Peter Sculthorpe obituary
Graeme Skinner
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Peter Sculthorpe birth notice 1929

Peter Sculthorpe (1929-2014)

A legacy for our musical landscape

The Australian Financial Review
(11 August 2014), 26


Often using traditional motifs, Peter Sculthorpe enriched the sound of Australian music.

Peter Sculthorpe was Australia's first classical music composer of international stature, and one of this nation's most original and distinctive creative voices in any medium.

He was born in the working-class Launceston suburb of Invermay in 1929.

His shopkeeper parents moved to rural St Leonards, where cocooned from the worst after-effects of the depression, he spent a solitary but otherwise idyllic childhood.

A capable but far from brilliant pianist, he started composing seriously at school, entering the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music at age 16, in 1946.

His professor was conductor Bernard Heinze, and fellow students included composers George Dreyfus and the late Don Banks. After graduating, he worked in the family's sporting-goods business, while composing part-time for the local amateur theatre company.

He also worked on musicals in Canberra and at Sydney's Phillip Street Theatre before, in 1958, winning a Melbourne University postgraduate scholarship to Oxford. He studied with composers Egon Wellesz and Edmund Rubbra, and formed a lifelong friendship with musicologist Wilfrid Mellers. According to Mellers, it was at Oxford that the homesick young Tasmanian "discovered his true identity, becoming the first composer to make a music distinctively Australian".

Back home he responded to his father's death in 1961 by composing his "austerely Australian" string orchestra work Irkanda IV. It earned him the attention of arts leaders including Nugget Coombs and Robert Helpmann, and resulted in opera, ballet, and chamber music commissions, and a place at the head of a questing "new wave" of young composers including Nigel Butterley, Larry Sitsky, and the late Richard Meale.

Asian traditional music.

His appointment to the teaching staff of Sydney University in 1964 was catalytic to his creative development. "Thrown in at the deep end," as he recalled, by Professor Donald Peart, he found himself teaching Asian traditional music, which in turn deeply influenced his own music.

He went on to mentor many generations of young composers, his early students including Ross Edwards, Anne Boyd, Barry Conyngham and Kim Williams.

His first international recognition came in 1965 when the Sydney Symphony, on its first overseas tour, premiered his Sun Music I in London, and he was signed by Benjamin Britten's publisher Faber Music.

He spent 1966 in the US as a Yale visiting fellow, adding three more numbers to the Sun Music series, before reworking them into the dance symphony Sun Music, performed over 100 times by the Australian Ballet. A year after the Australian premiere of Hair, his contribution to the 1970 Cook Bicentenary was a classical-rock fusion oratorio, Love 200, featuring vocalist Jeannie Lewis and the Sydney Symphony.

'The most original sound'

It was followed by the opera-ballet Rites of Passage (1974), and the TV opera Quiros (1982). His 1977 string orchestra work Port Essington was first of his many tributes to indigenous Australians.

Composing for strings was an early preference, and he wrote his first four string quartets in his teens. His Eighth Quartet (1969) – a work inspired by Balinese percussion gamelan, and which he tried to purge of conventional classical European gestures – was greeted by one reviewer at its London premiere as "unlike any music I know".

 Fifteen years later, when recorded by the San Francisco-based Kronos Quartet, it delivered him a new global audience. Norman Lebrecht noted: "The most original sound to emerge from Australia since Nellie Melba . . . [it] established Sculthorpe as musical figurehead for the entire Pacific basin."

Sculthorpe continued to draw deeply on the musical heritage of Australia's Pacific neighbours in landmark orchestral scores such as Mangrove (1979) and Memento Mori (1993), while indigenous influences remained foundational to his mature style, notably in his Earth Cry (1986), Kakadu (1988) and the luminous guitar concerto Nourlangie (1989), composed for John Williams.

His ongoing personal attempt at a reconciliation of indigenous and settler music cultures (and people) reached a high point in his Requiem (2004) for chorus and orchestra, though Sculthorpe was careful to point out that "reconciliation" was not his preferred word, "since we were never 'conciled' in the first place!".

And one of the proudest moments of his late career came in 2005 when he and singer Jimmy Little were together admitted to the degree of Doctor of Music by the University of Sydney, in recognition of "their joint contribution to reconciliation between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians".

Issues of reconciliation, human rights, and cultural and environmental responsibility were common threads running through the music of his last years, his Sixteenth Quartet (2005), commissioned by Julian Burnside, a heartfelt protest against Australia's ongoing "inhumane treatment of refugees, including children, in mandatory detention". While often disheartened by bogus nationalism, his guiding vision of Australia remained quietly, confidently optimistic.

Sculthorpe opted not to marry or have children, for the sake of his work. He was an artist dedicated to his role as composer, teacher and musical leader. His easy, straightforward generosity disarmed even those few contemporaries who resented his success.He is survived by his brother's family and a devoted circle of friends and former students. He leaves an unparalleled musical legacy of close to 400 distinctively Australian compositions. His estate will endow the first Chair of Australian Music at the University of Sydney.

© Graeme Skinner 2015