Peter Sculthorpe: Composer who drew on aboriginal and Asian traditions to forge a distinctive Australian sound

His work treads an emotional  path between sorrow and consolation

Peter Sculthorpe came to symbolise Australian classical music in the same way that Sidney Nolan represented Australia’s poetry and Patrick White its literature.

Percy Grainger used to insist that he was an Australian composer, but lived in the US; Sculthorpe not only became one of his country’s cultural icons but deliberately created an Australian sound in his works, writing music that suggested Australia’s huge empty spaces and paid tribute to the musical traditions of its first inhabitants.

Grainger featured early in Sculthorpe’s life. Born in Tasmania, it wasn’t until he was six, when his mother took him to the mainland, that Sculthorpe attended a concert featuring Grainger playing the Grieg Piano Concerto. Fearing his interpretation was growing dull, the eccentric Grainger livened it up, leaping off the platform after his initial flourish, running to the back of the hall, touching the wall and leaping back on to the stage just in time for his next entry. For a while the young Sculthorpe thought all classical concerts went like that.

Sculthorpe was writing music at seven – in secret after his piano teacher caned him on the knuckles for wasting his time and telling him that “all composers are dead”. His parents,  who ran the general store in the village of St Leonards, outside Launceston, discovered him composing under the bedclothes at night, and from then on music flowed from him.

Discovering after a BMus at the University of Melbourne that he couldn’t make a living from music, he returned to Tasmania and set up what he called a “Huntin’, Shootin’ and Fishin’” shop with his brother Roger. But he won a scholarship, electing to study at Wadham College, Oxford (1958–60); his teachers included Egon Wellesz and Edmund Rubbra.

But Oxford confirmed what his music had made clear: the European model was not for him. His Piano Sonatina of 1954 and Irkanda I of 1955 both use aboriginal tradition (“irkanda” is an aboriginal word meaning “a sad and lonely place”, he explained). Irkanda IV for violin, strings and percussion, a passionate elegy written on his return from Oxford, established his very personal voice – and it was a personal work, written in memory of his father.

Sculthorpe had felt the nearness of death since he was seven, when a playmate died of tetanus from a nail-wound inflicted as he climbed over the Sculthorpes’ garden fence; and as an adolescent he was acutely aware of the gradual extinction of Tasmania’s aboriginal culture. Now he decided to celebrate light, with a series of exultant pieces called Sun Music. Sun Music I (1965) evoked “the feeling of the sun as a vast, glaring impersonal force in a country dominated by it”, as David Cairns reported in a Financial Times review of the Royal Festival Hall UK premiere. The next Sun Music, for voices and percussion, “made instant communication with its scalp-prickling excitement”, as the Sydney critic Frank Harris wrote.

The Sun Music series added Japanese, Balinese and other Asian elements to the aboriginal ones in Sculthorpe’s music as he sought a language to reflect Australia’s position on the globe and his pantheistic outlook: he described what he did as “seeking the sacred in nature”.  Sun Music I caught the attention of Donald Mitchell, who was setting up Faber Music with Benjamin Britten; Sculthorpe became the second Faber house composer after Britten – and one of its most productive: the worklist at www.petersculthorpe.com.au contains almost 400 pieces. He was especially prolific as a writer of string quartets, completing 18 – two more than Beethoven, as he noted with glee.

The environment, and man’s place within it, is an enduring theme in Sculthorpe’s work. His Port Essington for string orchestra (1977) documents the failure of a 19th-century attempt to establish a British colony in the Northern Territory in the teeth of natural hazards. The desolate Mangrove (1979), with its starting point in aboriginal legend, pointed to the importance of Australia’s mangrove swamps when they were seen merely as an obstacle to tourist growth. Earth Cry (1986) is a sort of massive orchestral ritual and Kakadu (1988) a colourful evocation of Australia’s largest national park.

Sculthorpe’s preference for writing on harmonic plateaux, avoiding the development sections typical of western music, gives most of his music a ritual quality and makes it instantly recognisable. Recurrent Sculthorpe fingerprints reinforce its identity: sliding string harmonics to suggest flocks of birds, its skilful emotional path between sorrow and consolation, drumming patterns inherited from Asia, echoes of aboriginal melody, and an unusual chord he used so often that his students nicknamed it “the Woollahra chord”, after the suburb of Sydney where he lived.

The essential harmonic stasis of Sculthorpe’s music allowed him to retrofit another fundamentally Australian sound, the didjeridu, to a number of his scores when he met the young player William Barton in 2001, and his Requiem for chorus and orchestra (2004), one of his largest works, was written to give Barton’s prodigious virtuosity a central role. The UK premiere followed at the Lichfield Festival, where Sculthorpe was the featured composer. In July 2011 Barton returned to Britain for the London premiere of the Requiem in Southwark Cathedral, in a version for chorus and organ, as part of the City of London Festival.

Sculthorpe was a frequent visitor to Britain. In 1972 he was a visiting professor at the University of Surrey; in 2007 he was composer-in-residence at the Presteigne Festival – his unaffected charm leaving the warmest of memories – and the 2012 Presteigne Festival premiered the saxophone concerto Island Songs he wrote for his fellow Australian Amy Dickson. On 24 August the Presteigne Festival will perform his brief Stabat Mater in his memory.

In the early 1970s Sculthorpe was engaged briefly to the composer Anne Boyd, one of his first students at the University of Sydney, where he lectured from 1963-99, but they broke off the engagement: “we felt that two composers in one house was one too many”. He never did marry (“I feel that my works are my children”), but was surrounded by a circle of close friends and sustained by his drive to write music.

Peter Joshua Sculthorpe, composer: born Invermay, Tasmania, 29 April 1929; died Sydney 8 August 2014.8 May 2014.

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