Quest for a classical au­then­tic­ity

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

AUS­TRALIAN com­posers are a gen­er­ally un­der- recog­nised lot: their names are not as prom­i­nent as those of, say, writ­ers and painters. But Peter Sculthorpe is bet­ter known than oth­ers. From the 1960s, when there was a de­ter­mi­na­tion to dis­cover an au­then­ti­cally Aus­tralian voice in classical mu­sic, Sculthorpe rose to promi­nence with his Sun Mu­sic se­ries and some fairly out- there works for the theatre.

Now 78, he con­tin­ues to pro­duce mu­sic. His large- scale choral Re­quiem , first per­formed in 2004, has had mul­ti­ple per­for­mances by state sym­phony orches­tras; such fre­quency is un­usual for a new com­po­si­tion. When I saw him re­cently at the Syd­ney Con­ser­va­to­rium, he said in his husky bari­tone that he was work­ing on his latest string quar­tet, which the Gold­ner Quar­tet was to per­form at the Hunt­ing­ton Es­tate Mu­sic Fes­ti­val at Mudgee, in NSW’s mid- west, last month. It will be Sculthorpe’s 17th es­say in that genre, an aus­pi­cious num­ber for the com­poser, who points out that it’s the same num­ber Beethoven wrote.

A sub­stan­tial bi­og­ra­phy of the com­poser is over­due. Sculthorpe’s ca­reer has been well cov­ered in the press, and there have been ear­lier vol­umes, in­clud­ing a 1982 mu­si­co­log­i­cal sur­vey by Michael Han­nan, and a 1999 mem­oir, Sun Mu­sic . Graeme Skin­ner’s Peter Sculthorpe: The Mak­ing of an Aus­tralian Com­poser is a thor­ough ex­am­i­na­tion of the life, from Sculthorpe’s child­hood in Tas­ma­nia through to the pre­miere of his opera Rites of Pas­sage in 1974, a year af­ter the open­ing of the Syd­ney Opera House.

Stop­ping mid- ca­reer, the bi­og­ra­phy does not in­clude dis­cus­sion of some of Sculthorpe’s most cel­e­brated pieces, in­clud­ing Earth Cry , Man­grove and the Re­quiem . But Skin­ner does im­por­tant work that doc­u­ments Sculthorpe’s ear­lier ca­reer and mu­sic, draw­ing on in­ter­views, let­ters and pub­lished re­views.

Sus­tained and in- depth crit­i­cal writ­ing about classical mu­sic is al­most ab­sent from to­day’s news­pa­pers and mag­a­zines, but in the 60s, such writ­ers as Curt and Maria Pr­erauer and Roger Covell were help­ing to shape our mu­si­cal cul­ture. Irkanda IV , for vi­o­lin and orches­tra, was Sculthorpe’s break­through piece, evok­ing the Aus­tralian bush in terms that would be­come syn­ony­mous with his mu­sic. Af­ter hear­ing it, Curt Pr­erauer wrote en­thu­si­as­ti­cally for Na­tion :

What I have seen and heard of Sculthorpe’s works makes me think he is the first Aus­tralian com­poser to unite in his mu­sic all the el­e­ments that could con­sti­tute such an elu­sive thing as an Aus­tralian id­iom.’’

Sculthorpe’s friendly and hos­pitable na­ture at­tracted good­will, with a few ex­cep­tions. He never got on with Eu­gene Goossens (‘‘ cold and rep­til­ian’’ Sculthorpe said), and he had a fa­mous fall­ing- out with Pa­trick White, who de­scribed him as slimy Sculthorpe’’.

White, Sculthorpe and Sid­ney Nolan were to have col­lab­o­rated on an opera — in­tended to open the Syd­ney Opera House — about El­iza Fraser and the wreck of the Stir­ling Cas­tle ( Nolan had painted a se­ries on this theme, and it would be­come the sub­ject of White’s A Fringe of Leaves ). Au­thor and com­poser also had plans for a song cy­cle, Six Ur­ban Songs , to po­ems of Whitean irony: The Bendix, the Dish­lex/ The Mixmaster and the Holden Spe­cial/ We have the telly to re­place our thoughts.’’

The two were mis­matched, ar­tis­ti­cally and tem­per­a­men­tally. Sculthorpe found he could not work with White’s li­bretto for the opera, which White be­lieved Sculthorpe had failed to grasp con­cep­tu­ally. At din­ner, White ap­par­ently threw his meal at Sculthorpe and, on an­other oc­ca­sion, landed on Sculthorpe’s doorstep, de­mand­ing he re­turn the po­ems of Six Ur­ban Songs . That was the end of that.

Skin­ner ex­pends many pages on Sculthorpe’s opera: a project dis­cussed since 1963 that went through eight li­bret­tists and sev­eral changes of sub­ject, from El­iza Fraser, to an Aztec tragedy, to Cap­tain Cook. In 1971, when there was still a pos­si­bil­ity Sculthorpe’s opera would open the Opera House, he wrote to his mother, Edna: I must write an av­er­age of 10 min­utes of mu­sic a fort­night, for me an al­most un­heard of amount.’’

The opera be­came Rites of Pas­sage , a pageant of prim­i­tive rit­ual ( it gained a cer­tain no­to­ri­ety, be­fore it was fin­ished, when Sculthorpe told a re­porter there would be nu­dity and bloody scenes of tribal ini­ti­a­tion’’). At the pre­miere, Maria Pr­erauer couldn’t dis­guise her dis­ap­point­ment: Monotony piles on monotony. It’s like be­ing inside a huge mud pie.’’

Un­der­stand­ing Sculthorpe’s chang­ing thoughts about the opera — from nar­ra­tive to rite — pro­vides clues about his other com­po­si­tions, even or­ches­tral and cham­ber mu­sic. Many pieces are pro­gram­matic, in that they de­scribe a land­scape. But there is also a the­atri­cal, cer­emo- nial im­pe­tus: hence his fas­ci­na­tion with Ja­panese court mu­sic and forms such as the re­quiem.

Early on, Sculthorpe pro­fessed to re­ject the id­ioms of West­ern classical mu­sic and to look closer to home for in­spi­ra­tion. He started us­ing el­e­ments of Ja­panese mu­sic and Ba­li­nese game­lan, even be­fore he had ex­pe­ri­enced those cul­tures at first hand.

His in­ter­est in in­dige­nous Aus­tralian mu­sic, at first more schol­arly than com­po­si­tional, Skin­ner writes, goes back to 1953. At the Royal So­ci­ety of Tas­ma­nia, he un­earthed wax cylin­der record­ings of Abo­rig­i­nal songs made by Fanny Cochrane Smith. ( In­ter­est­ing fact: Cochrane Smith’s grand­daugh­ter mar­ried into the larger Sculthorpe fam­ily.)

In 1970, Sculthorpe ob­served that prim­i­tive’’ Abo­rig­i­nal mu­sic of­fered lit­tle source ma­te­rial to

a com­poser. He had used a record­ing of a didgeri­doo in his 1963 piece, The Fifth Con­ti­nent , and used an Abo­rig­i­nal song in 1974’ s Port Ess­ing­ton .

In re­cent years, Sculthorpe has em­braced the didgeri­doo and added its drone as a pedal to ex­ist­ing or­ches­tral works Earth Cry and Man­grove . The 2004 Re­quiem was his first new com­po­si­tion with a prom­i­nent part for the in­stru­ment.

Dis­cus­sion of th­ese de­vel­op­ments will have to wait for part two of the Sculthorpe bi­og­ra­phy. This first part is thor­oughly re­searched and Skin­ner cer­tainly knows the ma­te­rial. It would have ben­e­fited from greater con­ci­sion, and more in­ter­pre­ta­tion and dis­cus­sion of Sculthorpe’s meth­ods and style. Skin­ner, a mu­si­col­o­gist who has worked with the com­poser, has shown in other writ­ing his per­cep­tive anal­y­sis of Sculthorpe’s mu­sic.

A book of this im­por­tance, cer­tain to be used as a ref­er­ence in years to come, re­ally should in­clude a full list of mu­si­cal works and a discog­ra­phy.

Set­tling the score: Com­poser Peter Sculthorpe at his home with a por­trait of him­self in the back­ground

Pic­ture: Alan Pryke

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.