CHOICES – PETER SCULTHORPE HAS MADE A FEW IN HIS 76 YEARS, BUT THERE ARE TWO THAT HAVE PARTICULARLY DEFINED HIS LIFE. THIS LAUNCESTON-BORN, WORLD-ACCLAIMED COMPOSER COULD HAVE OPTED FOR A SWIMMING CAREER SUCH WAS HIS AQUATIC PROWESS AS A CHILD. INSTEAD, WITH DIPLOMACY BEYOND HIS YEARS, HE CHOSE TO PURSUE THAT SPORT ONLY TO APPEASE HIS PARENTS, CONFIDENT IT WOULD SEE HIS FATHER LATER “INDULGE” HIS REAL PASSION – MUSIC.
￼￼Almost 65 years later, another life choice was made. From decades of prolific creativity Peter found himself in London trying to teach at the Guildhall late in 2000 unable to pen a note, a word ...
It was a seven-month spiral into clinical depression that he admits saw him contemplate suicide. On the brink of needing hospital treatment and with psychiatrists unable to pinpoint the cause of his depression, he chose to fight the problem himself. He’s been quoted as saying that what saved him from committing suicide was that “you sort of steer yourself inside really”.
Extraordinary as it may seem, Peter’s personal battle came at a pinnacle in his career. He had been honoured with an MBE (1970), an OBE (1977) and Order of Australia in 1990. As the National Library of Australia records it, he was already a Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities and held four honorary doctorates. His contribution to Australia was acknowledged in 1998 when he was voted one of Australia’s 100 Living National Treasures. And the following year he became one of the nation’s 45 icons for being “a visionary, an opinion-maker, one who is making statements about something the nation needs to think about at this time”.
Peter had been elected an Australian Achiever of the Year, he was the Distinguished Artist for 2001 of the International Society of Performing Arts, and he was writing a big piece for the 100th anniversary of Federation in Australia, when he was at his lowest ebb. “But all these lovely things are unrelated somehow,” he says, recalling the bleak times. “Success in a way didn’t seem important.”
Such candidness is to help others realise that they are not alone in feeling empty or are being unable to operate on the most simple daily routine. “I am happy to talk about my bout of depression, because there are many people out there who have it and don’t realise it or won’t face up to it,” he says. “But you can find help, and there are medicines.”
Peter Sculthorpe has continued to swim for fitness throughout the decades, but it’s playing the piano and writing music that have opened doors around the world for this home-grown genius.
His musical ambitions began with compositions inspired by the natural world around his happy family home, Mt Esk at St Leonards, the fisheries at Corra Linn, fishing trips to Longford and the Western Tiers with his father and playing Tarzan with his little brother Roger on the North Esk River.
To mark Launceston’s bicentenary in 2006, he has been commissioned by the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra to write a full orchestral piece,
which he describes as being inspired by the coastline of Tasmania – “whenever I fly into Launceston the coastline and its beauty washes over me – it’s a wonderful vision”. Although at the time of this interview the composition was “only a few days old in my mind”, Peter also wanted it to recall his great grandfather being incarcerated at Point Puer.
He also recalled a trip aboard the Taroona, travelling from Melbourne with his mother and being summoned up on decks when a Japanese submarine was sighted. “So it will include sea pictures and water,” he confides. He wants the piece to be nostalgic, but happy – to reflect his wonderful school days at St Leonards and then as a day student at Launceston Grammar School, following in the footsteps of his father, Joshua Sculthorpe.
Peter declares that after a career that has taken him around the world, the bicentenary commission is “bringing him home slowly”.
Despite much European training and having studied at Oxford, Peter defends his music as intensely Australian. For him it is a “natural choice” to write his music “of the country and of our history. It’s who I am, what I’m about”.
He draws inspiration from the landscape as well as from Aboriginal musical. In particular, the Aboriginal melody Djilili, has been said to be a leitmotiv in his music. Peter writes in his autobiography: “It’s always seemed foolish not to take heed of a music that has been shaped by this land over many thousands of years.”
Peter firmly believes he couldn’t have emerged had he not come from a small town such as Launceston. “I had, and have always had, amazing support from Launceston and its people. As a schoolboy I was able to go the ABC studios and have my music played to the listening community – that couldn’t have happened elsewhere. Although many may not have understood what I was doing, they supported the fact that I was having a go.”
For the Adelaide Festival in 2004, he wrote Requiem – a recital of which featured in Ten Days On The Island 2005 with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra – with William Barton on didgeridoo. In an interview for ABC Radio, Peter said he had dedicated Requiem to his mother and father, for while they both appreciated his compositions, they had quite different views about whether there was a future in it.
Peter told broadcaster Peter Thompson, “I think my mother wasn’t so concerned. She just wanted me to do what made me happy. But my father was anxious about my security, financial future, as fathers are.
And if I was going to dabble in any of the arts, he would have favoured painting, because then, well at least I could be a commercial artist.”
Ultimately, while he pursued an interest in literature and drawing, he realised that where his poems and drawings drew heavily on the work of poets and artists he admired, his compositions said something more about himself.
Although Peter would have a Bachelor of Music in piano from the Conservatorium of Music in Melbourne by the time his was 21, he was unable to find a sustainable music job so returned to Launceston to set up a sports shop with his brother. Not that this meant Launceston was a musical desert for Peter, for he used his spare time generously to teach music in and around Launceston.
Peter has written for all musical genres – orchestra, string quartets, choirs, film, ballet, theatre and opera. So how does he approach composing music?
When Peter revisited Franklin House in Launceston for this interview, and while admiring its portico, judged by experts to be one of the finest examples of Georgian architecture in the world, he explained that his music was similar to architecture.
“A composer is building something, but you always have to begin at the beginning. Likewise, I don’t begin (writing) until I have the building blocks. As in architecture, where you draw or sketch the idea and build on it – I write my music in pencil from an array of mental pictures then correct it. Like this portico (at Franklin House), I like
A breakthrough, however, came five years later when his Piano Sonatina, based also on an Aboriginal legend, was the first work of a resident Australian chosen to be played at the International Society for Contemporary Music Festival in Baden-Baden. Selection came after the work had been twice rejected elsewhere. It had been written for an ABC musical competition but it was rejected and then Peter sent it to the ABC just in the hope it may be performed, but it was considered too modern. “It was six years before it was performed on the ABC,” Peter recalls. The irony is that today that same sonatina is played by school children everywhere.
Then in 1958 he was awarded the Lizette Bentwich Scholarship, by the University of Melbourne, which allowed him to undertake post-doctoral studies at Oxford. And as they say, the rest is history.
symmetry in my work, although with something asymmetrical to give it interest.”
These days, this Australian Icon lives in the aesthetically harmonious surrounds of a Georgian terrace in Sydney’s leafy eastern suburb of Woollahra. He drives a sexy red MG – maybe a throwback from decades ago when his father tried to coerce him into something other than music by offering to buy him a sports car. A tempting offer, one would think for most lads in their mid-teens, but not for Peter.
“You know I love cars, but a car is only a car, and music is my life”, this budding genius told his Dad. Few words have proven to be more prophetic.
by Mary Machen