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27 April 2009

Something about Peter

Sculthorpe at 80

Launceston Examiner announced the birth of Peter Sculthorpe in its May 4th issue in 1929 Image: Launceston Examiner announced the birth of Peter Sculthorpe in its May 4th issue in 1929  

The most fitting celebration of Peter Sculthorpe's 80th birthday (29 April) is to open our ears at concerts of his music - easily done these days, with performances all around the country. The Arts in the Valley Festival (in Kangaroo Valley, NSW) and the Canberra International Music Festival deserve a special mention here, as both events not only feature Sculthorpe's compositions but also make room for musical re-interpretations, and entirely new works, inspired by Sculthorpe. We asked some of the composer's friends, students and collaborators to share personal insights and observations. Please feel free to add your own in the comments section down below.

Anne Boyd: I fell head over heels in love with Peter before we even exchanged a single word. I first met Peter in the Music Library of the former Department of Music in the University of Sydney at the end of 1963. I was 17 at the time and sitting beside Ross Edwards, working on a 1st-year harmony assignment, or some such, when in walked Peter. Professor Donald Peart had secured him as our new lecturer, due to start teaching in the next academic year. Well, I don’t know what it was, probably his charm and charisma, and amazing glamour, but I fell head over heels in love with Peter before we even exchanged a single word. I soon found that in that department I had plenty of competition. But nevertheless there began one of the most important and enriching relationships of my entire life. Peter made us all feel his equals and set us at ease with him instantly. It was so exciting! He was a fantastic and inspiring teacher.

Peter’s greatest influence upon my development as a composer was that composition was not located just in the music one wrote but it was EVERYTHING that one did – the words one spoke, the books one chose to read, the clothes one wore, the food one ate, even the car one drove (if you could afford one). The result was that I took to a uniform of bare feet, longish hair, an old green army disposal shirt over grey jeans and a little red polka-dot bandana permanently around my neck, and to reading everything I could lay my hands on about modern music and art and Asia (especially about Japan). Above all, Peter taught us the importance of connecting music to place – as Australians this meant connection to our own country – not conceived as up-side-down Europe on the wrong side of the world but the Australia conveyed in the outback landscapes of Russell Drysdale (a close friend of Peter’s), Sid Nolan’s ‘Eliza Fraser’ paintings (the inspiration for Peter’s Mangrove), the novels of Patrick White (even though Peter himself didn’t read novels – just the reviews) and the poetry of Judith Wright. He lamented that Australia didn’t yet have a philosopher equal to Thoreau and needed one desperately. We surely lived our art.

I remember once being set an aural assignment where we created our own instruments – I raided the local garbage tip and set up a sculpture made from percussive junk instruments which my fellow classmates had to play. There was a song as well, also sung by a classmate. Donald Peart was aghast, especially as some of the ‘instruments’ were none too clean, but Peter talked him around. It was the '60s, after all. We were being visited at that time by Professor Wilfrid Mellers (a life-long friend of Peter’s) who later wrote that he modelled his new Department of Music at the University of York on what he discovered happening in our classrooms here at Sydney. This was the swinging '60s and IMAGINATION (and sometimes a little anarchy) RULED.

Peter spawned a whole generation of young Australian composers nurtured on these values – especially important was being true to oneself. We all set out on the amazing, though sometimes painful, journey of self-discovery. Imitation wasn’t encouraged. Among fellow students (besides Ross who dropped out, but after a year, as an errand boy in the ABC, absconded to Adelaide to study with Maxwell Davies – but who returned to Sydney frequently) were Alison Bauld, Meredith Oakes (now Sutcliffe), Barry Conyngham, Ian Cugley, and a little later, Kim Williams, Jenny Vogel and Mary Vallentine – and so many others who have been important to the development of the musical culture of Australia. It was a glorious time to be alive and young, made all the better for the presence of Peter. We OWE him big time.

HAPPY 80th birthday dearest Peter, and here’s to a couple more decades of music-making, Life and Love (aided by the odd glass of whisky or gin and tonic to be imbibed around the little round kitchen table – which, thank God, can’t talk)!

Anne Boyd


Barry Conyngham: Like its owner’s composition, it is elegant of design and beautifully crafted. Peter’s little, round table – it’s been there since at least 1965, in his kitchen. I am not sure how long he has had it, nor how many cups of coffee or tea, glasses of wine or beer or whisky, or important or trivial conversations have been had around that table.

The talk over it has always been about two things: music and people. And the names that have dropped onto that table (Donald, Lilian, Roger, Anne, Ross, John, Toru…) would be as numerous as the times the little round table has been wiped and polished (for it is always clean), ready for the next conversation or the next light meal ('Sorry, all I have in the fridge is…').

Surely it was at that round table that the first Sun Music was discussed ('It’s nothing like Penderecki…'), performances of string quartets mused ('Just fantastic!') or laughed about ('Oh well…'), friends worried over ('Well, I think we’ll just have to…'), arguments had and sentiments unleashed – and, for many years, cigarettes ashed.

From one’s first visit to the little round table to the most recent, there has always been a good feeling, a warm welcome – even if things are busy (always) or frantic (nearly always). The table is just there. Like its owner, it is supportive and works all the time. Like its owner’s composition, it is elegant of design and beautifully crafted. Like its owner’s music, I hope it is there forever.

Barry Conyngham


Maureen Cooney: He was interested in us as people... As a former student I have lots of memories, of course, but most memorable is his warm and inclusive nature – he was the first teacher I ever had, and almost the only one – who treated us as if we were fellow composers [or potential composers!], not just students – as if we were part of something bigger and our contributions were valued, even if they still had a long way to go! And he was interested in us as people too – inviting us to his home for his occasional fabulous parties!

Maureen Cooney


John Davis: Methodically accumulated evidence of a rich and full life...

Many words have been said over many years about the music. And now, at the approach of this milestone, many more words are being said about the person. And rightfully so. We do not generally do well as a broader community in showing our acknowledgment to those who we regard as our icons, those that provide a model, set a benchmark, for what it might mean to be an artist in this particular place and time.

What of this man? What are those things that stand out for me? His presence has always been there. I know much of him, despite the fact that my interactions with him, either in person or in writing, have always been brief. I do not claim to know him well, but I am very aware of my perceptions of the following characteristics that he is blessed with, characteristics that have greatly influenced me in the way I view the world.

Firstly, an enthusiasm and optimism, difficult to sustain in a world where we are daily challenged with the distractions, the things that interfere. Maintaining one’s optimism takes an inner strength of purpose, and wisdom, and these are qualities in him that I greatly admire.

Secondly, meticulous attention to detail, in the creative work, of course, but also in the documentation – nothing discarded, everything neatly placed, appropriately filed, methodically accumulated evidence of a rich and full life. Not only a life of music, but also a life filled with people. Not with a sense of vanity or self-importance, but, it seems, with a sense of gratitude at being so blessed, as if taking particular care to preserve those things most meaningful.

And thirdly, grace and charm, qualities he possesses in abundance. So much attention, so much expectation, so many obligations, all negotiated with a wonderful sense of these qualities.

Peter, best wishes on reaching this milestone. May you long continue to exert these influences on us.


John Davis


Ross Edwards: His reputation for being charming and gregarious is well-founded, as is his generosity with his time and his love of gossipAs a Taurean, his house is his castle, his studio – the hub of all his activities. It perfectly reflects his personality, especially his need for order and symmetry. Everything must be in its right place before he can start work. He is surrounded by things that are important to him – buddhas, screens, furniture. Most are constants, having almost acquired the status of sacred objects over the years, although some are recycled to accord with his current interests or mood. He has a well-stocked library of reference books and scores which are indispensable: he could never feel comfortable working away from home.

His reputation for being charming and gregarious is well-founded, as is his generosity with his time and his love of gossip: however busy he may be he can’t seem to resist answering the phone. What most people aren’t aware of is his extraordinary stamina – his capacity for hard work and sustained concentration. In the quiet of night and the early hours of the morning, he is focused on his creative work. Consequently he is a late riser and rarely compos mentis before 10 am.

He has no time or inclination to exercise, and I’ve never known him to take a holiday. He draws strict boundaries between work and leisure. He enjoys his work immensely but he knows how to switch off and relax, talking and drinking with friends while at the same time solving the world’s problems. He is passionate about his family and friends – and Australia.

Ross Edwards


Michael Hannan: I was blown out by what I heard. The music was edgy, dissonant, stark...Coming into my final year of high school in 1967, I had decided to write an essay on an Australian composer as part of my music studies. I had no idea who I would write about, but at a summer residential music camp in Armidale I met one of Peter Sculthorpe’s students who had reel-to-reel tapes of some of his works. I was blown out by what I heard. The music was edgy, dissonant, stark, but had a powerful emotional quality as well. Right away I knew that Sculthorpe would be my topic.

Through Dorothy White, my harpsichord tutor at the camp, I arranged to meet him at his home in Sydney. On the day of my meeting I travelled by train from a friend’s place in Pymble on Sydney’s North Shore and then by bus, arriving at his street in Woollahra about an hour too early. I walked the streets of Woollahra to fill in the time before knocking on the door. I was so nervous I could hardly speak, but I was well prepared with a lot of questions relating to his music and influences. I can’t remember ever being as artistically and intellectually stimulated as I was by our meeting that day. We discussed his love of DH Lawrence and how he had used parts of the text of Kangaroo and poems like 'Sun' in his compositions. We talked a lot about his love of the Australian landscape and the impact that the paintings of Russell Drysdale had had on him. In the living room of his tiny semi-detached house was a painting by Drysdale of an Aboriginal woman at Lake Callabonna. Until then I had never met anyone who owned a painting by a famous artist. And I had never met anyone who had so many books in built-in cases from floor to ceiling.

When I left, I wrote notes furiously on the bus and then on the train, to ensure that I recorded every piece of information that Peter had given me. In addition to generosity with his time, Peter had given me inscribed copies of some of his published music and also a manuscript page of a sketch for Sun Music III. I couldn’t have imagined at the time that I would later become his assistant and then collaborator, and then biographer for a period stretching over more than a decade.

Michael Hannan


John Hopkins: It was the SSO's first experience of playing a piece with so many 'strange' sounds...I first met Peter at a party at some house in Dural. It was towards the end of 1963 and I had just arrived from New Zealand to take up the Federal Director of Music job at the ABC. I first became involved with Peter as a composer when Sir Bernard Heinze asked him to write a piece for the SSO to play at the Commonwealth Arts Festival in London in 1965. As Sir Bernard had to withdraw from the tour, it fell to me to conduct the first performance of Sun Music I in the Festival Hall. It was the SSO's first experience of playing a piece with so many 'strange' sounds, at times requiring new techniques, but it was well received and I was eager to encourage Peter to write more of this very evocative music.

I was closely involved with him in the first performance of many major works, including Rites of Passage (performed eighteen times in Sydney and Adelaide in 1974) and Love 200 which was one of Peter's major contributions to the Sydney Prom concerts.

He is always wonderfully supportive of the younger, emerging composers as well as being deeply appreciative of the musicians who play his music. I remember how encouraging he was with the young students at the VCA when we played his Song of Tailitnama, percussion players having their first experience playing water gongs!. In the midst of all this, we became great friends, and though I now live in Melbourne and, very regrettably, rarely see Peter these days, the depth of our friendship is clearly apparent whenever we talk on the phone. We have spent many memorable times together so I wish him good health and every joy on his 80th birthday and many more years of creativity in the future.

John Hopkins

Chris Latham: He always sees something good in the most unlikely subjects.I have taken to describing him as the Bradman of Australian music - I think it is an accurate analogy. The thing about Peter that is truly rare, though, is his endless ability to see the best in people. He just never says bad things about people. It is almost funny at times. He always sees something good in the most unlikely subjects. It is quite remarkable how generous he is of spirit.

He is also a very benign king. A king because everyone looks up to him and benign because he never takes sides. He occasionally mediates to keep the peace but largely he doesn’t exercise his power unless he can use it to help others. He spends a lot of time thinking about the state of the whole: the state of Australian music, the state of the country, of the world. But he doesn’t seem to worry much about his own stake in it.

I think he wants to guard his time more so he can get his writing done and he knows there isn’t as much time left for that as he’d like so he increasingly makes choices these days to limit his public role. Beyond those comments I’d just say he is a very humble and selfless man and that tends to get lost in all the public rhetoric and showmanship that he displays so wonderfully on big occasions.

Most people have a Sculthorpe joke that tends to emphasise his affable nature and his role as 'composer at large' but I tend to think of him more as a deeply insightful thinker with an extremely educated and refined sensibility. He still surprises me by revealing some vast compendium of knowledge about the most arcane subjects. I think he is the most civilised Australian I know and his life is an inspiration to anyone who believes in living a good life, a decent life and a heartily enjoyed one. May he enjoy many more birthdays and may we all be glad and grateful to have shared this time with him. Our culture is hugely richer for him.

Chris Latham


David Pereira: His love of cello has been a lasting gift...From my experience I would say that Peter tends to encourage relatively expressive, committed and passionate playing – for players generally a very welcome attitude. My occasional but significant collaborations with Peter demonstrated his willingness to be influenced by player opinion concerning even concrete details of a composition. I am grateful to Peter for his steadfast encouragement of my work and of my belief in its importance to him and others. His love of cello has been a lasting and special gift to (Australian) cellists.

David Pereira


Peggy Polias: There is a special vibe in Peter’s house...Since 2005, I’ve been driving over to Woollahra every Thursday to work as Peter’s music assistant, the latest in a long line of people to fill this role over the years, preparing performance and publication-ready scores and parts. Digging old yellowing hand-notated transparency masters out of the archive room sometimes, I can’t help but marvel at how technologies change: I run music notation software on Peter’s shiny computer, and email his files across the world. There is a special vibe in Peter’s house: curiosities, books and artworks throughout, and an enveloping peace that I put down to Peter’s gentle manner and kindness. No wonder many of Peter’s helpers stick around for a while; his wonderful secretary, Adrienne, started working for Peter over 30 years ago. Happy 80th birthday Peter!

Peggy Polias


Graeme Skinner: Australia, too, should take a bow for creating him!Within days of Peter’s birth, on 29 April 1929, in the May issue of The Australian Musical News, editor Thorold Waters was prompted by the impending release of Australia’s first airmail stamp, valued at threepence, to compare the merits of funding an England–Australia air link, and Victorian Government support for a permanent symphony orchestra. Prophetically, perhaps, he concluded: 'It would be a prouder event in the history of Australia were it to give civilisation one Beethoven than in the end the continent would be able to contemplate through sending a host of Kingsford Smiths into the air'. A half-century later, David Marr could write of Peter with confidence in the National Times: 'He’s the man (some say) who arrived at the right time, his career was as much created by Australia’s wish to have a great composer, as his talent is to be it.'

Fellow student at Melbourne University in the 1940s, James Penberthy, even remembered Sculthorpe claiming once to be a reincarnation of Richard Wagner, 'a handy belief', Penberthy thought, for a young man on a mission! But his greatest musical legacy to the future, and for which he is recognised worldwide as having been our most distinctive national voice of the 20th century, was to lead Australian classical composition away from its foundational European focus, and situate us firmly in the Asia-Pacific region. For Australian music post-Sculthorpe, Europe is the Antipodes! It strikes me that, on his eightieth birthday, once the man himself has received our due plaudits for being so exceptionally, musically himself, Australia, too, should take a bow for creating him!

Graeme Skinner


Phil Slater: He emphatically supported me to find my own path. Like a lot of people, I first heard Peter's music as a student at high school. I fell in love with it instantly. It sounded somehow familiar. I understood what it was about, even if I didn't understand the musical language at times. I sought out Peter as a teacher at Sydney University, and he became my primary musical influence for those several years. Ever the patient teacher, he would be sympathetic to my compositional attempts, and encouraged me to follow my improvisational interests. His encouragement was important for me – in fact, he suggested (bravely) that I should leave Sydney University to follow my interest in jazz trumpet playing. He emphatically supported me to find my own path. A great teacher, indeed.

Phil Slater
see: the Peter Sculthorpe Songbook event in Canberra (9 May)


Belinda Webster: His laugh, when something tickles his wicked sense of humour, is memorably mischievous!I’ve known Peter for almost 30 years. Once he got to know me he was determined that I should meet Vincent Plush. In Peter’s typically astute way he saw that Vincent and I had a lot of ideas and motivations in common, as we are both willing to instigate activities where we see the need. Vincent and I are still good friends, and still dreaming up ideas…

I have hazy memories of downing a bottle or two of scotch with Peter in the '80s and '90s and indulging in evenings of serious conversation as well as outrageous gossip, even instigating rumours just for fun. But of course my main association with him is through the recordings I’ve made, especially of the wonderful string quartets.

Peter is one of nature’s true gentlemen, with an unswerving loyalty to his many friends. Things I associate with him include his kitchen willow-patterned crockery, his carefully chosen collection of ceramics, and the serenity of his garden studio. His laugh, when something tickles his wicked sense of humour, is memorably mischievous!

Belinda Webster
see: Belinda Webster's blog article about The Arts in the Valley festival

Further links

Peter Sculthorpe (AMC)
Events with Sculthorpe's music in AMC's Calendar
Peter Sculthorpe (www.petersculthorpe.com.au)
Arts in the Valley (http://www.artsinthevalley.net.au/)
Canberra International Music Festival (http://www.cimf.org.au/)


Subjects discussed by this article:

The Australian Music Centre connects people around the world to Australian composers and sound artists. By facilitating the performance, awareness and appreciation of music by these creative artists, it aims to increase their profile and the sustainability of their art form. Established in 1974, the AMC is now the leading provider of information, resources, materials and products relating to Australian new music.


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