Peter Sculthorpe (20 April 1929 – 8 August 2014)

(Reproduced from ACO Concert Programme: Tognetti’s Beethoven, 2014)

Our good friend Peter was Australia’s foremost classical music composer, and one of our most original and distinctive creative voices in any medium. Born and schooled in Launceston, he undertook university studies at Melbourne, under Bernard Heinze, and Oxford, where in 1958 his tutor, composer Edmund Rubbra, prophetically dubbed him ‘Australia’s Bartók’. Another English mentor, musicologist Wilfrid Mellers, saw that it was paradoxically at Oxford that the homesick young Antipodean ‘discovered his true identity, becoming the first composer to make a music distinctively Australian’.

MUSIC ARCHIVEBack home he responded to his father’s death in 1961 by composing his ‘austerely Australian’ string orchestra classic Irkanda IV. It earned him the attention of arts leaders including Nugget Coombs and Robert Helpmann, and resulted in opera, ballet and chamber music commissions, as well as a place at the head of a questing ‘new wave’ of young composers including Nigel Butterley, George Dreyfus, Larry Sitsky, and the late Richard Meale.

His appointment to the teaching staff of Sydney University
in 1964 was a turning point in his own creative development. ‘Thrown in at the deep end,’ he recalled, by Professor Donald Peart, he found himself teaching Asian traditional music, which in turn deeply influenced his own music.

Sculthorpe learned double bass so he could join the string orchestra at Melbourne University’s Conservatorium in the late 1940s. Since then, music for strings has formed the core of his output as a composer: in his 18 string quartets (one more than Beethoven!), and many scores for string chamber orchestra. When a group of his friends formed the Australian Chamber Orchestra in 1975, it was inevitable that Peter would compose for them.

His first work for the ACO was the sombre Lament for Strings (1976). His second, Port Essington (1977), created a dramatic mix of historic and contemporary sounds to reimagine an early colonial settlement in the Carpentaria. In 1989, he returned to the gulf country in his concerto, Nourlangie, for the ACO and guitarist John Williams. Over their almost 40-year shared history, Peter composed nine new scores for the ACO, the last the Chaconne, to celebrate Richard’s 20th anniversary as artistic director. In turn, the ACO has made three all-Sculthorpe CDs, as well as championing his music at home and abroad.

Sculthorpe showed Australian classical music how to become more truly itself, by moving on from its foundational European focus, and situating us firmly in our own place and region. For Australian music post-Sculthorpe, Europe is the Antipodes! As we celebrate a musical life completed and contemplate his ongoing legacy – and after Sculthorpe himself has been accorded due plaudits for having been so exceptionally himself – Australia too should take a bow for creating him!


Lament for Strings (1976)

For the Australian Chamber Orchestra First performance: 26 May 1976,
City Hall, Wollongong NSW: Australian Chamber Orchestra

Port Essington (1977)

Commissioned by Musica Viva Australia for the Australian Chamber Orchestra
First performance: 16 August 1977, Mayne Hall, University of Queensland, Brisbane QLD: Australian Chamber Orchestra

Little Suite for Strings (1983)
For the Australian Chamber Orchestra First performance: 22 September 1983, Sydney Opera House: Australian Chamber Orchestra

First Sonata for Strings (1983) Commissioned by Musica Viva Australia for the Australian Chamber Orchestra
First performance: 29 November 1983, Sydney Opera House: Australian Chamber Orchestra

Second Sonata for Strings (1988) Commissioned by the Australian Chamber Orchestra
First performance: 19 May 1988, UK, Brighton Festival, St Martin’s Church: Australian Chamber Orchestra/
Carl Pini

Nourlangie (1989)
Commissioned by the Australian Chamber Orchestra
First performance: 24 October 1989, Australia, Queensland Performing Arts Complex, Brisbane: John Williams/Michael Askill/Australian Chamber Orchestra/Richard Hickox

Lament (1991)
For the Australian Chamber Orchestra First performance: 22.9.91, Australia, Sydney Opera House: Raphael Wallfisch/Australian Chamber Orchestra

Djilile (2001)
For the Australian Chamber Orchestra First performance: June 2001, Chandos recording sessions, Sydney: Australian Chamber Orchestra/ Richard Tognetti

Chaconne (2009)
Dedicated to Richard Tognetti; commissioned by the Australian Chamber Orchestra to mark the occasion of Richard Tognetti’s
20th anniversary as leader and artistic director of the orchestra
First performance: 8 August 2009, Richard Tognetti (violin), Australian Chamber Orchestra, Llewellyn Hall, Canberra School of Music, Canberra



Up Against Beethoven

Nothing seems to be too daunting for the ground-breaking Artistic Director of the Australian Chamber Orchestra, Richard Tognetti AM, but he and his band of musicians have taken on three great works of Beethoven, and added a new work by one of the world’s leading rock musicians, Jonny Greenwood. They are really up against Beethoven in this concert tour.

Dubbed Tognetti’s Beethoven, the next tour by the ACO will put everyone on the edge of their seats as the orchestra plays three monumental works, the Coriolan Overture, the Symphony No 1 and the Triple Concerto.

“The Coriolan Overture is one of the great dramatic pieces. It’s about a General who goes off to war and ends up tragically dying.”

“The momentum that Beethoven can build up, and the impending doom makes this incredibly dramatic and heartbreaking stuff”, says Tognetti.

Richard-Tognetti-eyes-shut-435x170Hearing Tognetti describe the music he is to perform, one can feel a strong connection and passion that comes from the soul of this great musician. Every word, like every note he plays is filled with spirit. His take on everything is as though there is no tomorrow.

Composed for a drama by Heinrich Collin, the Coriolan Overture was written in 1807 and deals with political and human issues, which instantly captivated the imagination of Beethoven during this period of his life. He seized upon the essential principles of conflict in this powerful and musically self-sufficient tone poem.

Beethoven tries to bring to his music the torment of a General who finally and tragically realizes that the sacrifice of his own life will bring about peace, without loss of honour. It is epic music and the ACO are facing it head on in this programme.

Tognetti then goes on to describe Beethoven’s first attempt at writing a symphony as a “winner – Bingo!”

“It’s bubble galore. It’s incredibly alive, almost more like Haydn than Mozart; it sounds easy, as though it flowed out of him (Beethoven), but it’s got this colossal nature to it.  And one wouldn’t have been surprised if Beethoven had written the “Eroica” as his first symphony, but (in haven’t written this symphony as his first) it is almost as though he was testing the waters.”

When Beethoven finished his first symphony he needed an event to announce to the world this new foray into the world of symphony, a world inhabited by Mozart and Haydn. And so it was at the stunningly ornate Royal and Imperial Court Theatre in Vienna in April 1800 that the composer took on his audience and won out.

Already known as the greatest piano virtuoso in Vienna (he had written two Piano Concertos by this stage), Beethoven produced what was his first personal benefit concert, including one of the Piano Concertos, but commencing with a Mozart Symphony. It was by so doing, that he really did declare his hand. Beethoven was ready to stand alongside, or perhaps even tower above the past masters.

The first Symphony in every gesture toyed with tonality. It played with people’s aural expectations of where the home was. This was music that set his audience on the edge of their seats.

Beethoven so cleverly works harmonic invention, working around key centres that help too give the music an inherent tension. The opening chord of the first movement is not the expected C major (or home) triad so typically needed for eighteenth century ears, but rather a discord. And though he shifts key by bar three, it is still not the home key.

The work is full or aural surprises; timpani tuned as if for a movement in a different key, a scherzo in place of a minuet, and a scherzo (musical joke) that shows a perhaps wicked sense of humour, and a particularly frivolous opening fourth movement with violins fooling around with what could be described as false starts.

All this is great fodder for Tognetti and his musicians who eagerly look for the unexpected in their attempt to challenge and excite audiences.

And then there is the Triple Concerto, which Tognetti describes as “an interesting experiment in texture.”

“It always leaves me a bit puzzled, because essentially it is a cello concerto (Timo-Veikko Valve) with piano accompaniment (Yevgeny Sudbin) and violin commentating (Richard Tognetti), with incredible giocoso, almost operatic orchestral Rossini-like characters coming through.”

“It is compact with a clear structure. It has a slow fast opening and the brilliant vivacity of the last movement is like Haydn.”

To his publishers, Breitkopf and Hartel in Leipzig, Beethoven offered them “something of a novelty”. But was it really a novelty?

In the eighteenth century many composers wrote for odd combinations. There were works such as the Sinfonia Concertante (for piano, mandolin, trumpet and bass) by one of Beethoven’s older colleagues, Leopold Kozeluh, and his own teacher Albrechtsberger wrote two Concertos for Jew’s Harp and Mandora.

Whilst Beethoven proposed that the work was novel, it was really an orchestral piece with piano trio, although he did more with the cello than is usual in a piano trio. Beethoven’s development of the cello as a solo instrument in his orchestral works did more for liberating the instrument from its continuo status, than any other composer.

Whilst some may claim it is a piano trio with orchestra, and Tognetti sees it more as a cello concerto with accompanying piano and violin, the feat Beethoven overcame in producing this work (with its inherent balance issues) and structural challenges, makes it a work that stands alone as a multi-soloist concerto, not surpassed by any later composer.

“So those three works show Beethoven doing totally different things.” And that’s been the key to the ACO’s success for nearly 40 years (25 years under Tognetti’s leadership) – doing things differently.

As if three Beethoven works were not enough, but in keeping with doing things differently, a new work was commissioned to place alongside the great eighteenth century master.

Tognetti GreenwoodMore than a commission, the rock guitarist Jonny Greenwood from Radiohead took time out to spend some months in Sydney in 2012, working with the ACO. Creating huge excitement, the orchestra members have eagerly awaited the finished composition, which will get its world premiere on the ACO European tour in Dublin on October 2, with later performances in London and Birmingham before Sydney.

Enjoying a reputation not only in the rock world, but also as a film composer (Bodysong, There Will Be Blood, We Need to Talk About Kevin, and The Master), Jonny Greenwood is one of those rare individuals who have transcended the classical and rock genres. Being a guitarist and keyboardist in the band Radiohead, he also plays viola, glockenspiel, drums, banjo and the Ondes Martenot (an instrument by which he was totally seduced when he discovered the music of Olivier Messiaen).

Perhaps not unlike Beethoven, Greenwood is able to “balance extreme intensity”, according to Tognetti.

When Tognetti wrote to Greenwood and asked him how did he feel being up against Beethoven, the rock legend nonchalantly replied “we’re all up against Beethoven”.

Tognetti and the ACO members have got to know Greenwood well, as they have performed his music on the 2012 national tour. Popcorn Superhet Receiver was the first foray in Greenwood’s compositions by the orchestra. It came from the soundtrack for 2007 film, There Will Be Blood, for which Greenwood wrote the score.

Based on a Phillip Larkin poem, Greenwood’s new piece, titled Water delves into deeper territory. The powerful forces of belief, religion, light, spirituality may be dismissed by the English poet whose poem gave Greenwood the inspiration, but other forces in the composer’s life also intersect to produce this profound utterance in music.

Like Larkin’s questioning of religious thought in his poetry, Greenwood’s attraction to more spiritual ideas came about via the music of Messiaen, encountering for the first time Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jesus (20 contemplations on the infant Jesus) in a London concert.

Greenwood has since declared that his all-time favourite piece of music is Messiaen’s Turangalila Symphony (which used extensively the signature instrument, the Ondes Martenot). Greenwood was so taken with the instrument, that he gave a performance on it at the 2010 Glastonbury Festival. Perhaps it is the uniquely ethereal sound the instrument makes which connects with the musician an a sense of spirituality.

All of these twentieth century influences on Greenwood combine to give voice to a uniquely new sound world. Whilst they might be up against Beethoven, Greenwood and Tognetti’s ACO continue to excite audience with their collective drive to do things differently.

It is Greenwood and Tognetti’s exploration of new music, new ways of presenting their music, new ways to connect with audiences, and fresh ideas for old pieces that continue to place them at the forefront in the concert world.

(This article was first published in Fine Music magazine, October 2014.)