Prolific Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe has died aged 85.
Perhaps more than any Australian composer, Sculthorpe has profoundly impacted our nation’s musical identity. When the avante garde was blazing through Europe and America, he helped to establish a national voice, looking inwardly to our own continent. Here’s (a start!) to what you need to know.
Lesson 1: The landscape is everywhere
Sculthorpe was one of the first composers to ‘paint’ to the Australian landscape in music, and in doing this he influenced many younger composers (including Ross Edwards, Stephen Leek and Paul Stanhope). About Kakadu he wrote: “Sadly, today there are only a few remaining speakers of kakadu or gagadju. The work, then, is 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… the melodic material in Kakadu, as in much of my recent music, was suggested by the contours and rhythms of Aboriginal chant.”
Lesson 2: He recognised Australia’s Place in Asia
Music For Japan (1970)
Sculthorpe’s early music (especially during the 1960s) bears influence of Asian ideas and sounds, particularly those of Japan and Indonesia. Ann Boyd was also interested in East-Asian concepts (it is rumoured that Sculthorpe and Boyd were engaged to be married, but never went through with it).
Lesson 3: He wrote a ton of string quartets
String Quartet No. 16 (2005)
Wow. He composed 18 string quartets. That’s really a lot! His 16th Quartet was inspired by bits of letters written by asylum seekers in Australian detention centres and includes a didjeridoo.
Lesson 4: He used percussion in interesting ways
Sonata for Viola and Percussion (1960)
Sculthorpe luuuurved percussion, especially in unusual combination with other instruments. Let’s take a look at his Sonata for Viola and Percussion. (That’s an odd mix, isn’t it? But it seems to work). If you sort through your pile of Sydney Morning Herald archive copies you’ll find on 15 August 1964 this comment from Roger Covell: “A rigorously static work. The sonata, the dry gongs and desert glare of its percussion encircling the lonely human agony of the viola, exists in a climate in which emotion is all the fiercer for being half-stifled and haltingly articulate.”
Lesson 5: Sculthorpe avoided dense atonalism
Night Pieces (1971)
Sculthorpe never shied away from dissonance, but he ignored the formal serialism and atonality that dominated the 20th century. Here is a nice example – his Night Pieces. Hypnotic, repeated notes of ambiguous tonality to evoke impressionistic images: Snow, Moon and Flowers.
Written by Gordon Hamilton.