Peter Joshua Sculthorpe AO OBE (born 29 April 1929) is an Australian composer. Much of his music has resulted from an interest in the music of Australia's neighbours as well as from the impulse to bring together aspects of native Australian music with that of the heritage of the West. He is known primarily for his orchestral and chamber music, such as Kakadu (1988) and Earth Cry (1986), which evoke the sounds and feeling of the Australian bushland and outback. He has also written 17 string quartets, using unusual timbral effects, works for piano, and two operas. He has stated that he wants his music to make people feel better and happier for having listened to it. He has typically avoided the dense, atonal techniques of many of his contemporary composers. His work has often been distinguished by its distinctive use of percussion.
Sculthorpe was born and grew up in Launceston, Tasmania. His mother (Edna) was passionate about English literature and his father (Joshua) loved fishing and nature.
He began writing music at age nine in 1938, after having his first piano lesson. As a young composer, he independently discovered the whole-tone scale, and was disappointed when he learned that others, such as Debussy, had already used it. By the age of 13, he had decided to make a career of music, despite many (especially his father) encouraging him to enter different fields, because he felt the music he wrote was the only thing that was his own. He studied at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music from 1946 to 1950, then returned to Tasmania. Unable to make any money as a composer, he went into business, running a hunting, shooting and fishing store in Launceston (Sculthorpe's) with his brother Roger. His Piano Sonatina was performed at the ISCM Festival in Baden-Baden in 1955 (the piece had been rejected for an ABC competition because it was "too modern"). He won a scholarship to study at Wadham College, Oxford, studying under Egon Wellesz, but left before completing his doctorate because his father was gravely ill. He wrote his first mature composition, Irkanda IV, in his father's memory.
He is distantly related to Fanny Cochrane Smith, a Tasmanian Aboriginal whose wax cylinder recordings of songs are the only audio recordings of any of Tasmania's indigenous languages. Her daughter Gladys married Sculthorpe's great-grandfather's nephew.
In 1963 he became a lecturer at the University of Sydney, and has remained there more or less ever since, where he is now an emeritus professor. In the mid-1960s he was composer-in-residence at Yale University. In 1965 he wrote Sun Music I for the Sydney Symphony Orchestra's first overseas tour, on a commission from Sir Bernard Heinze, who asked for "something without rhythm, harmony or melody". Neville Cardus, after the premiere of Sun Music I, wrote that Sculthorpe was set to "lay the foundations of an original and characteristic Australian music". In 1968 the Sun Music series was used for the ballet Sun Music, choreographed by Sir Robert Helpmann, which gained wide international attention. In the late 1960s, Sculthorpe worked with Patrick White on an opera about Eliza Fraser, but White chose to terminate the artistic relationship. Sculthorpe subsequently wrote an opera (music theatre), Rites of Passage (1972–73), to his own libretto, using texts in Latin and the Australian indigenous language Arrernte. Another opera Quiros followed in 1982. The orchestral work Kakadu was written in 1988.
In 2003, the SBS Radio and Television Youth Orchestra gave the premiere of Sydney Singing, a composition by Sculthorpe for clarinet solo (Joanne Sharp), harp solo (Tamara Spigelman), percussion solo (Peter Hayward) and string orchestra. This performance was released on SBS DVD in July 2005.
His Requiem is possibly his most serious, substantial work to date. It was premiered in March 2004 in Adelaide by the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra and Adelaide Chamber Singers conducted by Richard Mills, with didgeridoo soloist William Barton, to critical acclaim.
His autobiography Sun Music: Journeys and Reflections From a Composer's Life was published in 1999.
Style and themes
Much of Sculthorpe's early work demonstrates the influence of Asian music, but he says that these influences dwindled through the 1970s as indigenous music became more important. He says that he had been interested in indigenous culture since his teens, mainly because of his father "who told me many stories of past wrongs in Tasmania. I think he was quite extraordinary for that time, as was my mother". However, it was only with the advent of recordings and books on the subject around the 1970s that he started to incorporate indigenous motifs in his work.
Sculthorpe says he is political in his work – and that his work has also always been about "the preservation of the environment and more recently, climate change". His 16th String Quartet was inspired by extracts from letters written by asylum seekers in Australian detention centres.
- 1970: Queen's Birthday Honours List: named a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE).
- 1977: MBE upgraded to Officer status (OBE).
- 1990: Australia Day Honours: appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO).
- 1999: made one of Australia's 45 Icons
- He is an Australian Living Treasure.
- He holds four honorary doctorates.
- Irkanda IV was added to the National Film and Sound Archive's Sounds of Australia registry in 2008.
- The Fifth Continent for speaker and orchestra (1963)
- Sun Music I (1965)
- Sun Music II (1969)
- Sun Music III (1967)
- Sun Music IV (1967)
- Love 200 (a collaboration with Tully) (1970)
- Music for Japan (1970)
- Small Town for solo oboe, two trumpets, timpani and strings (1976)
- Port Essington for string trio and string orchestra (1978)
- Mangrove (1979)
- Earth Cry (1986)
- Kakadu (1988)
- Memento Mori (1993)
- From Oceania (2003)
- Beethoven Variations (2006)
- Songs of Sea and Sky- also arranged for different instruments such as flute and clarinet.
- Mangrove, for orchestra
- My Country Childhood
- Shining Island (2011), for strings (remembering Henryk Górecki)
- Piano Concerto (1983)
- Earth Cry, for didgeridoo and orchestra (1986)
- Nourlangie, for solo guitar, strings and percussion (1989)
- Sydney Singing, for clarinet, harp, percussion, and strings (2003)
- Elegy, for solo viola and strings (2006)
- Birthday of Thy King
- Rites of Passage (music theatre; 1972–73)
- Quiros (1982)
- Sonata for Viola and Percussion (1960)
- Requiem for cello alone (1979; commissioned and premiered by Nathan Waks)
- From Kakadu for solo guitar (1993)
- Into the Dreaming for solo guitar (1994)
- 18 string quartets
- Between Five Bells
- Rose Bay Quadrilles
- Piano Sonatina
- Djilile (included in the works accompanying Tim Winton's Dirt Music)
- Song for a Penny
- Night Pieces [Snow, Moon, Flowers, Night, Stars]
- Thoughts from Home (intended to form part of the Gallipoli Symphony for Anzac Day 2015)
- Age of Consent (1969)
- Manganinnie (1980) - Winner AFI Award, Best Original Music Score
- Burke & Wills (1985)
- Sculthorpe, Peter (2009) "Rites of Passage", Limelight, May 2009
- "'Irkanda IV' on australianscreen online". Retrieved 2011-03-03.
- "From the Heart", Shirley Apthorp interview with Peter Sculthorpe, ABC Radio 24 Hours, May 1999, p.38
- "50 Classical Works that Changed History", Limelight, April 2010, p. 32
- Concert 10 - Henryk's Shining Island, music of Henryk Górecki and Sculthorpe's Shining Island world premier, title and themes based on a comment from Górecki to Sculthorpe, Canberra International Music Festival, 14 May 2011
- afi.org.au - AFI AWARD WINNERS: FEATURE CATEGORIES 1958-2010
- Elizabeth Silsbury (5 March 2004). "Sculthorpe Requiem". The Advertiser.
- Biography of Peter Sculthorpe – maintained by the Australian Music Centre
- Biography of Peter Sculthorpe – maintained by the Tasmanian Composers Collective
- Profile of Peter Sculthorpe – maintained by Move Records
- Big Idea – Interview with Peter Sculthorpe (ABC Radio National)
- Interview with Peter Sculthorpe by Bruce Duffie, 17 February 1994
- Guide to the papers of Peter Sculthorpe – held by the National Library of Australia
- Peter Sculthorpe Art Collection held by Pictures Branch, National Library of Australia, Canberra
- Opera Glass
- Listen to an excerpt of 'Irkanda IV' on australianscreen online