Gillian Whitehead

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Whitehead in 2008

Dame Gillian Karawe Whitehead DNZM (born 23 April 1941) is a New Zealand composer.


She studied at the University of Auckland from 1959 to 1962, 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 to 1970. For the next seven years she continued freelance composing, principally based in the United Kingdom. Her first opera Tristan and Iseult was composed in 1975 and premiered in 1978.[1] From 1978 to 1980, she held an English academic post, having been during that time Composer in Residence for Northern Arts attached to Newcastle University.

In 1981, she returned to New South Wales, to join the staff of the Composition School at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. She was for four years Head of Composition there, before taking early retirement in 1996.[citation needed][2]

Currently she divides her time between Sydney and Dunedin. In 1999 her opera, Outrageous Fortune, won the SOUNZ Contemporary Award.

In 2000, she became one of the inaugural Artist Laureates of the New Zealand Arts Foundation and is now a governor of the organisation.[citation needed] During 2000 and 2001 she was Composer in Residence at the Auckland Philharmonia and her major orchestral work, The Improbable Ordered Dance, written during the Residency won the 2001 SOUNZ Contemporary Award.

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 Music Press and a recording of her opera, Outrageous Fortune.

Honours and awards[edit]

In the 1999 New Year Honours, Whitehead was appointed a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit, for services to music.[3] In the 2008 Queen's Birthday Honours, she was promoted to Distinguished Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit, also for services to music.[4][5] In 2009, following the reinstatement of titular honours by the New Zealand government, Whitehead accepted redesignation as a Dame Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit.[6]


  1. ^ Opera Glass; Thomson and Kerr 2001.
  2. ^ Whitehead, Gillian. "Dame". Dame Gillian Karawe Whitehead. Gillian Whitehead. Retrieved 7 July 2015.
  3. ^ "New Year honours list 1999". Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. 31 December 1998. Retrieved 31 August 2019.
  4. ^ "The Queen's Birthday Honours 2008" (11 June 2008) 94 New Zealand Gazette 2561.
  5. ^ "Queen's Birthday Honours 2008". Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. 2 June 2008. Archived from the original on 12 June 2008. Retrieved 2 June 2008. Cite uses deprecated parameter |deadurl= (help)
  6. ^ Special Honours List (12 August 2009) 118 New Zealand Gazette 2691


  • Sanders, Noel, 2010. Moon, Tide & Shoreline: Gillian Karawe Whitehead: A Life in Music. Steele Roberts Publishers, Wellington, Aotearoa, New Zealand.

External links[edit]