Phillips was born in Omaha, Nebraska. He studied at the Denver College of Music with Edwin Stringham and at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, with Howard Hanson and Bernard Rogers. On September 17, 1928, he married Alberta Phillips (who wrote many of his librettos; died 1979). The couple had a daughter, Ann (b. 1931; actress Ann E. Todd, later Ann Basart) and a son, Stephen (1937–1986), who predeceased his father. Due to privations caused by the Great Depression, the children, Ann and Stephen, were raised by their maternal grandparents.
Phillips's first important work was Selections from McGuffey's Reader, for orchestra, based on poems by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. (Basart 2001). He wrote of this work in his 1933 diary, "I don't think anybody had written such 'American-sounding' music before. On the first night, the students said it was corny. And it was. But I didn't care, because it was a huge success."
In his 1943 diaries, he looked back at his "Courthouse Square" (1935) and is struck by "the poor scoring and the clichés and triviality of the material. There is almost self-conscious simplicity, not to say idiocy, about it. Too sweet, although the vitality of rhythm is there. But it wasn't a bad way to begin a career."
By the 1940s he had turned to a more astringent and expressive idiom (Basart 2001). In 1942, he wrote in his diary, "I have decided that my slow movements from now on are going to be different; they are going to play for keeps and not just be soft, sensuous, tender, delicious, delicate, dramatic, or dark. No more warm middle-western summer-night scenes, but the cool, stormy, volcanic, passionate stretches of the soul." He commented in his 1944 diary, "I want something with more bite to it, with an ache and some force. I want the structure of this work to be evident. I want to use some of the elements of the mind in working it out, such as fugue, passacaglia, etc. I want to write with humor or wit in some parts—another function of mind. The underlying emotional warmth, however, must always be there."
In 1960 his String Quartet Number Two was premiered at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. by the Paganini Quartet, with the composer present, and broadcast on live FM radio. In the early 1960s he turned to free serial techniques, less sharply accented rhythms, and increasing fantasy (Basart 2001). In his 1987 diaries, he wrote, "Yesterday, I read about [Elliott] Carter's Double Concerto for piano and harpsichord. I find I am developing a type of chordal structure similar to his, but I never knew anything about this phase of his before reading about it. I certainly don't feel attracted to his rhythmic style, but the widespread open distribution of intervals in the chords & the cluster forms & inversions are very much what I have been doing. I hadn't, until lately, done anything to arrive at a new chordal style because of my predominant drive for linear motion, thematic or contrapuntal."
He wrote, in 1983, of his musical influences: "The first music of a serious nature I was introduced to as a child was the 2- and 3-part inventions of Bach. Then Haydn and Chopin. All of these are simple and clear, and their harmonic content is not obscured by an elaborate overlay of either contrapuntal virtuosity or chromatic sugaring. After college I emerged with a fairly self-recognized set of preferences: Scarlatti, Soler, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Berlioz, Debussy, Stravinsky—all those whose attitude toward the sonic portion of music is one of making things clear and strong-flavored."
Phillips taught composition and theory at Eastman (1933–49), the University of Illinois (1949–64), the Juilliard School of Music (1968–69), and Cornell University (1972–73). His students include Jack Beeson, William Flanagan, Kenneth Gaburo, Ben Johnston, H. Owen Reed, Daria Semegen, Steven Stucky, David Ward-Steinman, and Charles Whittenberg (Butterworth 2005, 34, 149, 163, 365, 406, 440, 495, 515). He was a Fulbright Lecturer in Barcelona, Spain, in 1960–61, and received Guggenheim fellowships in 1942–43 and 1961–62 (Butterworth 2005, 350), when the entire Phillips family reunited in Paris.
He died in Berkeley, California on June 22, 1988, aged 80, of complications after a heart attack (Branca 2012; Commanday 1988). His scores and sketches are housed in the Burrill Phillips archive, Special Collections, Sibley Library, Eastman School of Music, Rochester, New York (Anon. 1982).
His major works include:Selections from McGuffey's Reader, Suite for orchestra (1933)
Don't We All?, Opera buffa (1947); text by Alberta Phillips
Concert Piece for bassoon and string orchestra (or piano) (1942)
four piano sonatas (1942–60)
Music for This Time of Year for wind quartet
A Rondo of Rondeaux for viola and piano
The Return of Odysseus for baritone, narrator, chorus and orchestra (1956); text by Alberta Phillips
Conversations for violin and viola (1962)
Perspectives in a Labyrinth for 3 string orchestras (1962)
Dialogues for violin and viola (1963)
The Unforgiven, Opera in a prologue and 3 acts (1982); libretto by Alberta Phillips
various choral works, including That Time May Cease from Marlowe's Dr Faustus (1967)
various works for solo voice and instruments, including Eve Learns a Little (1974)