Peter Joshua Sculthorpe AO OBE (born 29 April 1929) is an Australian composer. Much of his music has resulted from an interest in the music of Australia’s neighbours as well as from the impulse to bring together aspects of native Australian music with that of the heritage of the West. He is known primarily for his orchestral and chamber music, such as Kakadu (1988) and Earth Cry (1986), which evoke the sounds and feeling of the Australian bushland and outback. He has also written 17 string quartets, using unusual timbral effects, works for piano, and two operas. He has stated that he wants his music to make people feel better and happier for having listened to it. He has typically avoided the dense, atonal techniques of many of his contemporary composers. His work has often been distinguished by its distinctive use of percussion.
Sculthorpe was born and grew up in Launceston, Tasmania. His mother (Edna) was passionate about English literature and his father (Joshua) loved fishing and nature.
He began writing music at age nine in 1938, after having his first piano lesson. As a young composer, he independently discovered the whole-tone scale, and was disappointed when he learned that others, such as Debussy, had already used it. By the age of 13, he had decided to make a career of music, despite many (especially his father) encouraging him to enter different fields, because he felt the music he wrote was the only thing that was his own. He studied at the Melbourne Conservatorium from 1946 to 1950, then returned to Tasmania. Unable to make any money as a composer, he went into business, running a hunting, shooting and fishing store in Launceston (Sculthorpe’s) with his brother Roger. His Piano Sonatina was performed at the ISCM Festival in Baden-Baden in 1955 (the piece had been rejected for an ABC competition because it was “too modern”). He won a scholarship to study at Oxford University, studying under Egon Wellesz, but left before completing his doctorate because his father was gravely ill. He wrote his first mature composition, Irkanda IV, in his father’s memory.
In 1963 he became a lecturer at the University of Sydney, and has remained there more or less ever since, where he is now an emeritus professor. In the mid 1960s he was composer-in-residence at Yale University. In 1965 he wrote Sun Music I for the Sydney Symphony Orchestra's first overseas tour, on a commission from Sir Bernard Heinze, who asked for “something without rhythm, harmony or melody”. Neville Cardus, after the premiere of Sun Music I, wrote that Sculthorpe was set to “lay the foundations of an original and characteristic Australian music”. In 1968 the Sun Music series was used for the ballet Sun Music, choreographed by Sir Robert Helpmann, which gained wide international attention. In the late 1960s, Sculthorpe worked with Patrick White on an opera about Eliza Fraser, but White chose to terminate the artistic relationship. Sculthorpe subsequently wrote an opera (music theatre), Rites of Passage (1972-73), to his own libretto, using texts in Latin and the Australian indigenous language Arrernte. Another opera Quiros followed in 1982. The orchestral work Kakadu was written in 1988.
In 2003, the SBS Radio and Television Youth Orchestra gave the premiere of Sydney Singing, a composition by Sculthorpe for clarinet solo (Joanne Sharp), harp solo (Tamara Spigelman), percussion solo (Peter Hayward) and string orchestra. This performance was released on SBS DVD in July 2005.
His Requiem is possibly his most serious, substantial work to date.It was premiered in March 2004 in Adelaide by the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra and Adelaide Chamber Singers conducted by Richard Mills, withdidgeridoo soloist William Barton, to critical acclaim.