Peter Sculthorpe, Australia's Greatest Composer, Has Died

Composer Peter Sculthorpe. Photo: Maurice Foxall

Peter Sculthorpe, the Tasmanian boy who wrote his first piece of music aged nine, and rose to become an internationally acclaimed contemporary composer, died in Sydney today. He was 85.

Born in Launceston in 1929, Peter Sculthorpe gave Australia its classical music soundtrack with landmark works such as Mangrove (1979), Earth Cry (1986), Kakadu (1988) and Great Sandy Island (1988) for orchestra. He wrote about country and nature, often underpinned by an environmental message.

His music carries a strong sense of place, taking influences from Asia, especially Japan and Indonesia during the ’60s before turning to from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island culture, as well as the Pacific Islands. An 2001 encounter with didjeridu player William Barton saw him include a number didjeridu parts to his works.

And environmentalist and humanist, another common theme was alienation. His later works included String Quartet No 16 (2006), commissioned by human rights lawyer Julian Burnside, was a tribute to asylum seekers in detention centres, with its movements bearing the titles Loneliness, Anger, Yearning, Trauma and Freedom. He acknowledged his works became more political in later life, with Requiem (2004) being a response to the women and children killed in the Iraq war, while Song of the Yarra (2008), written for the opening of the Melbourne Recital Centre, tackled climate change and reconciliation.

He wrote mostly for orchestra, and by his 80th birthday had composed more than 350 works, which he described as his children, having never married or had children.

An early foray into opera in the 1960s was meant to be a collaboration with Patrick White about Eliza Fraser’s life on Fraser Island after being captured by Aborigines, but the pair fell out. Sculthorpe wrote his own libretto in Latin and indigenous Aranda for Rites of Passage, which wasn’t finished until 1973 for the opening of the Sydney Opera House. He recalled that people loved or hated the work.

“I remember one night as I was bowing, a whole row of people booed me. Then the row of people behind stood up and thumped them. I loved that,” he said.

Sculthorpe studied music at Melbourne University, but when it didn’t make ends meet, he returned to Tasmania in his 20s to run a hunting and fishing shop with his brother Roger.

He kept writing music and after his 1955 Piano Sonatina was performed in Baden-Baden, he focused more on composition and less on selling bait and after winning a scholarship to study overseas headed to Oxford.

In 1964 he became head of Sydney University’s music department, influencing the next generation of Australian composers with his views on a distinctive Australian style and remained an Emeritus Professor there and in 2008 donated $3 million to create the nation’s first chair of Australian music.

Peter Sculthorpe was named a National Living Treasure in 1997 and received an OBE in 1977, as well as being appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) in 1990 among a lifetime of international accolades.

Sally Cavender, vice-chairman of his publisher, Faber Music, paid tribute to Sculthorpe, saying “His music is absolutely distinct, individual and lyrical, and expresses the warmth and simplicity of the man himself.

“His loss will be felt by his many pupils who now number amongst Australia’s most successful composers, and by Australian musical culture at large which he so profoundly influenced and reflected.”

Prime Minister Tony Abbott and arts minister George Brandis described Sculthorpe as “a musical giant” who “changed the country’s music landscape forever” in a joint statement.

“His ‘Sun Music’ series of compositions from the 1960s was the dawning of the first identifiably Australian sound in classical music,” they said.

Sculthorpe’s final work, number 393, was in 2012, simply titled Patrick White Fragments, for soprano and piano.

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