Quest for a classical authenticity
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