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Sculthorpe, Peter (Joshua)

(b Launceston, Tasmania, 29 April 1929; d Sydney, Australia, 8 August 2014). Australian composer. Of all Australian composers active since Grainger, he is seen by the Australian musical public as the most nationally representative. He studied at the University of Melbourne (BMus) and later at Wadham College, Oxford (1958–60), where his teachers included Rubbra and Wellesz. In 1963 his achievement as a composer made a decisive impression at a conference of composers held in Tasmania. Although his works were not the most daring of those presented – he had by this time explored and largely rejected serial techniques – they exhibited a clarity and polish that identified him as a persuasive intermediary between the new wave of Australian composers and a generally conservative public. After the conference, he was offered a lectureship at the University of Sydney.

Sculthorpe introduced himself to a wider musical audience with the String Quartet no.6 (1965), commissioned by Musica Viva Australia. Irkanda IV (1961), a passionately elegiac work written on the death of his father, shares with the Quartet many of the stylistic traits that define his early musical vocabulary: an overall mood of sombre intensity articulated through strongly accented descending minor 2nds and minor 3rds; frequent and sometimes elaborate performance directions in Italian; occasional passages of spectral, stiffly jerking puppetry; and short phrases. He remarked at the time that he composed in small units that came together ‘by accretion’. An additional aspect of his early style, important in establishing its frequent tone of smouldering unease, is the positioning of melodic phrases across regular or expected accents. The clarity and effectiveness of his textures appear as if inseparable from the quasi-fanatical neatness of his musical manuscripts (sometimes transcribed in the hands of comparably tidy students or other young assistants).

Sculthorpe’s arduous compositional pace gave his early music a consistency of style and manner that allowed him to transfer passages easily from one work to another; he acknowledged, for example, that the String Quartet no.6 was in part a compendium of his best work up to that time. If he was open at times to charges of stylistic limitation, his consistency guaranteed that his listeners would always recognize his works. One of his favourite chords, a stack of 3rds intersected by an augmented 4th (sometimes used in sequence with a parallel construction a semitone or tone away), became such a prominent feature of his music that his students named it the ‘Woollahra chord’ after the Sydney suburb where he lived.

Sculthorpe was commissioned to write a piece for the Sydney SO to play on its 1965 European tour. This project led him to explore successive ‘sound events’ (discrete inventions in timbre and density), such as those employed in Penderecki’s music of the early 1960s. The resulting work, Sun Music, the first of a series of orchestral scores with this title, inflects aggregates of string pitches separated by (approximate) quarter-tones to suggest quivering columns of light. Brass instruments provide signals and rhythmic tremors. One brief section for brass transcribes a passage Sculthorpe had used in class and on an educational television programme to illustrate a process of multi-serial composition. In its final form the Sun Music series comprised: Sun Music I (1965); the more animated and effectively contrasted Sun Music IV (1967) in a closely related style; the scherzo-like Sun Music II (1969), a free transcription of the Balinese monkey dance Ketjak; and the lustrous Sun Music III (1967, originally Anniversary Music), which takes its point of departure from Balinese gamelan music. Other related works include Sun Music for voices, piano and percussion (1966, originally Sun Music II), which draws on a view of historical Mexico (as does the String Quartet no.7, 1966) and the orchestral Sun Song (1984). Some of the pieces in the Sun Musicseries were assembled to form the score for a ballet (1968) based visually on Japanese conventions.

Similar in style to the Sun Music series, Music for Japan (1970) does not simulate or pay tribute to Japanese music; it serves instead as an essay in Australian sensibility (bound up with a mystical identification with landscape) for Japanese listeners. Sculthorpe’s simulation of Balinese traditional music, fuelled by his reading of Colin McPhee’s A House in Bali, was his most sustained exercise in Asian culture. First made prominent in the smoothly chiming patterns of Sun Music III, references to Balinese music recur in a number of subsequent works including Tabuh tabuhan for wind ensemble (1968), the title of which is borrowed from McPhee, and the String Quartet no.8 (1968, originally entitled String Quartet Music), in which fast rhythmic passages imitate traditional rice-pounding patterns of Balinese farmers.

Although Sculthorpe’s adoption of Balinese patterns, inflections and timbres represented a metaphorical turning away from European tradition, the elegiac music that persisted in many works remains deeply founded in European tradition. Sculthorpe explained his fondness for an accented semitone descent, for example, as a recollection of the ‘Abschied’ of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde. His later perception that Kepler had arrived at the pitch sequence G–A♭–G in his attempt to calculate the harmony of the spheres strengthened his conviction that by using these pitch classes he could characterize the earth in an ecological way. Among other works, the motif appears in the powerful Earth Cry for orchestra (1986).

Sculthorpe’s abiding concern for much of his career, however, was to establish a nexus between his music and a sense of the physical presence of the landforms of Australia. His use of Aboriginal titles, legends, and references to sacred places reflects that purpose. Unlike earlier Australian composers, he adopted a view approaching that of an Adelaide-centred group of writers – the group published a Jindyworobak journal and anthology, and often identified with that title – who believed that the invocation of Aboriginal words and concepts can give a kind of magical access to an identification with the land built up by the Aboriginals over tens of thousands of years. Sculthorpe’s string trio The Loneliness of Bunjil (1954, rev. 1964), otherwise notable for its use of quarter-tones, is an early essay in invoking an imaginary Aboriginal presence. The Piano Sonatina that followed a year later, employing many of the distinctive traits of his moody, introspective manner together with his liking for a stiffly impelled animation, bears an inscription with Aboriginal references: ‘For the journey of Yoonecara to the land of his forefathers, and the return to his tribe’. The Irkanda series (1955–61) contains in its title a perhaps invented Aboriginal reference to ‘a remote and lonely place’, and the text for his choreographic and choral-orchestral theatre work Rites of Passage is taken from the language of the Southern Aranda people of central Australia. The Song of Tailitnama, which introduced a longer-breathed, more rhythmically impetuous character into his lyrical writing, conforms in its principal melody to the contours of many Australian Aboriginal songs.

The importance of place in Sculthorpe’s musical imagination became evident early on in works such as The Fifth Continent (1963), in which a narrator reads poetic text from D.H. Lawrence’s novel Kangaroo while an orchestra mimics the swell of the ocean and Lawrence’s response to the bush and a township’s modestly scaled war memorial. That preoccupation reasserted itself in Mangrove (1979), an orchestral piece that ranks as one of Sculthorpe’s most finely proportioned and effectively individual scores. In addition to ideas of renewal and transformation, the work celebrates the rich fecundity of mangrove tidal flats at a time when these trees were looked on as untidy impediments to clean-limbed tourist development. One of a small number of scores drawing on Japanese court melodies of the saibara tradition, Mangrove suggests ancient, weathered music that crumbles into place rather than falling into neatly organized patterns. Although he had long made Sydney the base of his professional career, Sculthorpe continued to find inspiration in his Tasmanian origins. The piano piece Mountains (1980) echoes something of the character of the rugged southwest of the island, while the String Quartet no.14 (1998) embodies his memories of northern Tasmanian landmarks and stories. Other works respond to national occasions:Child of Australia (1988), to words by Thomas Kenneally, salutes without vainglory the bicentenary of European settlement in Australia; Port Arthur (1996) laments a then-recent mass killing at one of the one of the most notorious prisons of the convict era, now a tourist site.

Sculthorpe’s homage to Aboriginal legends and sacred sites, and his love for the often harshly outcropped Australian terrain merged in a series of works that coincided with gains in Aboriginal legal rights to a present-day form of traditional land ownership. Songs of Sea and Sky (1987) vividly evokes the vast, cloud-fringed peacefulness of tropical seascapes; Kakadu (1988), another major work making use of Japanese court melody, embodies in often exuberant and always magically evocative orchestral terms Sculthorpe’s response to the dedication of a large area of Northern Territory wilderness as a national park; Nourlangie (1989), originally a guitar concerto written for the Australian-born John Williams, was inspired by Aboriginal drawings on a Kakadu rockface; and Jabiru Dreaming, which came into being variously as a percussion quartet (1989–92), the String Quartet no.11 (1990), and the Third Sonata for string orchestra (1990–94), refers in its title to the legend-hallowed jabiru, a long-legged swamp bird classified in today’s terms as a black-necked stork. Increasingly Sculthorpe extended his resources by quoting or paraphrasing characteristic melodies, as in his simulations of Aboriginal themes and rhythms. Songs of Sea and Sky makes use of Torres Strait song melody, while Port Essington (1977) communicates the failure of a northern Australian colonial settlement by allowing music representing the Australian terrain and its Aboriginal inhabitants to encroach inexorably on genteel salon music.

Sculthorpe’s formal structures are usually very straightforward; many works adopt a version of simple binary or ternary form while finding variety in their overall shapes through the incorporation of rhetorical moments of stasis. A common feature of many compositions from the 1970s on is the use of sliding string harmonics, often strongly suggesting the cries of seagulls, to punctuate and frame the melodic or rhythmic momentum of emotional charged musical paragraphs. Never alienating listeners with technical cleverness, his appeal is through a haunted poetry born of deep concern for human beings and the natural world. His melodic gift, particularly notable in the delicately loping phrases of Small Town (1963–76) and the slowly released oboe theme of Sun Music III (1967), helped to convince the public of the validity and relevance of his work. An elegiac tone, unerring and persistent, spans the work of his whole career, achieving an extended state of equilibrium between sorrow and consolation in his remarkable Requiem for solo cello (1979), a work in which quotations from traditional chant melodies frame expressions of personal grief.

Sculthorpe’s creative response to the ideas of death and personal or community loss, evidenced through much of his career in such pieces as his Lament for strings (1976), his orchestral Memento Mori (1993), his solo celloThrenody (1991–2) for the untimely death of the Australian conductor Stuart Challender and his Requiem for solo cello, reached a climax of scale and duration in early 2004 with the completion of his choral-orchestralRequiem. Lasting in performance around 40 minutes and bringing together the instruments of a standard symphony orchestra (very selectively used) and a choral group, without soloists, divided variously in two to seven parts, the 2004 Requiem is the composer’s longest piece since his theatre works Rites of Passage (1973) and Love Thoughts (1998), and his originally televised opera Quiros (1982). Its text draws predominantly on the Latin Mass for the Dead while also finding space, in its fifth movement (‘Canticle’), for appropriate Aboriginal words attached to a traditional lullaby from the central-west Maranoa area of southern Queensland. The work’s ‘Introit’ catches the listener’s attention with four horns in unison baying out a powerful summons over the rhythmic counterpoints of conga drums, timbales and tom-toms (a recurring ensemble used as a kind of ‘semi-chorus’ for some other sections of the work) before the entry of a four-part chorus in which starbursts of soprano tone on the words ‘Requiem aeternam’ occur over the chant-like delivery of the full text. Much of the choral writing is in block harmony and is animated by off-centre rhythmic spacing. The fourth movement (‘Sequence’) introduces the most familiar plainchant melody of the ‘Dies irae’ in a flowing variant for strings, while sopranos and altos seem almost to mock it with the first entry of an attractively skipping and syncopated setting of the ‘Dies irae’ text. For the Maranoa lullaby-derived Canticle, which begins the Requiem’s second part, conventional orchestral instrumentation dwindles to a solo cello but has the very significant addition of a didjeridu. This instrument, chosen and shaped in this instance to produce four basic pitches (with the addition of spat overtones and other effects), is allowed a considerable measure of improvisatory freedom in its contribution to most sections of the work. William Barton’s brilliant playing of this instrument was an important element in the initial performances of the Requiem, and Barton’s creative gifts in performance became an increasingly prevalent part of the composer’s compositional strategies. Sculthorpe incorporated the didjeridu’s evocative presence in music for Western solo instruments, string quartet, choirs, and orchestra. The instrument’s wordless reminder of Australian landscape, with its implications of the deeply based significance that landscape has for Aboriginal Australians, helps to fulfil the composer’s wish to identify his music with the look, sound, and feel of Australian places.

Sculthorpe’s long-time status for Australians as the country’s best-known composer of concert-hall music has meant, inevitably, that he was expected to serve as a de facto national laureate, for which his appointment as an Officer of the Order of Australia and the honorary doctorates he received from five universities, together with numerous other honours, served as a kind of official warrant. He accepted this task without complaint, making, for example, various arrangements of Peter McCormick’s national anthem, Advance Australia Fair, and composing an anthem for Australia Day (26 January) to words by Kenneally. He added to his considerable tally of string quartets, reaching a total of 18 and incorporating such occasional novelties as didjeridu sounds and a mezzo-soprano voice, while continuing in them to make characteristic and effective contrasts between his yearning/lacerated music and the lean, athletically pointed, and non-developing dances of many of his fast movements. Always a deft re-user of material composed in earlier years and for earlier occasions, his compositional activities in his later years centred increasingly on rearranging his shorter pieces, both instrumental and vocal, for other combinations, in this way following the example of a large number of his compositional predecessors.


Complete list of works to 2009, ed. Graeme Skinner, is available at http://www.petersculthorpe.com.au


Sun Music (ballet, 5 pts: Sun Music I–IV; Sun Music for Voices and Percussion), 1968

Rites of Passage (theatre piece, Aboriginal: Southern Aranda) , solo vv, chorus, orch, dancers, 1972–3; Love Thoughts (Jap. and Eng.), S, spkr, koto, str qt, 1977, rev. 1998; Quiros (TV op, B. Bell), solo vv, chorus, orch, 1982


Morning Song for the Christ Child (R. Covell), SATB, 1966, arr. str qt as Morning Song, 1970; Sun Music for Voices and Percussion, SATB, pf, 3 perc, 1966; Autumn Song (Covell), SATBarB, 1968, arr. str qt, 1994; Sea Chant (Covell), unison vv, pf, opt. high insts, perc, 1968, arr. unison vv, orch, 1975; The Stars Turn (T. Morphett), AATBarBarB, 1970–79 [from Love 200, arr D. Matthews]; Child of Australia (T. Keneally), S, spkr, chorus, orch, 1988; The Birthday of Thy King (H. Vaughan), carol, SATB, 1988; Psalm cl, Tr vv, opt. vv/insts, 1996; Lullaby (Aboriginal), SATB, 2003; Requiem (Lat., Aboriginal) chorus, didjeridu, orch, 2004, also children’s vv, pf, 2004; Song of the Yarra, S, vn, SATB, chbr ens, 2008


The Fifth Continent (D.H. Lawrence), spkr, orch, 1963; Sun Music I, 1965; Sun Music III: Anniversary Music, 1967; Sun Music IV, 1967; Sun Music II: Ketjak, 1969; Music for Japan, 1970; Ov. for a Happy Occasion, 1970; Mangrove, 1979; Pf Conc., 1983; Sun Song, 1984; Burke and Wills Suite, concert band, 1985, arr. brass band, 1986, arr. orch, 2002; Earth Cry, 1986; Kakadu, 1988; Little Nourlangie, org, orch, 1990; From Uluru, 1991; Nangaloar, 1991; Memento mori, 1992–3; Darwin Marching, orch, 1995; Great Sandy Island, 1998; Music for Federation, 2001; From High Hills, 2002; Advance Australia Fair, 2003; Beethoven Variations, 2003, also with opt. didjeridu, 2006; Tropic, 2008

Chamber orchestra

Irkanda IV, vn, str, perc, 1961, arr. fl, str trio, 1990, str qt, 1991, fl, str qt, 1992; Small Town, 1963–76 (from The Fifth Continent); From Tabuh Tabuhan, str, perc, 1968; Autumn Song, str, 1968–86; Lament for Str, 1976; Night Song, str, 1976; The Stars Turn, 1970–76 [from Love 200]; Cantares, flamenco gui, 3 acoustic gui, 4 elec gui, elec bass, str qt, 1979;

Port Essington, str trio, str orch, 1977; Little Suite for Strings: Sea Chant, Little Serenade, Left Bank Waltz, 1983; Sonata for Str [no.1], 1983; Second Sonata for Str, 1975–88; Nourlangie, gui conc., str, perc, 1989; Lament, solo vc, str, 1991 (arr of Lament for Str, 1976); Awake Glad Heart!, 2 tpt, vc, str, 1992 (arr. of The Birthday of Thy King, 1988); Third Sonata for Str ‘Jabiru Dreaming’, 1990–94; Port Arthur: In Memoriam, 2 hn, tpt/ob, perc, str, 1996; Djilile, 1996, arr. str qt, 2000, str, 2001; Love-Song, gui, perc, str, 1997; Cello Dreaming, vc, perc, str, 1997–8; My Country Childhood, str, 1999; Gondwana Land, str, 1999; Quamby, 2000 (arr. of Str Qt no.14), arr. orch, opt. didjeridu, 2003; New Norcia, brass, perc, 2000; Darwin Calypso, 2 gui, str, 2002, arr. fl, cl, str qt, pf, 2006; Elegy, va, str, 2006; Captain Quiros, brass, perc, str, amp vc, 2006; A Song of Love, str, 2008; Fourth Sonata for Str, 2008; Island Dreaming, str, 2009; Chaconne, vn, str, 2009


Sonatina, bn, pf, 1946, rev. 2001; The Loneliness of Bunjil, str trio, 1954, rev. 1965; Sonata, va, perc, 1960; From Irkanda III, pf, vn, vc, 1961–99; Str Qt no.6, 1964–5; Str Qt no.7 ‘Red Landscape’, 1966; Str Qt no.8 ‘String Quartet Music’, 1968; Tabuh Tabuhan, wind qnt, perc, 1968; Dream, any insts, 1970; How the Stars Were Made, 4 perc, 1971; Str Qt no.9, 1975; Night Song, vn, vc, pf, 1976–95; Little Serenade, str qt, 1977; Landscape II, str trio, amp pf, 1978; Tailitnama Song, a fl, perc, 2 gui, vn, db, 1981, arr vc, pf, 1989, vn, pf, 1991; Djilile, 4 perc, 1981–90, arr. vc, pf, 1986; arr. pf, 1989, arr. viol consort, 1995; Str Qt no.10, 1983; Songs of Sea and Sky, cl, pf, 1987, arr fl, pf, 1987, str, opt. didjeridu, 2003, s sax, pf, 2003, vn, str, opt didjeridu, 2005; Dream Tracks, cl, vn, pf, 1992; Jabiru Dreaming, 4 perc, 1989–92; Sun Song, 4 perc, 1989; Str Qt no.11 ‘Jabiru Dreaming’, 1990; From Nourlangie, S, chbr ens (4), 1993, arr. str qt, 1993; Chorale, 8 vc, 1994; Str Qt no.12 ‘From Ubirr’, str qt, opt. didjeridu, 1994 (formerly Earth Cry, arr. str qt), also str, opt. didjeridu, 2003; Str Qt no.13 ‘Island Dreaming’ (Aboriginal), mez, str qt, 1996; Str Qt no.14 ‘Quamby’, 1998; Str Qt no.15, 1999; Viola Song, pf, str qt, 2001; Sonata, vc, perc, 2001; Looking Back, vn, va, vc, db, 2001; Sydney Singing, ob, pf, 2002, also cl, perc, hp, str, 2003; Parting, fl, pf, 2002; Night Song, hn, vc, pf, 2004; At Bondi Beach, ob, pf, 2004; A Song for Fé, va, pf, 2005; Str Qt no.16, 2005; A Song for Richard, vn, pf, 2005; Baltimore Songlines, cl, vn, pf, 2006; Thoughts from Home, harmonica, str qt, 2007; Str Qt no.17, 2007; A Little Song of Love, cl, str qt, 2009


Sonatina, 1955; Two Easy Pieces: Sea Chant, Left Bank Waltz, 1958–68; Callabonna, 1963–89; Landscape I, amp pf, tape, 1971; Night Pieces: Snow, Moon and Flowers, Night, Stars, 1971; Koto Music I & II, amp pf, pre-rec tape loop, 1976; 4 Pieces for Pf Duet: Morning Song, Sea Chant, Little Serenade, Left Bank Waltz, 1979; Mountains, 1981; Nocturnal, 1983–9; The Rose Bay Quadrilles, 1989 (arrs. of works by W. Stanley, 1856); A Little Book of Hours, pf, 1998; Harbour Dreaming, pf, 2000; Song for a Penny, pf, 2000, shorter vers. as Little Passacaglia, 2004

Other solo inst

Irkanda I, vn, 1955; Alone, vn, 1976; Requiem, vc, 1979; Ov. for a Happy Occasion, org, 1970–80; Threnody, vc, 1991–2; For Cello Alone, 1993; From Kakadu, gui, 1993; Into the Dreaming, gui, 1994; Soliloquy and Cadenza, vc, 2001; Serenade, vn, 2005


When Two That Have Loved are Parting (H. Heine), 1v, pf, 1947, rev. as Parting, 1995, arr. vc, pf, 1995; Sun (D.H. Lawrence), song cycle, 1v/pf, 1960, rev. as Sun in Me, 1v, pf, 2009; Love 200 (T. Morphett), 2 vv, rock band, orch, 1970; The Stars Turn (Morphett), high v, pf, 1970–72 [from Love 200]; The Song of Tailitnama, high v, 6 vc, perc, 1974, arr. med v, pf, 1984; Eliza Fraser Sings (B. Blackman), S, fl/pic/a fl, pf, 1978; Boat Rise (Morphett), high v. pf, 1980 (arr. M. Hannan from Love 200, 1970); Maranoa Lullaby (Aboriginal), mez, str qt, 1996, also solo vc, 2007; 3 Shakespeare Songs, 1v, pf, 2000; Landscapes (J. Wright), 1v, opt. bass insts, 2001; Patrick White Fragments, S, spkr, pf, 2009

Principal publisher: Faber


R. Covell: Australia’s Music: Themes of a New Society (Melbourne, 1967)

J. Murdoch: Australia’s Contemporary Composers (Melbourne, 1972)

M. Hannan: ‘ Peter Sculthorpe’, Australian Composition in the Twentieth Century, ed. F. Callaway and D. Tunley (Oxford, 1978)

M. Hannan: Peter Sculthorpe: his Music and Ideas 1929–1979 (St Lucia, Queensland, 1982)

D. Matthews: ‘Peter Sculthorpe at 60’, Tempo, no.170 (1989), 12–17

D. Hayes: Peter Sculthorpe: a Bio-Bibliography (Westport, CT, 1993)

A. Ford: Composer to Composer (Sydney, 1993), 37–44

P. Sculthorpe: ‘ What is Australian Music?’, Aflame with Music: 100 Years of Music at the University of Melbourne, ed. B. Broadstock and others (Melbourne, 1996)

P. Sculthorpe: Sun Music: Journeys and Reflections from a Composer’s Life (Sydney, 1999)

G. Barnes: Peter Sculthorpe, Teacher and Composer: a Study in Duality (diss., U. of New South Wales, 2000)

W. Mellers: Singing in the Wilderness: Music and Ecology in the Twentieth Century (Urbana and Chicago, 2001)

N. Milton: The String Quartets of Peter Sculthorpe: a Study in Stylistic Synthesis (diss., City U. of New York, 2004)

G. Skinner: Peter Sculthorpe: the Making of an Australian Composer (Sydney, 2007)

G. Kerry: New Classical Music: Composing Australia (Sydney, 2009)

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Requiem. Peter Sculthorpe, composer. Requiem (Faber Music: 2004). Score.

String Quartet No. 6. Peter Sculthorpe, composer. String Quartet No. 6 (Faber Music: 1966). Score.

Irkanda IV for Solo Violin, Strings and Percussion (A Remote and Lonely Place). Peter Sculthorpe, composer. Irkanda IV (Faber Music: 1967). Score.

See also from The New Grove Dictionary of Opera: Rites of Passage

Roger Covell

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