Peter Sculthorpe - Australian to the Heart

PETER SCULTHORPE (1929 - 2014) – I’d been going round and round in my mind about Peter Sculthorpe whether or not to include him [in the 20th century symphonies book]. And then came word this past summer of his death. Sculthorpe didn’t compose any symphonies so named, but he did compose several orchestral pieces that feel like symphonies. Out of deference for his sizable accomplishments, and the unique environment out of which they were conceived and grew, I shall make pointed reference. For the sake of full disclosure I should say how much I love his music and how much I regret coming upon it too late for there to be any obvious influence in my own work. He and I share an early exposure to Colin McPhee’s Tabuh-Tabuhan and Balinese gamelan music, even though we each absorbed that influence in radically different ways. We also share an abiding concern for the environment and its increasing precariousness.

Sculthorpe was Australian through and through. He was born out of the land and had its sounds in his soul – from birdcalls, to the didgeridoo, to the harsh loneliness of the Outback. He also appears to have been a bit of a curmudgeon, a tad too outspoken for some sensibilities. Now that he has passed on, much is being forgiven, while attention turns to the more important part of his life: his music.

Sculthorpe was born on the island of Tasmania, located directly below the southeastern tip of the continent. His parents were dead set against his having a career in music, so he withheld from them his clandestine efforts to learn music composition. As a teenager he acquired the Ernst Krenek book Studies in Counterpoint which he tried to master and later described as “… pretty dreadful.” In 1946 he was accepted in the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, graduating in 1950. He returned to Tasmania and went into business with his brother, running a hunting and fishing supplies store. In 1955 a piano piece was accepted for performance at the ISCM Festival in Baden-Baden which led to his pursuing a Doctorate degree at Wadham College, Oxford, studying with Egon Wellesz. These studies were cut short by the final illness and death of his father, precipitating his sudden return to Australia. He was appointed to a lectureship at the University of Sydney in 1963 and later a Composer-in-Residence at Yale University. His international status was thus established, leading to many honors and awards, including being designated an Australian Living Treasure.

I’d like to start with Sculthorpe’s Kakadu for orchestra (1988) because it is emblematic of his unique aesthetic. This symphony-like work was inspired by the Kakadu National Park in northern Australia, one of the largest national parks in the world, where the varied sea- and land-scape offers a habitat for an array of wildlife, especially birds. The name for the park is derived from one of the Aboriginal languages, ancient inhabitants of the area. It is in three distinct sections or movements: fast – slow – fast. The two outer movements are based on the rhythms of Aboriginal chant while the slow middle movement, featuring a haunting English horn solo and recorded sounds of bird-flocks, is slightly more Western orientated. The overall effect of the music is an uncanny visceral feeling for this land, a hallmark of the very best in Sculthorpe’s music. The ending of the piece is unforgettable, too, starting with a three-note rising figure reminiscent of Balinesian Gamelan motives, the harmonies cast off their here-to-fore dark hues, evanesce with light into a shattering percussion climax – first metallic and then skins of drums. Spectacular!

To hear a recording of Kakadu go to

YouTube (with didgeridoo) - SCM Symphony Orchestra conducted by Eduardo Diazmuñoz

 Memento Mori is a depiction of Easter Island, desolate with broodingly silent giant sculpture. While rhythm drives most Sculthorpe scores, this music is hauntingly melodic, mostly the Gregorian Chant for the “Day of wrath” from the “Mass for the Dead.” Again, Sculthorpe’s compositional choices are exactly in line with the images he is communicating, building the visceral feeling for the place depicted. He, almost singularly of all 20th c. composers, bypasses mankind’s insect-like meddlings on the land and focuses on the eternal – that which was and that which ever will be. The effect of this music is very emotional: the early broodings gradually give way to spiritual uplift, resolving grandly … but with a tiny hint of dark demure before the final sonority.

To hear a recording of Memento Mori go to

YouTube - Adelaide Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Porcelijn
Perhaps his best known piece is Earth Cry, his generic statement on climate change and environmental depredation. The score includes a part for didgeridoo, but it is often performed without that characteristically Australian instrument. While including it in performance can seem rather gimmicky, to exclude it, as is increasingly done nowadays, means the loss of an ephemeral, elusive je ne c’est qua texture that robs the work of an otherworldly mystery that does real damage to the feeling and message of the music. One can find on YouTube performances both with and without the instrument. One may judge for oneself which one prefers. This is a good introduction piece to the work of Sculthorpe.

To hear a recording of Earth Cry go to

YouTube - Janacek Philharmonic Symphony conducted by Theodore Kuchar, William Barton didgeridoo

 His Music for Japan, on the other hand, is a straight-forward coupling of Australian and Japanese musical elements to form an interesting cultural synthesis. Representing Australian culture is the orchestra and Didgeridoo, while taiko rhythms and gagaku sonorities represent the Japanese. It’s as though Sculthorpe puts these in a pot and vigorously stirs them up. The result is a kind of swirling around that builds to huge waves of sonorities that are simply spectacular. I don’t get the feeling there is any great message in this piece, just a joy in taking disparate elements and getting them to work together.

To hear a recording of Music for Japan go to

YouTube - Sydney Symphony Orchestra conducted by Edo de Waart, Mark Atkins didgeridoo

 For further listening I would recommend any of the pieces under the heading Sun Music originally composed in the 1960s to explore 12-tone and quarter-tone sonorities but ultimately brought together as music for a ballet by the same name. Also not to be missed is Mangrove for orchestra, in observance of the numerous mangrove thickets along the northern and eastern coasts of Australia; in a similar vein with Kakadu but much, much more sorrowful. He composed two radically different settings of the Requiem, one for solo cello (1979) in which Gregorian Chants used in the Mass for the Dead are juxtaposed with freely expressive and lyrical lamentations. The overall expression approaches the Bach Suites for Unaccompanied Cello in intensity. The other is a more traditional setting (2003) for chorus, orchestra and the ubiquitous didgeridoo, at 40 minutes among his longest works. I’ve only heard bits and snatches of it, but what I’ve heard is suggestive of great rewards awaiting, as only Sculthorpe can deliver.

Of all the Australian composers I have heard, Sculthorpe stands head-and-shoulders above all the others for giving a unique voice to his native land. His music speaks of the sorrows of the world and the sublime joy of just existing, put forward in the most honest and simple manner. I recommend him most highly.

Excerpted from On the Symphony in the 20th Century by Jerré Tanner - a book surveying over 250 symphony composers and their works, many of them forgotten and no longer performed, composed in the 20th century that are worthy of the listener's attention.