Sculthorpe memorial 2014
Graeme Skinner
And curator of Australharmony

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Peter Sculthorpe (1929-2014)

Peter Sculthorpe: a celebration of his life and music

Verbrugghen Hall, Sydney Conservatorium of Music
University of Sydney
Saturday 25 October 2014

The University of Sydney asked me to write this program essay for its Sculthorpe memorial, reproduced below.

The organisers didn’t tell me that William Barton was to be one of the performers. Had I known, I would have written a slightly different note for Kakadu, accounting for the added role for didgeridoo. Starting with performances in 2003, Peter and William together devised what is essentially a second ‘with didgeridoo’ version of Peter’s original 1988 score. I describe that version with didgerido elsewhere in my booklet essay for the 2014 collection Peter Sculthorpe (1929-2014): the ABC Recordings.

For me, one of the most moving moments of the event was another unexpected addition! To introduce Kakadu, William walked from the back of the auditorium to the stage singing a beautiful Indigenous lament for Peter. To get just an inlking of the extraordinary magic of his simple gesture, watch the Sydney Symphony Youtube video of William’s similar vocal introduction to Kalkadungu:


Burke and Wills Suite (1985)
Sydney Conservatorium of Music Wind Symphony
John Lynch conductor

Requiem: Canticle (2004)
Sydney Conservatorium of Music Chamber Choir
Neil McEwan conductor
William Barton didgeridoo
Samantha Knutsen, George Yang cellos

Kakadu (1988/2003)
Sydney Conservatorium of Music Symphony Orchestra,
Eduardo Diazmunoz conductor
William Barton didgeridoo

Sculthorpe memorial program 2014

Remembering Peter in his music


The music of Peter Sculthorpe (1929-2014) remains one of the most original creative responses to Australian landscape and spirit of place coined by any of our artists of non-Indigenous descent. His appreciation of the continent’s vastness and the fragility of its environment, and his respect for the wisdom of its traditional owners, were firmly implanted in his personal and artistic makeup, but not without a small note of irony. Peter was a European Australian, and lived and worked for most of his life here in Sydney. When he did travel, whether here in Australia or abroad – to Kakadu, Cairns, Kyoto, Bali, Lichfield, Aspen or Taos – he always seemed happiest to get back to his desk and piano in his studio in Woollahra. His musical expeditions into the Australian outback and tropics, his spiritual voyages into the Torres Straits and across the Timor Sea, and his engagements with the traditional cultures of those places were largely ‘imaginary’ – in the very best, creative sense. It was in his music, rather than in the rest of his day-to-day existence – whether in his teaching (that he found so envigorating), or in dealing with the seemingly endless demands his compositions generated (that he so loved to complain about) – that he came to terms with the simultaneously alienating and enriching experience of being a 20th-century European Australian in his strange and often troubled, but, as he never ceased believing, wonderful homeland.

To situate himself soundly in his country and region, Peter explained that he had worked hard to free himself from many European ways of thinking about music. The strong directional and oppositional forces driving 19th century harmony seemed to him to be particularly out of place – and out of step – with his attempt to portray the wide horizons, and the more static, less obviously contrasted landscapes of Australia and the Pacific Basin. Unambiguously tonal melodies and harmonies and conventional rhythmic structures were pretty useless to him. By the mid-1960s, he explained that his music had achieved the first of his personal goals:

‘There is little development in the 19th-century sense, but rather, growth by accretion, almost, it might be said, like the manipulation of building blocks made of sound.’

The result was more than just a negation of traditional modes and values. As James Murdoch concluded in his 1972 survey Australia’s Contemporary Composers, Peter had created a ‘tangible Australian idiom, and an unequivocal musical identity’. Or, as one of his students put it in 1968, he was the first Australian classical composer ‘whose music could not be mistaken for anyone else’s’.

Most of Peter’s music after the mid-1950s was composed to order, commissioned or requested by performers and institutions. His larger works were typically the result of much preparatory thinking, a good deal of procrastination, and a concentrated burst of energy over two or three weeks, often perilously close to the final deadline. Few scores remained exactly as they were at the first performance. Endings and openings were frequently fine-tuned, along with details of colour, texture and harmony – a couple of extra bass notes here, or an extra ostinato repeat tipped in there, before he sent the finished score to his publishers. But even when a piece was notionally signed off, Peter was not necessarily finished with it. A melody, a texture, a section or movement, even a whole work, could migrate nomadically and re-settle in a new context, still recognisable, but re-presented to quite different affect. Peter likened his way of working and reworking materials to that of his close friend, painter Russell (‘Tass’) Drysdale:

‘Tass was a role model … I admired his approach to craft, the way he used layers of paint to come up with the right colour and texture. I also admired the way he worked and reworked his material. 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.’


The mid-1980s was a time of great national confidence for many Australians, perhaps best symbolised by the Australian yachting team win in the 1983 America’s Cup, and the 1988 bicentenary of European settlement. Those years saw the composition of some of Peter’s most celebratory scores, whereas the music produced around the same time by his European colleagues like Henryk Górecki and Arvo Pärt seemed to him to be overwhelmingly coloured by sorrow and lamentation. Having decisively turned his back on melancholy in the mid 1970s, in 1984 Peter reflected positively on Australia’s apparently irresistible upturn:

‘During the last year or so I have been committed to the idea of writing a straightforward, extrovert music, the kind of music that Percy Grainger might have described as Australian. It seems to me that Australia is perhaps the only place in the world where one can honestly write such joyous music.’

Among many requests for music of this kind was a commission to compose the soundtrack for a new big-budget feature film Burke and Wills (1985), directed by Graeme Clifford, and starring Jack Thompson and Nigel Havers as the colonial explorers. Peter composed a buoyantly optimistic march theme that perfectly suited the film. In the upbeat spirit of the 1980s, the tragic history of the 1860–61 expedition was slightly recast by magically allowing the ill-fated duo to see their goal, the Gulf of Carpentaria, when in reality they got no closer than five kilometres from the coast.

When, a few years later, Peter’s choral and orchestral work Child of Australia (1988) was premiered on Australia Day (26 January 1988), he reworked the same tune to the words novelist Thomas Keneally wrote for it, as the closing anthem. In the sung text, Keneally invoked the spirits of an Indigenous child at the time of first white settlement and of two child convict characters from his own bicentennial novel, The Playmaker (1987), as ‘faces of Australia’, exhorting the modern nation to build a future that would not betray their childlike confidence.

The Burke and Wills Suite (1985) for symphonic band was first performed by the Victorian Naval Band at the film’s cinema premiere, at Hoyts, Melbourne, on 1 November 1985. In the soundtrack theme – The Burke and Wills March – Peter was proud to have produced a melody that was in the ‘straightforward, open air’ tradition of Percy Grainger and, more recently, of George Dreyfus’s theme for the popular colonial TV series Rush (George was an old friend from student days). The march appears in this Suite in the Sand Dunes (Maestoso), played by trumpets. By contrast, to the dirge-like strains of The Coolibah (Grave), the tragic outcome of the expedition was revealed – Peter’s setting a post-colonial tombeau for the doomed heroes. He explained:

‘One of my objectives in writing this film score was to fuse my own musical style with that of different kinds of occasional music played in Australia in the mid-nineteenth century.’

In the film, Burke’s sweetheart Julia (Greta Scacchi) sang a ballad then popular in the A ustralian colonies, ‘I dreamt I dwelt in marble halls’, originally from the opera The Bohemian Girl (1843) by the Irish composer Michael Balfe. The Dream (Andantino) is an instrumental arrangement of this lovely waltz song. The music of The Cricket Quadrille (Allegretto) was usually associated in the film with Wills, and is a version of the English folksong, The Three Ravens, a song, Peter explained, ‘concerned with love and the quest for the Holy Grail.’

Composed a few years later, during the Australian bicentenary, Kakadu (1988) for orchestra came closest to realising Peter’s aim to write a ‘quick and joyous’ piece of pure concert music. He liked to point out that Kakadu (German for cockatoo) was already the subtitle of a set of clarinet variations by Beethoven, but that his Kakadu takes its name from Kakadu National Park, and the Indigenous kakadu or gaagudju language. Peter first wrote music about the far north coast of the Northern Territory in his film score Essington (1974), upon which he in turn based his string orchestra work Port Essington (1977). And in 1985 he revisited it in his soundtrack score for Burke and Wills. But though Burke and Wills at least came within coo-ee of the Carpentaria coast, Peter had been to neither Port Essington nor Kakadu when he composed his eponymous works. A self-confessed armchair traveller (a trait he claimed he inherited from his Moorhouse aunt, Clara), he had, however, naturally read enough about Kakadu, seen photographs in coffee-table books, and watched television documentaries to charge his imagination.

His second opera Quiros (1982) told the story of the historical Iberian explorer who set out in 1606 to discover the Great South Land, but in fact never found it, mistaking an island in the New Hebrides for the continent. Quiros’s physical voyage was thus a failure, but the theme of the opera was the vision that drove it, what Peter called the ‘mystical voyage’.

Peter made a similar leap of faith in his imaginary journey to Kakadu. Though in 1988 he had not yet been there physically (he paid his first visit in 1989, more than six months after completing Kakadu), he explained to his American audience that the work was ‘concerned with my feelings about this place, its landscape, its change of seasons, its dry season and its wet, its cycle of life and death’.

For a single movement it is a long work, though it is laid out in just three large sections. Peter described the outer sections as ‘dance-like and energetic, sharing similar musical ideas’. The melodic character of the opening finds him under the spell of the contours and rhythms of Aboriginal chant. This can be heard most clearly in the urgent opening for the upper strings (marked Ardente), music that bears a close family likeness to the treatment of the Arnhem-land melody, Djilile, at the opening of Port Essington. The opening melody in Kakadu is based on a different melody, a traditional Aboriginal lament that he had already introduced into several previous scores. Perhaps most notably it was sung by Elcho Island elder and actor, Mawuyul Yanthalawuy, in the title role of the Tasmanian colonial feature film Manganinnie (1980), around which Peter composed his soundtrack score. He also used the melody in his first Quiros work, a guitar concerto, entitled The Visions of Captain Quiros (1980). In Kakadu, after its urgent announcement by the violins over insistent bongo drumming, the melody passing to the trumpets, while the violins introduce a new countermelody that, this time, is actually derived from Djilile. The ecstatic horn melody also derives from the shared melodic and rhythmic contours of these melodies, but interpreted in a more conventionally Western, almost Romantic fashion.

The slow central section introduces an individual figure into the musical landscape, in the guise of a long melody for solo cor anglais. Peter explained it represents ‘the voice of Emanuel Papper’, the American music-lover who commissioned Kakadu as a birthday present for his wife Patricia. Dr Papper’s meditative solo is marked Lontano (as if from afar), and is rewarded with a ‘vision’ of flocking birds in a central section. This is both a spectacular picturesque interlude and pretext for the musical development that follows. As if charmed from afar by the birds, Dr Papper’s cor anglais is gradually enmeshed into the sound world of the Australian Kakadu music from the fast first section. First the strings quietly reintroduce the Djilile theme alone; then, during a series of varied repeats, the cor anglais recommences its song, weaving some of the most sinuous and exhilarating counterpoints to be found anywhere in Peter’s music.

The return of the bongo drumming (Ancora ardente) marks the start of the final section, above which the trumpets announce an exultant, fanfare-like vaulting figure. After working up to a massive climax, the dynamic level drops back for the opening of the coda: the lament in the violins and upper winds while the horns play a version of it in slower counterpoint, and the trumpet figures work back to a blazing triple forte C-major close.

Kakadu was first performed at Aspen, Colorado, on 24 July 1988, by the Aspen Festival Orchestra conducted by Jorge Mester. For the premiere, Peter’s score lacked parts for flutes, oboes and bassoons. However, to accommodate the Australian symphony orchestras, he revised it in 1989, to include them. The Australian version was first performed by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra on Peter’s 60th birthday, 29 April 1989.

But even in the midst of the confident 1980s, Peter was not able to maintain the celebratory tone of Kakadu in all his music. Writing of Kakadu’s darker sibling, Earth Cry (1986) – a score that contains some moments, rare for Peter, of genuine anger – he explained:

‘It soon became clear that it would be dishonest of me to write music that is altogether quick and joyous. The lack of common cause and the self-interest of many have drained us (Australians) of much of our energy. A bogus national identity and its commercialisation have obscured the true breadth of our culture. Most of the jubilation, I came to feel, awaits us in the future. Perhaps now we need to attune ourselves to this continent, to listen to the cry of the earth, as the Aborigines have done for thousands of years.’


Death was never far from Peter’s music, not least because it was a nexus between the Australian landscape and the dreamtime world beyond. He characterised the first work of his Irkanda series, for solo violin, composed in 1955, and a ‘funeral rite’, while the last of the series, Irkanda IV (1961) was ‘a ritual lamentation … written upon the death of my father’. His Sixth String Quartet (1965) conjured ‘a state of no-desire, and desolation and loneliness’ in the face of mourning. He dedicated it to the memory of Bonnie Drysdale, who tragically took her own life late in 1963; but the quartet was also, in another sense, for his widowed mother, Edna. Across the Pacific, the funerary rites of the Aztecs were one of the inspirations of Sun Music IV (1967), which became the final movement, ‘Destruction’, of his Sun Music ballet (1968). In his first opera Rites of Passage (1974) the climactic fifth section, ‘Death’, leads to ‘Rebirth’.

Peter composed his first instrumental setting of the Latin mass for the dead in the Requiem for cello alone (1979). He then returned to the urgent chant of the Dies irae in his ecologically inspired orchestral score Memento mori (1993). There was also the Little Requiem (1996) for koto and strings, ‘written in memory of a dear friend, the composer Toru Takemitsu’. It was premiered in Sydney by the Australian Chamber Orchestra on 20 June 1996, only four days before the Hobart premiere, by the Tasmanian Symphony, of Port Arthur: In Memoriam (1996), commemorating those who lost their lives in the April massacre.

Finally, Peter set aside most of the year around his 75th birthday (29 April 2004) to compose and revise his Requiem (2004) for chorus, didgeridoo and orchestra. It was certainly not a requiem for himself. He was happy and well at the time, and composing productively. As if to play down the portentous nature of writing a requiem, and to assert its essentially familiar aspects, he dedicated it to the memory of his father and mother, who died in 1961 and 1994 respectively, and he explained that its main concerns were not judgement and reckoning but ‘with eternal rest and with light that is all enlightening, both of primary concern to all human beings’.

However, he did give a more particular list of reasons for writing such a ‘prayer for light and peace’, as much for the living as for the dead, in an interview shortly before the premiere. While actually composing it, he thought of the Requiem as being chiefly for children killed since the 2003 commencement of the war in Iraq, and behind, before and after them, all children affected by wars.  He also wanted the work to be heard as his personal plea for justice, a protest against Australia’s criminal treatment of asylum-seekers, a prayer that Australia remedy its failure to ratify the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, and to face up to its ongoing problems in relating and respecting Aboriginal peoples and other minorities. The prominent place given to the didgeridoo, and to one particular Aboriginal chant, leaves no doubt that the work is also his call f or justice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Significantly, he chose not to use the word reconciliation for what he was seeking, ‘because we were never conciled in the first place’.

Most of the Requiem sets the traditional Latin text of the mass for the dead. The only extra-liturgical movement is Canticle, a setting of the so-called Maranoa Lullaby. Its words and music were remembered by Harold Octavius Lethbridge (1880-1944) from performances he heard in his boyhood, in the late 1880s, by Indigenous singers on his father’s property in the Maranoa-Warrego district, on the Queensland-NSW border. Later a surgeon and amateur musician at Narrandera, where he was known locally as a friend of the Wiradjuri tribe, Lethbridge published his transcriptions and translations of five Indigenous chants as Australian Aboriginal Songs (1937). Peter’s first treatment of the tune, a student exercise for Bernard Heinze’s orchestration class at the Melbourne University Conservatorium in 1949, was based directly on Lethbridge’s 1937 edition with its harmonised piano accompaniment by Arthur S. Loam (1898-1976), then a local music teacher in nearby Wagga Wagga.  Lethbridge insisted in 1937 that his transcription ‘adhered strictly to the melody, rhythm and words’ of the original, though he recalled that, 50 years earlier, some of the songs were already ‘so old that even those who sung them could not translate them literally into the language of their tribe’.

On publication, the lullaby was taken up by such performers as Essie Ackland and visiting Italian tenor Tito Schipa, and was recorded in 1951 by Aboriginal tenor and rights activist Harold Blair (1924-1976). Though the published form was so thoroughly Westernised as probably to be unrecognisable to its traditional owners, the simple chant-like melody reveals affinities with other global chant traditions, from China and Japan, to Christian Rome. Arthur Loam’s added modal harmonies, though inauthentic, were attractive and evocative and not unlike some of Percy Grainger’s folksong accompaniments, and it was because of this that Peter chose to retain some of them when he again arranged Maranoa Lullaby (1996) for mezzo-soprano and string quartet. Treating it slightly more creatively, Peter then reworked the Maranoa Lullaby melody into the freely moving chant-like opening theme of Cello Dreaming (1998).

His first musical reaction to the plight of children caught up in the second invasion of Iraq was to rework the freer Cello Dreaming treatment of the Maranoa chant as Lullaby (2003) for unaccompanied SATB voices, which, in turn, when he finally set out on the Requiem in October 2003, became the basis of the Canticle. There it forms the Requiem’s serene centrepiece, growing, as he explained:

‘… from thoughts about children killed in war and thoughts of mothers singing them to everlasting rest … According to Indigenous speakers, the text is made up of traditional nonsense-words, sung by a mother as she rocks her baby to sleep. The middle verse, it seems, is concerned with protection from enemies of every kind:

mum-ma war-run-no
mur-ra wa-thun-no
ween ji-na bu-ki ya-ka
ween ji-na bu-ki ya-ka
mum-ma war-run-no
mur-ra wa-thun-no.

It should be said that I am not a religious composer in any sectarian sense. On the other hand, most of my output is devoted to seeking the sacred in nature, in all things. My Requiem is no exception to this.’

© Graeme Skinner 2015