Peter Sculthorpe 1929–2014

Peter Sculthorpe ©Maurice Foxall

Peter Sculthorpe © Maurice Foxall

THE AUSTRALIAN composer Peter Sculthorpe was born in Tasmania and started to compose after his first lesson in piano, despite the strong disapproval of his piano teacher. He won a scholarship to attend the University of Melbourne’s Conservatorium of Music and then in 1958 was awarded the Lizette Bentwich Scholarship for doctoral studies at Wadham College, Oxford, where he worked with Edmund Rubbra and Egon Wellesz and came into contact with composers such as Peter Maxwell Davies and John Cage.

In 1965, Peter Sculthorpe joined Faber Music; it was an exciting time as it was the very year that Faber Music was established – a sister company to the book publisher, Faber & Faber, Faber Music’s initial goal was to publish the music of Benjamin Britten.

When Peter Sculthorpe was a young composer, most composers who were of Australian nationality wrote in a European musical style. He did not feel comfortable continuing in this tradition because it seemed alien to the Australian life around him. Peter Sculthorpe was the first to break away from European music styles in his compositions and to look to Australia’s near neighbours for inspiration, such as from Balinese Gamelan music, from Japanese music and from Aboriginal music, to the extent that he would include a part for didgeridoo in some of his pieces, such as Requiem for orchestra, chorus and didgeridoo.

The reverberations of Peter Sculthorpe’s ideas influenced not only contemporary composition in Australia but also the direction of musicology; young musicologists were inspired to direct their attention to Aboriginal music and the music of their near neighbours also. Teaching and sharing his knowledge and ideas were an integral part of Peter Sculthorpe’s life. He held a professorship at the University of Sydney from 1963 and continued his support, as emeritus professor, long after his retirement.

Over the years, we are fortunate that Peter Sculthorpe had a working relationship with John Williams. Peter Sculthorpe wrote the guitar concerto, which was called Nourlangie – after Nourlangie Rock in the Kakadu National Park in Australia – for John Williams and the Australian Chamber Orchestra; it was commissioned by the Commonwealth Bank of Australia. John Williams premièred Nourlangie in December 1990, performing it with the Australian Chamber Orchestra and percussionist Michael Askill. This vibrant work, as with most of his large-scale works from after the 1960s, includes bird sounds and the percussion part is very developed. There are some solo guitar works, such as From Kakadu, which took just some of its ideas from his orchestral work called Kakadu.

On 8 August 2014 Peter Sculthorpe died, somewhat unexpectedly. He had celebrated his 85th birthday in April 2014. His strong personal vision, his generosity of spirit and his distinctive voice as a composer, combined to create a legacy that will endure and grow with time. Speaking about contemporary music, Peter Sculthorpe said: ‘It does concern me that people buy contemporary paintings and read novels just published, but with music they listen to Beethoven and Mozart. It seems rather odd to me.

[The original version of this Obituary was published in the October 2014 issue of Classical Guitar  magazine. This revised version, has corrections generously provided by John Williams]

© Thérèse Wassily Saba 2015

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