Tim Matthies Remembers Peter Sculthorpe
I can’t recall the first time I met Peter, nor the first time I heard his music. In thinking about him over the past few weeks, they both seem to have always been a part of my life. The beauty of his mellifluous voice, his warm presence, the emotive power of his visceral music have all come together as I reflect on the joy he has brought to my life.
An early memory is singing his 1988 carol The Birthday of thy King in the Sydney University Musical Society’s Carolfest in the university’s majestic Neo-Gothic Great Hall. The combination of the memorable text after Henry Vaughan and the vibrant music with its wonderful alto solo line was a powerful indication of what contemporary music could do. Similarly hearing his 1990 his eleventh quartet, Jabiru Dreaming performed by the group he wrote it for, the Kronos Quartet, that year was a very powerful music experience.
Some of my most memorable listening experiences in the past few years have been hearing works by Peter, including those that I have played a small part in helping to bring to life.
When Peter was Musica Viva’s Featured Composer in 2005, he decided to adapt his 1999 String Quartet no 15 to feature William Barton alongside the Goldner String Quartet. After much discussion with the musicians and a lot of re-workings the performances proved a great hit.
Two other memorable performances involved the Goldner’s. Their performance of the String Quartet no 6 (the first Australian work Musica Viva commissioned in 1965) at Ken Tribe’s 90th birthday concert was a reminder of how striking a compositional voice Peter had. Equally, their performance of his String Quartet no 17, commissioned by Ken as his gift to Australian music, at the 2007 Huntington Estate Music Festival was a very moving occasion for everyone in the hall.
Most of all, Peter’s String Quartet no 16 has a very special place in my heart and is the work I’m most proud to have worked on with him. It was commissioned for Musica Viva by Julian Burnside, QC to be performed by the Tokyo String Quartet in November 2005; the group reprising it on their June 2013 farewell tour, and the last time Peter took at a bow at a Musica Viva concert. The work was inspired by From Nothing to Zero, a book of extracts from letters written by asylum seekers in Australian detention centres which Julian had written the preface and chapter introductions for. Peter’s response to its heart-rending testimony of the inhumane treatment of refugees, including children, was some of his finest music and the work stands as a powerful reminder of the power of art to help tell important stories. The response to the work was palpable and the Tokyo’s cellist Clive Greensmith commented at the time that “It’s always a special feeling to work with a composer but to play Peter’s piece all over Australia with him in the audience for almost every performance was very special indeed.” Peter himself said that “the work is, I feel, among my very best.“
From the time I began to work in the artistic area at Musica Viva, a particular pleasure was calling Peter. It felt a huge honour to be given his private studio number rather than having to call. Best of all, though, was receiving either a hand-written note – what a distinctive and wonderful hand Peter had – or beautifully composed email. Looking through my folders in writing this, I came across many such emails however this is my favourite. It’s a wonderful combination showing Peter’s pride in his achievements and his love of people and a good party!
Yes, the Christmas party was just great. I must confess, though, that I didn’t feel too good the following morning!
Thanks so much for the SMH article. I’m really pleased to have a copy of this. Meantime, have you seen this month’s ‘Limelight’? String Quartet No.16 rates two questions in The Big Quiz.
Happy happy Christmas to you and to Chris.
Best wishes and love,
Director of Business Development, Concerts