Lilburn was born in Whanganui and spent his early years on the family farm in the upper Turakina River valley at Drysdale. He attended Waitaki Boys' High School from 1930 to 1933, before moving to Christchurch to study journalism and music at Canterbury University College (then part of the University of New Zealand) (1934-36). In 1937 he began studying at the Royal College of Music, London. He was tutored in composition by Ralph Vaughan Williams and remained at the College until 1939. The two men remained close: in later years Lilburn would send Vaughan Williams gifts of New Zealand honey, knowing that the older man was fond of it.
Lilburn returned to New Zealand in 1940 and served as guest conductor in Wellington for three months with the NBS String Orchestra. He shifted to Christchurch in 1941 and worked as a freelance composer and teacher until 1947. Between 1946 and 1949 and again in 1951, Lilburn was Composer-in-Residence at the Cambridge Summer Music Schools.
In 1947, Lilburn shifted to Wellington to take up a position at Victoria University as part-time lecturer in music. He became a full-time lecturer in 1949, senior lecturer in 1955, was appointed Associate Professor of Music in 1963 and Professor with a personal chair in music in 1970. Following visits to studios in Europe and Canada in 1963, Lilburn founded the electronic music studio at the university--the first in Australasia--in 1966 and was its director until 1979, a year before his retirement.
Lilburn was awarded an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Otago in 1969 and in 1978 was presented with the Citation for Services to New Zealand Music by the Composers Association of New Zealand. On 6 February 1988, Lilburn was the eighth appointee to The Order of New Zealand.
Prizes and Scholarships included:
Lilburn was founder of Wai-te-ata Music Press in 1967 and the Lilburn Trust of the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, 1984. His writings include A Search for Tradition, a talk given at the first Cambridge Summer School of Music in January 1946 (Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington 1984) and A Search for Language, a University of Otago Open Lecture, March 1969 (Alexander Turnbull Library, 1985).
Lilburn's former house, at 22 Ascot St, was purchased by the Lilburn Residence Trust, a charitable trust based in Wellington, on 5 August 2005. The Trust is currently offering use of the residence to the Creative New Zealand/Jack C. Richards Composer-in-Residence at the New Zealand School of Music.
The Lilburn Trust funds the Student Composition and Performance Awards at five universities around New Zealand. The Trust is administered under the Alexander Turnbull Library Endowment Trust.
The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra has recorded most of Lilburn's major works, including the three symphonies composed from 1949 to 1961 and many of the other symphonic works. His A Song of Islands was given its American premiere on November 17, 2012, by the Fort Wayne Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by James Judd, the former music director of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra.
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