on the 8th August 2014
Acclaimed Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe has died at age 85.
Sculthorpe passed away this morning at Wolper Jewish Hospital in Woollahra after a long battle with illness.
For many, Sculthorpe defined what it meant to be an Australian composer and defined a uniquely Australian sound.
Born in Invermay near Launceston, Tasmania in 1929, Sculthorpe studied at Melbourne University before moving to the UK study to Oxford University where he studied with composer Egon Wellesz. Parodoxically, it was in Oxford that the seeds of his Australian sound – dry, distant and lonely – were nurtured.
When he returned to Australia in 1961, Sculthorpe’s instinct to develop an Australian style which turned away from Europe, resonated with arts leaders, such as “Nugget” Coombes, chair of the Elizabeth Theatre Trust and the first Australian Council for the Arts and critics Kurt Preraurer and the Herald‘s Roger Covell.
He would become our most acclaimed contemporary composer, admired for pieces like his 1960s series Irkanda – “scrub country’ – which, for Sculthorpe, was emblematic of the silence of the Australian landscape, and later work such as Kakadu (1988), Memento Mori (1993) and the Rites of Passage, originally commissioned for the opening of the Sydney Opera House.
His last major orchestral workwas his Requiem (2004) for mixed chorus, didjeridu and orchestra written for the 2004 Adelaide Festival. However, he remained active in as a prolific composer of chamber music and as a re-arranger of his own music. An album of his solo piano compositions, played by Tamara-Anna Cislowska, is set to be released this September.
The Sydney Morning Herald‘s classical music critic Peter McCallum said Sculthorpe’s passing is a loss for the music world. “His charm mixed with an instinct for austerity, spareness and an imagination for the sounds of a lonely Australian place created a uniquely distinctive musical voice.”
“Sculthorpe was the first Australian composer to create a distinctly Australian sound and style that communicated to a wide local and international audience. Before Sculthorpe, most educated Australians could not have named an Australian composer. His genial influence on students and composers encouraged generations of composers to look inward rather than abroad to discover their own voice,” said McCallum
In 2012, Sculthorpe was given the Distinguished Services to Australian Music at the 2012 Art Music Awards, run by the Australian Music Centre.
John Davis, the centre’s CEO, said that “of all Australian composers Sculthorpe had that sound that was so closely associated with Australia”.
Sculthorpe’s music was “pioneering”, said Davis, drawing on indigenous and Asian influences and the Australian landscape in a way that had not been done before. He joined a generation of artists, from Patrick White to Sydney Nolan, in defining Australian art post-war.
“For post-war thinking and the kind of music that’s been current since the mid-century, he’s the touchstone,” Davis said.
While his music will be his great legacy – “the music lives on and we should listen to it often and reflect on it deeply” – Davis said Sculthorpe was also distinguished by his humility and care for others.
“He was kind and generous with the way he interacted with people. His students, many of whom have gone on to become significant composers, would have first-hand experience of that. He always took notice,” Davis said.