Peter Sculthorpe

1929 2014

Peter Sculthorpe

Composer

Biography

Peter Sculthorpe was an innovative 20th century composer who was greatly influenced by Australian landscape and indigenous culture. Through his compositions, he was able to combine traditional European elements with modern techniques and ancient aboriginal sounds. His works were viewed favorably by both modern critics and the public.

Peter Sculthorpe was born in Launceston, Tasmania in 1929. He studied music at the University of Melbourne and at Wadham College in Oxford, finishing in 1960. His teachers included Rubbra and Wellesz.

In 1963 Sculthorpe’s music was presented at a composer conference in Tasmania. Though his music wasn’t the most daring of all the submissions, it provided a great sense of clarity and was very polished, causing it to make a positive impression. The work lay somewhere between the work of the bold new Australian composers and the conservative public. Sculthorpe was later offered a teaching position at the University of Sydney. His String Quartet no. 6 (1965), commissioned by Musica Viva Australia allowed him reach even wider audiences than at the composer’s conference.

Most of Sculthorpe’s work is dedicated to the Australian landscape or culture. He often titles his works with, or bases the sounds on landforms, sacred places, and legends. His early works are very consistent in style, so much so that he was able to use passages from one work in another. His prominent use of a unique chord earned it the name ‘Woollahra chord,’ in his honour.

Sculthorpe was commissioned to write a piece for the Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s European tour in 1965. For this commission, Sculthorpe deeply explored and invented different ways of using timbre and density, called ‘sound events.’ These techniques can also be found in Penderecki’s music from the early 1960s. The result of the commission came to be known asSun Music, which is a series of orchestral scores with the same title. The first work,Sun Music I (1965), features the sounds of ‘quivering columns of light’ as produced by the string instruments and signals and tremors as produced by the brass in a rhythmical manner. The following works in the series areSun Music IV (1967), Sun Music II(1969), and Sun Music III (1967). Sun Music II is based on the Balinese monkey dance whileSun Music III is based on Balinese Gamelan music. The lack of chronology in the series stems from the fact thatSun Music III was originally a separate piece entitledAnniversary Music and the original Sun Dance II became Sun Music for voices, piano and percussion (1966).

Other cultures and traditions are also represented in Sculthorpe’s works. In Music for Japan(1970), instead of composing with Japanese music in mind, Sculthorpe wrote a musical essay on Australian sensibility. A piece in which he did use Japanese melodies is in one of his finest scores, entitledMangrove (1979). This work is based on the Japanese court melodies of thesaibara tradition. Some of his music, though very unique, is still rooted in European tradition, such as hisEarth Cry for orchestra (1986), which is written using pitch classes obtained from Mahler’sDas Lied von der Erde. Balinese music also appears frequently in his works. In addition to inSun Music III, references to Balinese music and culture is found in hisTabuh tabuhan for wind ensemble (1968) and his String Quartet no. 8 (1968). The string quartet imitates the sounds of the Balinese farmers pounding rice. Both of these works depart from the European style.

Though born in Tasmania, very few of Sculthorpe’s works are based on the Tasmanian culture or history. Two works, however, stand out as having Tasmanian origins; these are the worksMountains (1980) for piano and the String Quartet no. 14 (1998).

From the 1970s on, Sculthorpe began composing less original works and began to quote of paraphrase his existing works. This technique can be seen in bothSongs of Sea and Sky(1987) and Port Essington (1977). Common features in this period also include his use of sliding string harmonics, which are often used to represent the sounds of birds or to accentuate the melody or rhythm.

Most of Sculthorpe’s works, though full of modern techniques and sounds, follow a simple binary or ternary structure and can be very melodic, allowing the public to access and value his work more readily. His most melodic pieces includeSmall Town (1963-76) and Sun Music III (1967). Other melodious works include theRequiem for solo cello (1979) in which, Sculthorpe, through the use of traditional chant melodies, is able to express his own personal feelings. Another solo cello work,Threnody (1991-2) is dedicated to the death of the Australian conductor, Stuart Challender.

In addition to chamber and orchestral works, Sculthorpe composed works for the theatre such asRites of Passage (1973) and Love Thoughts (1988), and he even composed a televised opera,Quiros (1982). In his last year, he also composed one of his longest works,Requiem for choir and orchestra. The text is based on the text from the Latin Mass for the Dead, though the fifth movement uses Aboriginal text and a lullaby melody from the central west Marnoa area of southern Queensland. This piece is unique in its combination of traditional, Australian, and modern elements. His orchestration includes various percussion instruments such as the congas, timbales, and tom-toms. A native Australian instrument, the didjeridu, is also featured. Sculthorpe used the didjeridu more frequently, in solo music, string quartets, choirs, and orchestras. This addition helps give his music an authentic Australian feel.

Peter Sculthorpe died in Sydney Australia in 2014. During his lifetime he was appointed officer of the Order of Australia and received five honorary doctorate degrees among numerous other awards and recognitions. He also had the privilege of creating various arrangements of the national anthem.  

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