Tasmanian music icon Sculthorpe dies

Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe. Photo: Louise Kennerley
Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe. Photo: Louise Kennerley

Acclaimed Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe has died at age 85. 

Sculthorpe passed away this morning at Wolper Jewish Hospital in Woollahra after a long battle with illness.

Born in Launceston in 1929, Sculthorpe studied at Melbourne University before moving to the UK study to Oxford University where he studied with composer Egon Wellesz. 

When he returned to Australia in 1961, Sculthorpe’s instinct to develop an Australian style which turned away from Europe, resonated with arts leaders, such as “Nugget” Coombes, chair of the Elizabeth Theatre Trust and the first Australian Council for the Arts and critics Kurt Preraurer and the Herald's Roger Covell.

He would become our most acclaimed contemporary composer, admired for pieces like his 1960s series Irkanda - “scrub country’ - which, for Sculthorpe, was emblematic of the silence of the Australian landscape, and later work such as Kakadu (1988), Memento Mori (1993) and the Rites of Passage, originally commissioned for the opening of the Sydney Opera House. 

His last major orchestral work was his Requiem (2004) for mixed chorus, didjeridu and orchestra written for the 2004 Adelaide Festival. However, he remained active in as a prolific composer of chamber music and as a re-arranger of his own music. An album of his solo piano compositions, played by Tamara-Anna Cislowska, is set to be released this September.

Launceston Mayor Albert van Zetten said Sculthorpe had been a fantastic ambassador for the city throughout his life.

"Peter Sculthorpe was a wonderful representative of our city, and I believe he was an inspiration for many young and not-so-young Northern Tasmanians," Alderman van Zetten said.

"His works as a composer have been lauded around the globe, and he was always proud of his association with Launceston.

“The Launceston City Council last year agreed to award Mr Sculthorpe the Key to the City of Launceston, a rare honour. Plans for a concert to be held at the Albert Hall last December - at which the Key to the City was to be presented - unfortunately had to be cancelled due to Peter's poor health.

"In coming weeks, at an appropriate time, the Council will reach out to Mr Sculthorpe's family to see if they would like to accept the Key to the City on his behalf."

The Sydney Morning Herald's classical music critic Peter McCallum said Sculthorpe's passing is a loss for the music world. "His charm mixed with an instinct for austerity, spareness and an imagination for the sounds of a lonely Australian place created a uniquely distinctive musical voice."

"Sculthorpe was the first Australian composer to create a distinctly Australian sound and style that communicated to a wide local and international audience. Before Sculthorpe, most educated Australians could not have named an Australian composer. His genial influence on students and composers encouraged generations of composers to look inward rather than abroad to discover their own voice," said McCallum

In 2012, Sculthorpe was given the Distinguished Services to Australian Music at the 2012 Art Music Awards, run by the Australian Music Centre. 


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