell and James K. Baxter's "Blow, Wind of Fruitfulness" are wonderfully contrasted with a jaunty setting of R.A.K. Mason's humorous "Song of Allegiance," a self-deprecating account of the poet's own perceived skills in comparison to the "greats." Lilburn creates musical settings for the overall mood of the poems rather than dealing with too much obvious word painting. His treatment of the two voices (baritone and viola) is highly expressive, with each taking turns at prominence in the texture. These songs evidence the influence of other artists (in this case, poets) and also the natural environment (the changing of seasons, and a landscape of streams and sea).

Lilburn's other works for strings include numerous pieces for string orchestra, several works for violin and piano, a violin duo, a string trio, and a string quartet. His four movement Suite for Solo Viola, composed in 1954-55, was only recently edited for the Australian and New Zealand Viola Society by composer and violist Dr. Michael Vidulich. Martin Lodge (born 1954) created a particularly effective new work out of images of the New Zealand landscape. Pacific Rock (1999), a short, virtuosic piece for unaccompanied viola, was inspired in part by another work for solo viola by the New Zealand composer Anthony Watson (discussed later) and includes a brief quote from the last movement of that work, a "touching of the cap to a musical ancestor." As Lodge explains, "The 'Rock' in the title refers primarily to the idea of a crag of land washed by the ocean. Hence the feeling of driving currents, eddies, and waves in the music. The suggestion of rock music is intentional too, as that has been an important influence on us all since the 1960s. The contrasting lyrical section bears the imprint of a waiata, a type of traditional unaccompanied Maori singing that covers [a] tiny pitch range (usually about a fourth) but uses microscopic changes in pitch, vibrato, and timbre to obtain colour and musical suggestion. Waiata often have a melancholic or nostalgic quality." Pacific Rock combines several of the influences noted earlier: the natural environment, a specific work by another New Zealand artist, and the musical languages of two different cultures.

Another work very much influenced by the composer's natural surroundings, Mahurangi (1992) by John Rimmer (born 1939), is a short piece for unaccompanied viola that explores a beautiful and varied range of sounds to describe a "place of importance."


The influence upon New Zealand composers of music from other cultures cannot be underestimated. Jazz has often had a particularly powerful impact. Leonie Holmes' (born 1962) Recitative II (1990) for viola and percussion instruments illustrates this influence particularly well. The extensive use of syncopation, blues scales, and colors resulting from the use of vibraphone, bongos, and other percussion instruments contributes to a lively and entertaining work.

Anthony Ritchie's Viola Concerto (1994), another obviously eclectic work, exploits a variety of styles. In this accessible piece, Ritchie (born 1960) uses gestures derived from jazz, blues, and modern popular genres. Perhaps the most successful aspect of the composition, though, is the scoring, which manages to allow the solo viola its independence while at the same time exploiting a huge range of colours in the orchestra.

New Zealand composers have written a number of other concertos for viola and orchestra. Those by Rimmer (I982) and Nigel Keay (2000) are highly challenging, for both performer and listener, employing complex musical language and dense textures. Viola Concerto on Maori and Pacific Island Themes (1992) by Michael Vidulich (born 1946) is written in an intentionally romantic style, in keeping with the way the tunes would have been performed when collected in the I930s, and it is yet another work with a clear connection to diverse musical cultures. Rhapsody for Viola and Orchestra by Dorothea Franchi (born 1920) was composed in 1950 and later that year won the Lionel Tertis Award in Great Britain. Plans are now being made for its sadly belated publication.

Odyssey by Jack Body (born 1944) offers a clear illustration of the influence nonwestern culture has had on New Zealand composers. This unusual work was commissioned for the 29th International Viola Congress, held in Wellington in April 2001. It combines solo and massed violas with an Indonesian Gamelan orchestra and a rebab (a two-stringed bowed instrument), and melds a fragment of the prelude from Bach's first cello suite with a musical pattern derived from traditional Gamelan music. Some other "novelty" pieces include David Farquhar's Chap-Chap for viola and audience participation, in which the audience taps it feet or slaps its thighs (or even vocalizes) in rhythm, while the violist plays short passages from the score in sometimes predetermined and sometimes random order; Chris Cree Brown's Piece for Viola and Rubbish Bin; and Craig Utting's Collages for 12 violas, which cleverly creates a work using 36 famous solo and orchestral viola excerpts, among them Bach's Brandenburg Concertos No.3 and No.6, Berlioz's Harold in Italy, Mozart's Symphony No. 40, and Mahler's Symphony No.5.

For want of a better term, a number of contemporary New Zealand works for viola could perhaps fall under the heading "pedagogical." They are works either intentionally written for students or at least suitable for performance by less advanced violists. Eric Biddington (born 1953) has produced numerous pieces of this type. Autumn Music (1987) is a collection of five short pieces for viola and piano, written "to provide pieces of differing character for viola students." Another simple work ideally suited for performance by young musicians is Michael Smither's Four Pieces (1971) for violin and viola: "Playground Chants," "Romance and Jig," "Lullaby and Child's Complaint," and "A Toy." The inspiration for Anthony Watson's Solo Sonata (1969), perhaps the most important work for viola by a New Zealand composer, lies beyond any of the categories described so far. While it is true that Watson (1933-73) must have been influenced by other music, the main impetus for the work came from an entirely different source. Intended as a protest of New Zealand's participation in the war in Vietnam, it explores a wide range of expression on the instrument. The horror of war is particularly evident in the harsh "Scherzo," a kind of brutal moto perpetuo. The four movement Solo Sonata is highly virtuosic (Watson was himself an accomplished violist) and places extreme demands on player and listener alike. It could perhaps be considered the "touchstone" for New Zealand violists.


Space limitations keep me from discussing many other fine solo and accompanied compositions for viola. Here is a brief list:

VIOLA DUETS: Three Little Duets by John Cousins and Nine Studies by Ronald Tremain (both for violin and viola), Oblique by Fritha Jameson and From Marama's Hold by Malcolm Mawhinney (both for two violas), duets for flute and viola by Michael Vidulich and Alan Starrett, Burr for viola and bass clarinet by James Gardner, and a short and humorous song entitled Viola by Craig Utting. John Elmsly's Drift for viola and tape employs electronic sounds originally sampled from the viola combined with a synchronized live performance on viola. Martin Riseley's Duo Capriccio is a short but maniacal virtuoso piece for violin and viola.

VIOLA AND PIANO: Concertpiece by Michael Vidulich, Meditation by Gareth Farr (available from Promethean Editions Ltd.), Moonstone by Gillian Whitehead, Memorial by John Elmsly, Two Pieces by Eric Blddington, Sonata (or Viola and Piano by Ross Carey, I Was Lost and Short Steps on Water by Alan Starrett, and Fantasia Quaerens Lodivicum by Douglas Mews.

SOLO VIOLA: A Viola on Skye by Christopher Blake, Composition for Solo Viola by Neville Hall, Stillscape by John Elmsly, To Fly by Fritha Jameson, Three Pieces by Eric Biddington, Five Miniatures and Impressions by Chloe Moon, Aeolian Harp by Jack Body, Magyar Rondo by Matthew Davidson, Elegy by Christopher Marshall, and A Good Opener by Alan Starrett.

For a complete listing of New Zealand viola works in print please contact the Centre for New Zealand Music: Sounz, PO Box 27347, Marion Square, Wellington 6141, New Zealand. Phone: (64) 4 801 8602; E-mail: info@; Web site: (with on-line secure shopping available). All works discussed in this article, unless otherwise noted, are available for purchase or rent. Also listed in the Sounz catalog are several compact disc recordings of New Zealand viola music, including a musical tribute to composer Jack Speirs, performed by violist Donald Maurice, and "Tunes and Airs" and "Southern Melodies" (music by Eric Biddington).

image of CD coverMy own CD entitled Violaotearoa: Modern New Zealand Works for Viola, is being released by Atoll CD Ltd. in January 2002. It features several of the works discussed here, including Anthony Ritchie's Viola Concerto, Anthony Watson's Solo Sonata, the Three Songs for Baritone and Viola by Douglas Lilburn, Recitative II by Leonie Holmes, Memorial by John Elmsly, and two works commissioned for the project: Pacific Rock by Martin Lodge and Duo Capriccio by Martin Riseley.