The first movement of this symphony opens quietly with a number of ideas in which the melodic interval of a fifth has some prominence. A faster section follows and the development of these ideas leads to climaxes with patterns of diverse rhythms superimposed. After the final climax the movement subsides to a quiet ending.
The second movement has the character of a Scherzo. Lively rhythms alternating between 6/8 and 3/4 lead to a quieter sustained “trio” tune. The scherzo resumes and takes the music to a climax where these two ideas are presented together – the faster one (violins and trumpets) across the slower (horns and trombones). The music unwinds until we are left with a fragment of the slower theme, which becomes a link to the third movement.
The finale has the form of a free passacaglia. It grows out of the opening trumpet tune and its accompaniment – the trumpet tune becomes the passacaglia bass, while the stepwise bass takes over as melody. At the end of the movement a reference back to the melodic falling fifths of the first movement leads to the final chord – fading from brass to wind, and in the end, to strings alone.
(Programme note by Owen Jensen on the sleeve of the 1969 Kiwi/Pacfic LP recording by the NZSO under Juan Matteucci)
This symphony has three movements. All three start with the same pulse (crotchet=60), and the third movement also ends at this tempo. Both the rhythmic conflicts in the music and its rhythmic connections (changes of tempo within a movement) are related in the ratio 3:2. This ratio also expresses the interval of a fifth, which is throughout an important arrival point and is the music’s final destination.These conflicts and changes are also associated with timbre: very often strings and brass are opposed with wind and percussion acting as mediators. The first movement is most concerned with conflicts. The opening idea announces this very simply with an opposition of two pentatonic modes (black and white keys on a keyboard), and this conflict remains unresolved at the end of the movement. The second movement alternates – combining slow movement and scherzo. The slow beginning presents an unwinding melodic line in the wind against a haze of overlapping chords on brass and strings. The fast scherzo breaks across this and tosses rhythmic fragments from section to section. The slow and fast are later combined, but in the end the fast wins, finishing the movement at breakneck speed. The third movement emphasises connections and resolutions.It is a set of variations on a chorale-like tune, starting at the basic pulse and gradually getting faster until the final variation, a quick waltz, is moving at three times the opening speed. From here the tempo shifts back and the chorale tune is combined with references to the beginning of the first movement.
Douglas Lilburn’s Symphony No. 2 was given its first performance as a studio broadcast in December 1953 conducted by Warwick Braithwaite. The first public performance was given by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by John Hopkins in the Wellington Town Hall in June 1959.