Music That Changed Me: Peter Sculthorpe

We look back at Peter Sculthorpe's 2004 interview about the music that influenced his life

Peter Sculthorpe (1929-2014)

Last Friday (8 August) Peter Sculthorpe, one of Australia’s foremost composers, died at the age of 85. In a distinctive and often haunting way, his music perfectly captures the atmosphere of his native land’s vast empty spaces, while also successfully embracing the musical cultures of neighbouring Asia-Pacific countries. In May 2004 Sculthorpe talked to Meurig Bowen (now the artistic director of Cheltenham Music Festival)  about the music that had the greatest impact on his life. We take a look back at what he said, and below you can listen to his choices in our special commemorative playlist.


‘As a boy in Tasmania’s northern town of Launceston, family time at weekends was spent going fishing. But one thing my father allowed me to stay home for was Neville Cardus’s weekly radio programme, The Enjoyment of Music. Manchester-born, but by then Sydney-resident, Cardus had the unique distinction of being an expert journalist in both music and cricket. My father wouldn’t have been too keen on him as a music critic, but because he was the cricketing guru of that time, he was deemed alright, so I was excused from the fishing trips.

Cardus’s radio broadcasts in the early years of the Second World War opened my ears to a new musical world – he was, if you like, my music master of the airwaves. I was particularly struck by the music of Delius, the French Impressionists and the pinnacle works of late Viennese romanticism. Of these, Mahler‘s Das Lied von der Erde had the biggest impact. I couldn’t believe that such music existed and it inspired me to commit my life to composing.

My Boosey & Hawkes vocal score of the Mahler, picked up in a Melbourne music shop on a trip there in 1942, became my most treasured teenage possession. For almost a year, if a day passed without me playing the sixth song, ‘Der Abschied’, through on the piano, I believed that I’d be the victim of some terrible misfortune. And looking back, I can see how influential this music was on my own. Impassioned appoggiaturas, long-held funereal pedal-points, the singing of birds in lonely places, tam-tam punctuation points, a longing for lost beauty – all of this, in my music, seems to come from Mahler’s ‘Abschied’.

The first contact that I had with Japanese music was as a student in Melbourne in the late 1940s – stumbling upon a recording by Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra of a piece called Etenraku, an arrangement of Imperial Japanese court music. Etenraku means ‘Music from Heaven’, but I didn’t think this when I first heard it. The sensation was similar to my first taste of olives, oysters or anchovies: I was both repelled and exhilarated.

Later, I heard this Imperial Court music – gagaku – live for the first time, when attending a UNESCO conference in Tokyo in 1968. That afternoon in the Imperial Palace had an enormous impact on me compositionally – the aspiration towards beauty through sober refinement and austere simplicity, and the separation of sound, rather than the blending of it.

I suppose it’s another kind of austere simplicity which has always attracted me to plainsong. And despite the specific connection with Roman Catholic and high-Anglican liturgy, I’d like to think that the enormous body of plainsong melodies – unmeasured, simple and profound – belongs to the whole of mankind. I’m particularly attracted to the plainsong Mass for the Dead; the Lux Aeterna and Dies Irae are some of the greatest melodies ever written – or arrived at. The plainsong requiem has influenced a number of my previous works, as it does the big choral Requiem I’m writing at the moment.

My early admiration for the writing of Wilfrid Mellers developed into a strong and enduring friendship when I met him as student in England in the 1950s. It was through him and his leanings towards American music that I got to know John Cage and Aaron Copland, and the music of Charles Ives. Hearing the extraordinary ‘Housatonic at Stockbridge’ from Three Places in New England, I came to feel much less alone. This was a piece that could only have been written by an American, and it encouraged me to try to write music that could only be written by an Australian.

I met Percy Grainger once, in Melbourne in the late 1930s. His advice to me as an aspiring composer was to ‘look north to the islands my boy’. If he meant Japan, I followed this far-sighted counsel early on. But if he meant Indonesia, it wasn’t until 1974 that I finally made it to Bali for the first time (bad weather and a visa mess-up had killed off two earlier attempts to get there). I was there to make a film about Balinese music, and this led to an encounter with Ketjak music, a highly dramatic vocal incarnation of gamelan music which involves up to 100 speaking, chanting and singing voices, and their imitations of monkeys, lizards, snakes, birds and demon warriors. With Ketjak, you can’t believe what can be done with human voices; it’s one of the most exciting forms of music-theatre I know.’

– Peter Sculthorpe (29 April 1929 – 8 August 2014)


Interview by Meurig Bowen, May 2004