29 April 1929|
|Died||8 August 2014
Peter Joshua Sculthorpe AO OBE (29 April 1929 – 8 August 2014) was an Australian composer. Much of his music 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 was 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 also wrote 18 string quartets, using unusual timbral effects, works for piano, and two operas. He stated that he wanted his music to make people feel better and happier for having listened to it. He typically avoided the dense, atonal techniques of many of his contemporary composers. His work was often distinguished by its distinctive use of percussion.
Sculthorpe was born and raised in Launceston, Tasmania. His mother, Edna, was passionate about English literature and was the first woman to hold a driver's licence in Tasmania; and his father, Joshua, loved fishing and nature. He was educated at the Launceston Church Grammar School.
He began writing music at the age of seven or eight, after having his first piano lesson, continuing in secret when his piano teacher punished him for this activity. By the age of 14, 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. In his early teens he attempted to learn composition through studying Ernst Krenek's Studies in Counterpoint – "a pretty dreadful book" as he later described it. 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.
He won a scholarship to study at Wadham College, Oxford, studying under Egon Wellesz. Through Wellesz he met Wilfrid Mellers, whose wide literary interests included many Australian writers, and who recommended Sculthorpe read D. H. Lawrence's Kangaroo. This led directly to the composition of Irkanda II (String Quartet No. 5). His song-cycle Sun, based on three Lawrence poems, was dedicated to Mellers. These works were later withdrawn, but Lawrence's words returned in a revised version of Irkanda IV and in The Fifth Continent. He left Wadham before completing his doctorate because his father was gravely ill. He wrote his first mature composition, Irkanda IV, in his father's memory.
Shortly afterwards, he made the acquaintance of the painter Russell Drysdale, who had recently lost his son to suicide, and the pair shared a working holiday in a house on the Tamar River. Shortly afterwards, Drysdale's wife Bonnie, who had introduced him to Sculthorpe, also took her own life. His String Quartet No. 6 was dedicated to Bonnie Drysdale's memory. His Piano Sonata (later withdrawn and re-released under the title Callabonna) was dedicated to Russell Drysdale, who used Lake Callabonna in South Australia as the backdrop to some of his paintings.
He was 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 remained there more or less ever after, where he was 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 autobiography Sun Music: Journeys and Reflections From a Composer's Life was published in 1999.
He died in Sydney on 8 August 2014 at the age of 85.
Style and themes
Much of Sculthorpe's early work demonstrates the influence of Asian music, but he said that these influences dwindled through the 1970s as indigenous music became more important. He said 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 said he was political in his work – and that his work had 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.
Sculthorpe came to regard Russell "Tass" Drysdale as a role model, admiring the way he reworked familiar material in new ways. He said "In later years he was often accused of painting the same picture over and over again. But his answer was that he was no different to a Renaissance artist, striving again and again to paint the perfect Madonna-and-Child. Since then, I've never had a problem about the idea of reusing and reworking my material. Like Tass, I've come to look on my whole output as one slowly emerging work".
In the early 1970s Sculthorpe was engaged to the Australian composer and music educator, Anne Boyd, but he never married. In 1982 a painting of Sculthorpe by artist Eric Smith won the Archibald Prize.
- 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 was an Australian Living Treasure.
- He held 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) (see Thirroul, New South Wales#In popular culture)
- Port Essington for string trio and string orchestra (1977) (see Port Essington)
- Mangrove (1979)
- Earth Cry (1986)
- Kakadu (1988)
- Memento Mori (1993)
- Cello Dreaming (1998)
- 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)
- Morning Song for the Christ Child (1966)
- The Birthday of thy King (1988)
- Requiem (2004)
- 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)
- Earth Cry arr. for string quartet (1994)
- 18 string quartets (including 4 quartets with optional didjeridu - No. 12 "From Ubirr", No. 14 "Quamby", No. 16, No. 18)
- Between Five Bells
- Djilile (included in the works accompanying Tim Winton's Dirt Music)
- Night Pieces [Snow, Moon, Flowers, Night, Stars]
- Piano Sonatina
- Rose Bay Quadrilles*Song for a Penny
- 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)
- Graeme Skinner, "Pete and Tass; Sculthorpe and Drysdale", ABC Radio 24 Hours, August 1997, p. 34
- Graeme Skinner, Peter Sculthorpe: the making of an Australian composer, UNSW Press 2007, ISBN 9780868409412
- "A Great Australian Composer and National Treasure – Peter Sculthorpe 1929–2014", At the Con, issue 8(8) – 17 August 2014, University of Sydney
- "Much-loved composer lifted the human spirit" by Philip Jones, The Australian, 11 August 2014 (subscription required)
- Ford, p. 38
- Ford, p. 39
- Sculthorpe, Peter (2009) "Rites of Passage", Limelight, May 2009
- "Irkanda IV". australian screen. Retrieved 2011-03-03., includes recording
- "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
- "Obituary: Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe". ABC News. 8 August 2014. Retrieved 8 August 2014.
- "Honorary Awards – Emeritus Professor Peter Joshua Sculthorpe AO MBE", 2005, University of Sydney
- Small Town (1976), program notes
- 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 Award Winners: Feature Categories 1958–2010
- "Pianist Tamara-Anna Cislowska celebrates Sculthorpe’s 'every note'" by Matthew Westwood, The Australian, 3 September 2014 (subscription required)
"Peter Sculthorpe – Complete Works for Solo Piano, ABC Shop
- Ford, Andrew (1993). Composer to Composer: Conversations about Contemporary Music. Sydney: Hale & Iremonger. ISBN 0868066311.
- Peter Sculthorpe at the Internet Movie Database
- 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