A tribute to Peter Sculthorpe, AO, OBE

Peter Joshua Sculthorpe AO OBE (29 April 1929 — 8 August 2014) pictured here in 1996 receiving his Honorary Doctorate.

Griffith University has paid tribute to iconic Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe following his death on August 8.

The man once named in the list of ‘Australia’s 100 Living National Treasures’ was conferred with the Degree of Doctor of Griffith University in 1996 and honoured with his own bronze bust, which still stands in the library of the South Bank campus today.

Professor Scott Harrison, Director of the Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University, says Mr Sculthorpe’s contribution to the world of music both in Australia and internationally made a profound mark on the imagination and identity of all who heard his work.

“With a lifetime of tireless work, generous teaching and patronage and advocacy for Australian art, he cemented his position as of this country’s most respected and outstanding composers,” he says.

“His ability to formulate a musical style which related to the unique social climate and physical characteristics of Australia was one in which future generations will be able to reflect upon and remember for many, many years to come.

“He often spoke of how he wanted his music to make people feel better and happier for having listened to it — and certainly did this in a manner which was unprecedented for his time.

“Queensland Conservatorium is privileged to have had this iconic national figure play a significant role in our rich history, and we now look to the future with appreciation for the example of incredible wisdom and artistic insight that we are left with in reflection of Peter’s life,” Professor Harrison said.

The early years…

Born in Launceston in 1929, Peter Joshua Sculthorpe was educated at the Launceston Church Grammar School and later at the University of Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, before going on to further study at Oxford University in England.

After writing his first composition at the age of seven, his early promise was recognised with the award of the first J.A.Steele Composition Prize in 1946, and the Victorian School Music Association’s Song Writing Competition in 1948.

The British Music Society and the Guild of Australian Composers were influential on his development during these years, and in 1951 he returned to Launceston to become a music teacher and later a lecturer for the Adult Education Board.

During this time he also began research into the music of Australian Aboriginals, increasing his understanding of the intimate relationship between the Australian landscape and its ancient inhabitants.

The award of the Lizette Bentwich Scholarship in 1958 enabled him to undertake postgraduate studies in twentieth century music at Oxford University. After returning to Tasmania in 1960, he composed one of his most important works – Irkanda IV – which received outstanding critical acclaim.

Australian audiences awed

It was in 1963 that a number of his works were made public for the first time at the Composers’ Seminar held in Hobart. The following year he received a commission that resulted in the production of String Quartet No. 6, and in 1965 he composed Sun Music I. These works placed Peter Sculthorpe at the forefront of Australian musical talent.

The following years were both creative and industrious, and included a contract with Faber Music Limited, a promotion to Senior Lecturer in Music at the University of Sydney, a position as composer-in-residence at Yale University, and commissions for the Australian Opera and Ballet Companies. These experiences exposed his music to a wider audience than in the past and considerably enhanced his reputation.

Unprecedented times for Australian music

In 1973, he composed The Song of Tailitnama, the first piece of music to combine an Aboriginal text with melodic material adapted from a transcription of Aboriginal music. It was the richness and originality of this type of music that established Peter Sculthorpe as a leader in Australia’s contemporary music scene. His services to Australian music during this period were recognised with the award of an MBE in 1970 and an OBE in 1977.

Over the next decade, Peter Sculthorpe’s composition was both outstanding and prolific and included such pieces as Lament for Strings, Port Essington and Eliza Fraser Sings. His distinguished orchestral work, Mangrove, achieved fifth position at the 1979 Paris Rostrum – an unprecedented placement for an Australian work.

Recognition on the world stage

More recent times saw him compose music for both film and television, including music for the feature film Burke and Wills. Firmly cementing his international reputation, he was awarded the Australian Film Award in 1980, the APRA Award for Most-Performed Serious Australian Work in 1985, the ARIA Award for best classical music recording in 1991 and the Sir Bernard Heinze Award in 1994, as well as being appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia in 1990. He has also continued his association with higher education, holding the position of Professor of Musical Composition at the University of Sydney since 1992.

Peter Joshua Sculthorpe AO OBE (29 April 1929 — 8 August 2014)