'Voice of Australia' Sculthorpe dies

Stephen Bevis
Peter Sculthorpe at his Sydney home in 2012. Picture: William Yeoman/WAN

The voice of Australia has fallen silent. Peter Sculthorpe, Australia's best-known international composer, died in a Sydney hospital yesterday at the age of 85 after a rich career that spanned six decades. He had been ill for some time.

The Tasmanian-born Sculthorpe redefined classical music in this country by seeking to paint the Australian landscape in sound.

Sculthorpe, who described his music as "a series of long geological layers", is best known for such iconic works such as Irkanda IV, The Fifth Continent, the Sun Music series, Port Essington, Kakadu, Nourlangie and Great Sandy Island.

Many of these works use indigenous melodies and those drawn from South-East Asia and Oceania.

"I'm passionate about the landscape and I've always sought to find the sacred in it," Sculthorpe told The West Australian in 2012.

"To do that without taking any notice of indigenous music would be rather foolish because that music was shaped for many thousands of years by the land."

Award upon award recognised Sculthorpe's pioneering contribution to Australian culture through his music and teaching.

He was awarded an Officer of the Order of Australia medal in 1990; four honorary doctorates from the University of Tasmania, University of Sussex, University of Melbourne and University of Sydney; the Sir Bernard Heinze Award for outstanding services to Australian music and the Distinguished Services to Australian Music at the 2012 Art Music Awards.

Sculthorpe said his most important award was being chosen as one of Australia's 100 Living National Treasures by the National Trust of Australia in 1997.

Australian Music Centre chief executive John Davis said Sculthorpe's music had drawn on indigenous and Asian influences in a way that had not been done before. He joined a generation of artists from Patrick White to Sydney Nolan in defining Australian art postwar.

Born in Launceston, Tasmania, on April 29, 1929, Peter Joshua Sculthorpe was educated at Launceston Church Grammar School, the University of Melbourne and Wadham College, Oxford, England.

In a 1999 interview, he recalled being scolded by his first piano teacher when aged seven, for writing music.

"She said 'All the composers are dead' and she caned me across the knuckles and told me I should be practising music," he said.

"I kept writing music for a year or two - but under the bedclothes at night with a torch - until my parents discovered me and they said 'That's all right'."

Discovering a sense of Australia for Sculthorpe meant getting away from Australia.

"Going to Oxford in the late 1950s and being removed from Australia helped me to understand Australia," he said in 2012.

"It was because I was looking back at the country objectively rather than subjectively and it caused me to realise what kind of music I should be writing."

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 after the dissolution of the British Empire.

Sculthorpe did come in for some criticism for his "appropriation" of indigenous melodies. But it was less an appropriation and more a way of honouring Aboriginal people and their land by learning from them in order to forge his own style.

He taught at universities around Australia, most extensively at Sydney University where he was an emeritus professor.

Until his retirement in 1999, Sculthorpe's teaching at the university nurtured many musicians, including composers Ross Edwards, Anne Boyd, Barry Conyngham and Matthew Hindson.

In 2008 he pledged $3 million to the university to establish the country's first chair of Australian music.

Sculthorpe's catalogue consists of more than 350 works, orchestral pieces, solos and opera. His 18 string quartets are frequently performed and the Kronos Quartet toured the world playing No. 8.

Last month, his specially commissioned Christmas carol The Birthday of Thy King was performed at the Perth Concert Hall by the touring Choir of King's College, Cambridge.