Peter Sculthorpe, inspired communicator

Peter Sculthorpe


Australia's leading comtemporary composer, whose most substantial work is considered by many to be his 2004 Requiem, has died in Sydney. The Guardian's David Matthews wrote this obituary.

Peter Joshua Sculthorpe AO OBE, composer

April, 1929 – August, 2014

Peter Sculthorpe, who has died aged 85, was Australia's foremost contemporary composer. From the start of his career, he set out to create music that would not depend on European manners and cultural traditions, but would be specifically Australian in idiom.

His contemporaries Russell Drysdale (a close friend), Arthur Boyd, and Sidney Nolan had established a true national school in painting; like them, Peter believed that Australia is primarily a visual culture, dominated by its landscape. His own music, with its blocks of non-developing material and its overall flatness and scarcity of dramatic gestures, even resembles the landscape in the look of the notes on the page.

For melodic inspiration, he turned first to Asia – Indonesia and Japan – and then, in the second half of his life, to the music of indigenous Australians, which sustained him as English folk music had sustained Vaughan Williams. Like Vaughan Williams in Britain, in Australia he became a much-honoured national figure, whose music affected not just a small coterie, but a wide range of people from all parts of society. He was that rare figure in contemporary classical music, a natural communicator.

Peter was born in Launceston, Tasmania, and grew up in the nearby village of St Leonards, where his parents ran the general store. His father Joshua was a third-generation Tasmanian; his mother Edna, a Yorkshire woman, had been a teacher before her marriage and encouraged her son to write and paint. He began piano lessons at the age of eight: after his first lesson, he spent the next week writing music, thinking that was what he was supposed to do, but at his next lesson his teacher caned him for not practising. Peter carried on composing, first in secret, then with his parents' approval. He attended Launceston Church grammar school and at the age of 16 went to Melbourne University to study piano.

He went on to compose around 250 works, including the music theatre work Rites of Passage (1972-73), for the opening of the Sydney Opera House; the television opera Quiros (1982); Requiem (2004) for chorus, orchestra and didgeridoo; many orchestral pieces, notably Mangrove (1979), Earth Cry (1986) and Kakadu (1988); and 18 string quartets. Most of these works are passionately concerned with, as he said, 'nature, the environment, and more recently, climate change.' But Peter also claimed that Australia is one of the few places in the world 'where one can honestly write straightforward, joyful music' – and he did. He was made MBE in 1970, OBE in 1977, an officer of the Order of Australia in 1990, and an Australian National Living Treasure in 1998.

Full obituary in The Guardian here.

Peter Sculthorpe on Wikipedia, here

Listen to Peter Sculthorpe's Requiem - V. Canticle on YouTube here.

Photo: Steven Siewert for The Sydney Morning Herald.

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