The pianist, composer, teacher, and scholar Gillian Bibby who passed away in Wellington on 7 August 2023, was integral to Wellington’s musical world for several decades. While countless numbers of young musicians in Wellington and beyond benefitted from Gillian’s work — whether through piano or music theory lessons, chamber music coaching, the Institute of Registered Music Teachers, the New Zealand Suzuki Institute, or by learning pieces from her edited collections of piano music — her legacy as a composer and performer is less well-known than it should be.
Bibby’s career took her from a childhood in Lower Hutt and Greymouth to university in Dunedin, and then postgraduate study in Germany, where her teachers included Karlheinz Stockhausen. She was the recipient of prestigious awards, including the Kranichsteiner Music Prize (1972), and she was a Mozart Fellow at Otago University (1976-77). After returning to Wellington, Bibby established a flourishing teaching studio in Roseneath and became heavily involved in Suzuki Talent Education, receiving in 1992 a Churchill Fellowship to pursue further study in Suzuki teaching training in North America.
It is impossible to do justice to Gillian Bibby’s career here, but something of the scale of her achievements can be seen in Bibby’s 70th birthday concert in 2015. Many eminent members of the music profession, including friends, family, and former pupils, came together to perform her music in Wellington’s Adam Concert Room. SOUNZ recorded these performances, which you can view here, alongside a fascinating interview with Bibby, and short introductions to the pieces. This collection of performances and discussions provides a rich portrait of Bibby’s work as a composer: eclectic, drawing on avant-garde techniques, diverse in instrumentation, and encompassing a wide variety of influences. A more extensive catalogue of her compositions can again be accessed via SOUNZ, while additional recordings and scores are available at the Alexander Turnbull Library.
In 2020, Gillian Bibby was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to music and music education, reflecting the scale of her contribution to the musical life of New Zealand. She was also a recipient of Chamber Music New Zealand’s Marie Vandewart Memorial Award in recognition of her role in helping students experience and perform chamber music. Wellington City Libraries hold a selection of materials that offer just a snapshot of Bibby’s talent and vision:
Take flight : music from New Zealand for intermediate pianists
Take Flight is a landmark publication: 55 new works commissioned from living composers, for student pianists of intermediate level, the collection was designed and edited by Gillian Bibby through the auspices of the Sunrise Music Trust, culminating in a special launch concert at the Adam Concert Room in 2010. Many of New Zealand’s most eminent composers contributed their work to Take Flight, providing student pianists of all ages with a wealth of contemporary compositions to add to their repertoire, including many works by women (Fritha Jameson, Gillian Whitehead, Jenny McLeod, Louise Webster, Gillian Bibby, and Helen Caskie, to name a few). The score is accompanied by a CD recording of all the pieces, performed by Gillian Bibby, Judith McDonald, and Catherine McKay. As composer John Psathas wrote of Take Flight, collections of new music like this are ‘one of the most important factors in sustaining the experience of music as a living, relevant language to be shared now.’
The Waiteata collection of New Zealand music. Volume IX, Salutes to poets / Lilburn, Douglas
Released in 2006, this CD presents a variety of Lilburn’s songs, bringing together performances recorded over many years. Gillian Bibby and Roger Wilson perform Lilburn’s Sings Harry, his intuitive setting of poems by Denis Glover. Representing a gathering of musicians well-known in New Zealand, this recording also includes performances by two long-time members of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra — violinist Dean Major, and the late violist Peter Barber — as well as Rae de Lisle, Dylan Lardelli and Christopher Leech, Paul Cibis, and José Aparicio. In addition to Lilburn’s setting of Glover, there are also settings of poetry by Ursula Bethall, Ruth Dallas, Basil Dowling and R. A. K. Mason. In the work for violin and piano, Salutes to Seven Poets, Lilburn himself introduces each movement. The recording salutes not only poets but also the musicians who bring life to their words.
Living echoes : the first 150 years of piano music from New Zealand
This volume of 54 piano pieces by New Zealand composers reflects Bibby’s interests as a piano teacher and as a scholar of the history of the piano in New Zealand. Living Echoes contains pieces suitable for near-beginners and advanced pianists alike, carefully chosen and organised to provide a comprehensive pedagogical survey. Composers represented include Dorothy Freed (and her father, Gerald S. Doorly), Douglas Lilburn, David Farquhar, Helen Caskie, Alfred Hill, and John Ritchie, as well music by lesser-known identities: Annette E. Wilson, pianist and organist Harry Hiscocks, Clara Algar, George H. Clutsam (equally claimed by New Zealand and Australia), and adventurer Charles de Thierry, to name a few. The score includes biographical notes about the composers, providing historical and cultural context for students and teachers alike. Living Echoes is valuable for providing student pianists with carefully selected examples of Romantic and modern works beyond mainstream repertoire. Pianist Ludwig Treviranus, who was a pupil of Gillian Bibby, and is now a distinguished musician and teacher, performs all the pieces included in Living Echoes on the two CDs that accompany the score.