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Peter Sculthorpe

Composer

Composer

Born: April 29, 1929; Died: August 8, 2014

Peter Sculthorpe, who has died aged 85, was an Australian composer whose music evoked the fierce sunshine and atmospheric landscapes of the Outback in the most vivid and memorable way.

During Peter Diamand's period as director of the Edinburgh Festival, Australian performers would bring something by Sculthorpe with them as a visiting card.

The most famous of these occasions was when Sir Charles Mackerras, conducting the Sydney Symphony Orchestra on its first visit to Scotland in 1974, used Sculthorpe's searing Sun Music IV as the centrepiece of the opening concert.

It was one of Sculthorpe's first works to be heard in Britain, and its title, when it was published by Faber, came to personify him as a composer.

The series of pieces he produced under that name were, he said, just a few of his "children" - his term for his copious output of 350 compositions.

When the rival Melbourne Symphony Orchestra comes to the Edinburgh Festival later this month, it will pay tribute to an earlier Australian composer, the maverick Percy Grainger, but Sculthorpe will be featured in a concert by the Scottish Ensemble and Commonwealth Strings at the Queen's Hall on August 26, when his Third Sonata For Strings is to be performed.

Born in Launceston, Tasmania, in 1929, Sculthorpe was the son of Joshua Sculthorpe, a shop owner, and Edna, a primary school headmistress and devotee of English literature.

Educated at the local church grammar school, where he compiled a dictionary of Aboriginal words, he was taught the piano from the age of seven but was smacked by his teacher for trying to compose.

He studied at Melbourne University before returning to Tasmania as a shopkeeper specialising in "huntin', shootin' and fishin'", but by the time he was 26 his Piano Sonatina had been played at the International Society Of Contemporary Music's festival in Baden-Baden - after being rejected by the Australian Broadcasting Commission as too modern.

When, in 1966, he was commissioned to write his first Sun Music for the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, he set himself the task of producing a work devoid of melody, in which, as one newspaper put it, he laid the foundations of an original and characteristic Australian music. The score was later choreographed by Robert Helpmann for the Australian Ballet. Though in Britain he studied with Edmund Rubbra and Egon Wellesz at Oxford, his inspiration was fundamentally Australian - Aboriginal music, he declared, was the oldest music on the planet - and he believed the musical future lay in the Southern Hemisphere, and not in Europe. It prompted him to use ancient Australian instruments in his works and to curb his early enthusiasm for Bartok and other key European composers.

His career, although by then well and truly begun, was to dismay some of the critics, one of whom famously greeted the sixth of his 18 string quartets (works filled with unusual sonic effects) as a study of an elephant - it was certainly slow-moving, dragging barbed wire across a corrugated iron roof.

His Quartet No 16, composed in 2006, would have been well suited to the subject of this year's Edinburgh Festival, for it commemorates the women and children killed in the Iraq War. Similarly, his important Requiem of 2004, about the fate of asylum-seekers in Australia and with a solo didgeridoo as part of its instrumentation, could have been featured with the Threnody by the Australian festival director Jonathan Mills in Edinburgh this year.

Sculthorpe's opera Rites Of Passage, to a libretto by the Australian novelist Patrick White, was commissioned for the opening of the Sydney Opera House in 1974, but failed to be completed in time. Sculthorpe and White fell out violently (there were tales of a valuable Sidney Nolan painting being spattered with White's dinner) and when the work appeared the following year they were not on speaking terms. Despite its late arrival, it was the first Australian work staged at the Sydney Opera House.

Sculthorpe taught at Sydney University, exploiting his fondness for jazz, for more than 30 years. He wrote an autobiography appropriately entitled Sun Music.

He received the MBE in 1970, the OBE in 1977, and was named one of Australia's 100 Living Treasures by the National Trust of Australia in 1997. Unlike his compatriot Malcolm Williamson, however, he was never made Master Of The Queen's Music.

He remained unmarried, though he was twice engaged. His works, as he said, were his family.

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