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Red Contributor

Gillian Whitehead

Arranger, Composer, Performer

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Born: 1941


Dame Gillian Whitehead was born in Hamilton, New Zealand in 1941. She studied at the University of Auckland from 1959-62, and Victoria University of Wellington in 1963, graduating BMus Hons in 1964. She then studied composition at the University of Sydney with Peter Sculthorpe from 1964-65, graduating MMus in 1966. That same year she attended a composition course given by Peter Maxwell Davies in Adelaide and in 1967 travelled to England to continue studying with him. She worked in London composing and copying music for two years and then with the assistance of a New Zealand Arts Council grant worked in Portugal and Italy from 1969-70.

For the next seven years she continued freelance composing, principally based in the UK. From 1978-80 she was Composer-in-Residence for Northern Arts attached to Newcastle University (UK). In 1981 she returned to Australasia to join the staff of the Composition School at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and was for four years Head of Composition there before taking early retirement in 1996. She now divides her time as a free-lance composer between Sydney and Dunedin, New Zealand. In 1999 her opera, Outrageous Fortune, won the SOUNZ Contemporary Award and she was honoured with membership of the NZ Order of Merit.

In 2000 she became one of the inaugural Artist Laureates of the NZ Arts Foundation and is now a governor of the organisation. During 2000 and 2001 she was Composer-in-Residence at the Auckland Philharmonia and her orchestral work, the improbable ordered dance  written during the Residency won the 2001 SOUNZ Contemporary Award. In 2003 she again won the Award for Alice, a major work for mezzo-soprano and orchestra which was also written for the Auckland Philharmonia. From 1998-2003 Gillian was President of the Composers’ Association of New Zealand.

Gillian Whitehead has written a wide range of music including works for solo, chamber, choral, orchestral and operatic forces, most of them direct commissions from performers and funding organisations. A number of her works have been recorded for commercial release, including a CD of her chamber works by Wai-te-ata Press and a recording of her opera, Outrageous Fortune. Her scores are available from the Australian and New Zealand Music Centres or from her agents who can be contacted through the Music Centres. In 2003 she was given a Dmus (honoris causa) by Victoria University of Wellington, and in 2007 the KBB Citation for outstanding services to New Zealand Music presented by CANZ.

In 2008 she became a Distinguished Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit, one of New Zealand’s highest honours, and she was granted the title ‘Dame’ in 2009.

In March 2009 Gillian was invited to be an artist-in-residence for 12 months at the Henderson House – a Plischke designed house in Alexandra, Central Otago. In 2012 and 2013 Gillian had two CDs, Arapatiki and Alice, released under the Atoll label. In 2013 she held a James Wallace Arts Trust residency at the Pah Homestead.

[As an inaugural recipient of the Arts Foundation Laureate Awards in 2000, more information about Gillian Whitehead can be found on the Arts Foundation website.]

Composed (124)

"Aria" from Outrageous Fortune

for soprano, taonga puoro, flute, bassoon, cello and piano

Ahotu (O Matenga)

for chamber ensemble, 10m


an eight movement monodrama for mezzo-soprano and orchestra, 36m

Almost an Island

for unspecified low voice and piano, 7m

Almost an Island

for soprano and piano, 7m

Angels born at the speed of light

for narrator, dancer and improvising trio (flute/saxophone, percussion, piano), 1h


for brass nonet, 11m


a "landscape prelude" for piano, 6m

Ascot Suite

for solo viola

At night the garden was full of voices

for two alto recorders and two bass recorders, 4m

Awa Herea (Braided Rivers)

a song cycle for soprano and piano, 22m

Because of the child

for solo voice


for solo violin

Bright Forms Return

for mezzo-soprano and string quartet, 25m

Bright Silence

for solo violin, 8m


for mezzo-soprano, piano and bassoon

Central Landscapes

for orchestra

Central Soundscapes

for small orchestra


for soprano and harp

Clouds Over Mata-au

for string quartet

E Haki

for female voice

E rewa mai, e ra

for unaccompanied (high) voice

E rewa mai, e ra

for unaccompanied (low) voice

Eleanor of Aquitaine

for mezzo and chamber orchestra, 30m


for mezzo-soprano, piano, bassoon and male choir

Fantasia on Three Notes

for piano, 10m

Five Bagatelles

for solo piano, 7m

Five Songs of Hildegard Von Bingen

for unaccompanied SATB choir, 13m

For Timothy

prelude, two pieces and postlude for guitar, 6m

Four Short Pieces

For solo piano, 7m

Fragments from Roxburgh

for solo viola

Girl with a Guitar: Words for Music

for mezzo-soprano, cello and piano, 8m


for soprano voice, viola and piano


for soprano, violin, cello and piano, 9m


for string quartet and taonga pūoro (Māori instruments), 25m


duo for piccolo/flute/alto flute, and Maori flutes


for taonga puoro and chamber ensemble, 20m


for voice, flute/alto flute, and taonga pūoro (improvised part)


for voice, taonga pūoro, flute, alto flute, and bassoon


for kaikaranga, taonga puoro, flute, bassoon and cello


for voice, taonga puoro, and bassoon, 16m


for chamber orchestra, 19m


for mezzo-soprano and chamber ensemble, 35m


for narrator, taonga pūoro (Māori instruments), jazz piano and cello, 42m

Iris Dreaming

a chamber opera in one act, 40m

Iris Dreaming (version with piano trio)

for soprano and piano trio, arranged from original version for ensemble of 10 players, 40m

Jesus falls for the third time

for bass clarinet


for solo piano


for harp and orchestra

La Cadenza Sia Corta

for piano, 12m

Low Tide Aramoana

for mezzo, SATB large choir and brass, 23m

Lullaby for Matthew

for piano, 4m

Lullaby of Loss

for SSSATB choir


for chamber sextet, 12m


for solo clarinet, 12m


for solo soprano, 3m 30s

Missa Brevis

for unaccompanied SATB, 15m


for unaccompanied SATB choir, 15m

Moon, Tides and Shoreline

for string quartet, 15m


for viola and piano, 15m

Napier's Bones

for 24 percussionists and improvising jazz piano, 35m

Napier's Bones

for 6 virtuoso percussionists and improvising jazz piano, 35m

Naumai e te ao marama

For voice and kōauau (Taonga Pūoro)

Nga ha o nehera

for solo bassoon, 16m

No stars, not even clouds

for string quartet


for violin and piano, 15m

Out of this Nettle, Danger

for mezzo-soprano and chamber sextet, 35m

out the window breath bone feather

for cello, flute, and clarinet

Outrageous Fortune

a chamber opera in two acts, 1h 58m


for mezzo-soprano, piano and clarinet, 16m


for voices, brass, woodwind and percussion

Piano Trio

for piano trio, 20m


for string quartet

Postcards from Harwood

For voice and piano, 6m

Puhake ki te rangi

for string quartet and taonga puoro, 16m


for piano, 1m 30s

Qui Natus Est

carol for SATB, 4m


for oboe, clarinet, horn, bassoon, piano, 16m


for piano, 1m 40s


for mezzo soprano and organ, 20m


for orchestra, 14m


for solo viola, 16m

Riddles 2

for soprano and piano, 20m

River talk

for piano

sad song on a rainy day

for piano, 1m 20s

still, echoing

for piano and string quartet

Symphony: The Islands

for baritone and orchestra

Taiohi taiao

for SSAATBB choir with kōauau, 11m

Tamatea Tutahi

for piano, 12m


for flute and piano, 13m

Te ao marama

for voice and traditional Maori instruments (te taonga puoro)

Te mauri o te awa

for two voices unaccompanied

The Art of Pizza

a chamber opera

The Bride of Fortune

a chamber opera, 2h

the improbable ordered dance

for full orchestra, 18m

The Journey of Matuku Moana

for solo cello, 18m

The King of the other Country

chamber opera, 1h 30m

The Pirate Moon

an opera, 1h 30m

The River Flows On...

for mixed chamber sextet

The Tinker's Curse

a children's opera, 1h 10m

The Virgin and the Nightingale

five songs for voices, 25m

These Isles your Dream

for mezzo, viola and piano, 16m

Thin Ice

for soprano, mezzo-soprano and percussion

Three Songs of Janet Frame

for soprano and chamber ensemble, 17m

Three Windows in the Weather

for reciter, piano and bassoon

Three Yiddish Songs

arranged for mezzo-soprano, recorders (two players), guitar, violin, bass viol, spinet


for soloists and strings, 23m

Tom's Serenade to Ann Morris

for oboe, violin, viola and cello, 12m

Tongues, Swords, Keys

for eight singers and four percussionists, 23m

Tristan and Iseult

chamber opera, 1h 5m

Two Frame Songs

for mezzo soprano, violin, and piano


for violin and piano, 5m

Venetian Mornings

for flute, bassoon, and piano

Voices of Tane

Seven piano pieces for children, 8m


for solo percussion, 15m


for female reciter, flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano and percussion, 20m

Arranged (1)

Three Yiddish Songs

arranged for mezzo-soprano, recorders (two players), guitar, violin, bass viol, spinet

Resources (23)

Canzona 2003 vol 24 no 45

Commentary or analysis

Canzona 2004 vol 25 no 46

Commentary or analysis

Canzona May 1982 vol 3 no 11

Commentary or analysis

Music in New Zealand Spring 1989

Commentary or analysis