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vale Peter Sculthorpe

August 21, 2014

I was thirteen years old when I first heard the name Peter Sculthorpe. The school orchestra was introduced to his Sun Music II, still one of Peter’s most modern-sounding works and an almost incomprehensible aural and technical challenge for us, and a bit of a stretch for me as a novice cellist. It already struck me at the time as inhabiting the same imaginative world as the sere and eerie reddish brown outback scenes of Russell Drysdale, rather than the more hedonistic Streetons and Conders I was infatuated with then, and it had a haunting aura that has stayed with me ever since.

I love his music, but coming to love it was a gradual process. In 1981 I was selected to premiere his Nocturnal, an austere and enigmatic piece (which Peter soon withdrew) that revealed its secrets only when it was recast as the beautiful piano concerto the following year. But it didn’t matter. I was already hooked, and started to collect and learn everything I could find, including Mountains, a test piece for the Sydney Piano Competition. We began to correspond, and I had the temerity to ask Peter to write a piece for me, emboldened by his evident and genuine interest in younger colleagues, and what I sensed to be, correctly as it turned out, a rare generosity to share his time and ideas. It took a while, and I had to be patient, because Simori didn’t emerge until 1995. It was worth the wait, of course.

I wish I had known him better. Over the years, we met at festivals, concerts, recording sessions, parties, exhibitions, film screenings. My favourite times, though, were just going to Woollahra for lunch and a play of the piano, especially when we looked at the folders of juvenilia which Peter had kept unpublished but which held tender and affectionate memories for him. The other times I would say I treasure are the idyllic yet strenuous days and nights at Dartington Hall in Devon, where Peter was guest composer during the summer school and festival, valued both for his music and for his entertainment value, particularly after midnight, when charades might or might not have taken some very imaginitive turns.

I’m still getting my head around what it means that he is gone, but am very proud to have known him a little, and very happy to have discovered his music so early and to have had it in my life and fingers. It’s a unique and magical body of work and Peter was an extraordinary artist of genius to have given it to us.

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