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A Great Australian Composer and National Treasure: Peter Sculthorpe 1929-2014


8 August 2014

Peter Sculthorpe, Emeritus Professor of Composition at the University of Sydney, Australia's most significant composer, passed away in Sydney at the age of 85.

Rarely is it given to a single individual to inscribe the soul of a nation in their musical utterance. Such has been Peter's contribution to Australian culture. The University and the music world are deeply saddened by his passing.

"He was an outstanding composer, a passionate Australian, a delightful and hugely compassionate man, who has contributed significantly to the music foundations of this University across 51 years.

"Professor Sculthorpe is such a huge loss, but at the same time he leaves such a big music legacy," said Dr Michael Spence, Vice Chancellor, The University of Sydney.

Peter Sculthorpe first joined the University of Sydney's Department of Music, appointed by the late Professor Donald Peart as a young lecturer in music in 1963. He was asked to teach the department's first classes in ethnomusicology thereby stimulating his lifelong interest in the traditional musical cultures of Asia, of Japan and Bali in particular. He offered encouragement and teaching to the young student composers he found in the department, often inflecting traditional teaching towards innovative creative musical activity. These young students grew to become some of Australia's best known and best loved musical voices including composers Ross Edwards, Barry Conyngham and Anne Boyd.

Peter was promoted to a personal chair in composition in 1991 within the Faculty of Arts. He was later to offer warm support to the merging of the Department of Music with the Conservatorium.

Until his retirement in 1999, Sculthorpe's extensive teaching at the University inspired and nurtured many students in the Faculty of Arts. With the introduction of more specialised postgraduate study in music including the nation's first composition doctorate in 1992, he became the supervisor of several now distinguished composers including Matthew Hindson, Professor and Chair of Composition & Music Technology Unit at the Con.

Dr Karl Kramer, Dean of the Sydney Conservatorium of Music commented: "Peter is Australia's best-known composer not only at home but internationally. He was the first Australian composer to develop what many heard as an 'Australian' sound and has been described as 'the voice of Australia' and 'Australia's representative composer'."

Sculthorpe's enormous contribution to music composition, teaching and education here and abroad is recognised by his Order of Australia medal in 1990 and his four honorary Doctorates from the University of Tasmania, University of Sussex, University of Melbourne and University of Sydney. In 1994 he received the Sir Bernard Heinze Award for outstanding services to Australian music and in 2005 he became an Emeritus Professor at the University of Sydney.

Born in Launceston, Tasmania, in 1929, Sculthorpe was educated at Launceston Church of England Grammar School, the University of Melbourne and Wadham College, Oxford, England. It was not until he returned to Australia in 1961 after studying overseas, that his career began its meteoric rise.

Sculthorpe's catalogue consists of more than 350 works. While his best known works include the orchestral pieces Sun Music 1 (1965) Mangrove (1979), Earth Cry (1986) and Kakadu (1988). He wrote in many genres from solo instrumental works to opera. His 18 string quartets are especially frequently performed and the Kronos Quartet toured the world playing No.8. In Australia he became a major public figure, audiences cheering his work as it seemed to say something necessary in the life of a country finding a new voice in a post colonial era.

The frequent Australian cry to turn to Asia in the 1960s and 70s was paralleled by influences from Indonesia and Japan in Sculthorpe's works, as he strove to write music expressive of the Pacific region. Peter's championing of Australian indigenous culture is especially noteworthy, highlighted by his collaboration with didjeridu virtuoso Dr William Barton. William was to make an important contribution to arguably Peter's greatest work, his choral Requiem (2004).

The impact of his composition work on Australian music has been the subject of several books, including Michael Hannan's Peter Sculthorpe: His Music and Ideas 1929 - 1979 (1982); Graeme Skinner's authorised biography, Peter Sculthorpe: The Making of an Australian Composer (1929-1974) published in 2007, and most recently John Peterson's The Music of Peter Sculthorpe (2014).

The recipient of many prestigious awards, Sculthorpe regarded the most important being chosen as one of Australia's 100 Living National Treasures in 1997 (National Trust of Australia), Distinguished Artist 2001 (International Society for the Performing Arts), Honorary Foreign Life Member in 2003 (American Academy of Arts and Letters) and one of the 100 Most Influential Australians in 2006 (The Bulletin magazine).

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Media Enquiries: Mandy Campbell, 0481 012 742 ormandy.campbell@sydney.edu.au