Australian Biography

Peter Sculthorpe - full interview transcript

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So you had all these creative activities. You were involved in music, and playing your own music on the ABC, you were writing poetry and getting it published. What was the attitude of the other boys to this in Tasmania in the '40s, well the '30s and '40s. How did they regard that sort of activity?

Well, looking back and knowing how attitudes were then, it surprises me that I didn't get a really rough time. But it's possible that because Dad always taught us to stand up for our beliefs and our rights, and he taught us to fight, that I never minded being in a fight or standing up for what I believed. I mean I remember when I was a day boy and my brother was coming to the big school, he was about nine, and some of the boys at school said, 'Oh we're going to tell him where babies come from.' And I couldn't think of anything worse. Oh no sorry, I'm telling the story wrong. They couldn't wait for him to come to the big school to bash him up, you know, give him a hard [time], really initiate him and bash him up. I got into a lot of fights over that. So I think they then decided, well no that wasn't what to do. So then they said, 'We're going to tell him where babies come from.' And that seemed to me to be a terrible thing and it's not something you fight over, so I didn't know how to handle it. It was a 14 mile bike ride to school and so I decided that on the way I'd tell my brother where babies come from. And he laughed all the way to the school and didn't believe a word of it, and so when the time came that they told him, it didn't matter because he didn't believe them. So I suppose it was partly ... sorry, I've told that story wrongly, what I was trying to say is that in the first place, because I fought for my brother then they didn't want to, even if I'd probably lost, they didn't want to fool around with me in that way. But also because Dad taught us to stand up for rights. I remember when I was a bit older I was in charge of the dormitory at school and I had to look after all the little boys and we had to have a cold shower every morning except when the taps froze, and there was one master who used to come around every morning and hold some of the little boys under the shower, and just hold them under this freezing cold water. Also hit them with a cane at the same time. And I went to him to try to get him to stop and he laughed at me and I went to the Headmaster and didn't do any good. And so one night - this was later when I was a boarder - I got out of bed and gouged this master's name out of the honour roll. It was in gold letters on the honour roll at school. And next morning at breakfast the Headmaster was saying grace, and suddenly he stopped and looked and there was this sort of name gouged out and he said, 'What skunk did this?' And I said, 'I did it sir but I am no skunk.' And so he took me (laughs) up to the master's table and took my pants down and caned me. And I think it's probably because I used to stand up for other people's rights in this way that I didn't get a bad time from a lot of the boys. They probably thought I was bit strange but they were my friends and many of them still are actually. So school was good.

Going back and following through your music tuition, what happened after the first music teacher that you had?

Well, we persevered with her for a while but it did get to a point where I was not going to piano lessons, which it was called and not music lessons. And I remember on one birthday, it was my first slightly bigger two-wheeler bike. I got home, and Mum and Dad were giving it to me for my birthday and that happened by coincidence to be the day that my teacher phoned to say that I hadn't been for a lesson for a month. So they said, 'Well, you're not going to get the bike now unless you start to show some interest.' And so I didn't get the bike for some weeks. But I think they realised it wasn't a good thing to persevere with this teacher and they found a wonderful teacher for me, a Mrs Myer who really gave music to me, because we used to listen to recordings and she used to talk about music and related matters, and lessons with her were a real joy. But unfortunately she didn't give me much technique, she just let me play whatever I wanted to play and it was clear that if I was going to compete in the world I had to be able to play the piano better than I did. And so, eventually I went to another teacher, Marjorie Allen, who helped give me the technique. Mrs Myer was fantastic because she gave me music. On the other hand for many years after, my first teacher, her name was Clara B. Doodie, whenever my mother would bump into her in the street, she'd say, 'Edna, it's the foundation that counts!' She always took pride in me as, being her first, I was first with her.

And what happened after you'd got a good teacher that was teaching you good technique? What effect did that have on your musical development and where did you go from there?

Well, it probably didn't affect my musical development a great deal but it helped my career because she entered me in piano competitions, and I managed to do quite well in piano exams and in fact, I did win a scholarship to Trinity College, a scholarship to go to London, but it was felt that I was too young. And she introduced me to people in the professional world of music, all of which was very helpful to my career. She was interested in my compositions but not so very interested. I mean her mission really was to get me playing the piano better.

And for you as someone who was creative, who had been allowed a lot of freedom with your previous teacher to explore your own musical ideas and so on, what did it feel like to be back, as it were, in harness, having to practise for exams and so on? How did you feel about practising?

I think I've always responded to mentors in whom I have belief, and I believed in Marjorie Allen. And my parents believed that she was right for me and that was enough. I was happy to follow the path that was being shown to me. It was no big task, I mean it was a pleasure really.

What did you think of the music that you were having to practise for the exams?

Well that's interesting because Mozart is always a great test. You could hear a truly great conductor conduct Mozart and it can be dreadful, even a great pianist, I mean Mozart is so exposed in a way. I don't enjoy listening, say, to a Mozart piano sonata, or I don't enjoy it very much, but I used to love playing Mozart piano sonatas, so ...

What was the difference?

I think it's trying to play the music, never really quite succeeding, the way one knows it should be. It's because of involvement really. Whereas to sit back and listen to somebody else playing is for me ... well I'm just not involved really. It's just trying to play. It's possible to play Mozart to perfection, few can, and it was aiming to give a perfect Mozart performance.

Now there you were with a lot of different interests. The question of what you were going to do when you left school must have arisen. How did that get resolved?

Yes, this was quite a problem because I had my teachers at school wanting me to be a writer. I had my father ... poor Dad [thought] well, if he has got to be one of these he might as well be an artist; at least he can be a commercial artist, and then he'll earn some money and survive. So he was pushing for that. And my teachers were pushing for me to be a writer and my mother, being a mother, wanted me to do just whatever made me happy. So ultimately it came down to me and when I thought about it, I thought that my poetry is really my second-hand experience of other people's poetry, my painting is my second-hand experience of other people's painting, but my music is just about me. It was only in my music that I was expressing my own feelings about, well, about anything, expressing myself. So it seemed to be very clear to me that music was what I should do.

That early music that you're writing as a school boy what was it like?

Recently, for the last CD of the Goldner String Quartet, I rescued a few early pieces and one piece, which was the slow movement of my first string quartet written at about this time of the year, in April 1944, yes, written before my fifteenth birthday, and I'm amazed, it's really, really beauti ... it's rather sad but it's ... I think it still stands up today. In fact, last year I was at Wigmore Hall and the Goldner Quartet was giving a concert and then at the very end they suddenly decided to play the little song that I'd written. It had its first performance, written in 1944, it had its first performance in 1997 in the Wigmore Hall in London as an encore at a concert, and I nearly cried. It was a big thrill.

What was that little song called?

It wasn't a slow movement from a string quartet, because the violin line follows some words of a poem, I called it Little Song actually. It's about the churchyard at Longford, the church at Longford in Tasmania. And just how I felt about the Tasmanian countryside.

How would you characterise the sound of the music you were writing when young? I'm asking this because you say that it was an expression of you and that it was your music, but you must have derived your ideas from somewhere.

Absolutely, and if anything, I was able to get hold of a little bit of the music of Delius, and this was partly through the Sunday morning programs of Neville Cardus The Enjoyment of Music. And he, through this program on the ABC, introduced me to much, well most of the music that I knew at that time. And I was able to get a few scores and somehow, because of Delius and the English countryside, I related through his music to the Tasmanian countryside because in a way from the early days, early settlers were trying to recreate a little England in Tasmania, so it wasn't difficult to transfer from one to the other.

In a broader sense what music were you exposed to? What music were you listening to during your formative years?

Well, Delius was very important. Another composer who was very important to me was Ernest Bloch. Now he's a composer who is almost forgotten today, but in the 30s there were Bloch societies in almost every big city in the world, and he was one of the few living composers whose music one could obtain. I mean one couldn't even buy the music of Debussy, long dead, but one could buy Bloch. Therefore quite early on he became a very strong influence. He was a Jewish composer and I'm not, I adapted. Some of his music flowed so strongly into mine, that people often actually thought I was Jewish because of it, but it was just simply the influence of Bloch. And the influence is still there, very much.

These, Delius, Bloch and Debussy, were not part of the mainstream repertoire that you might have heard if you'd gone to a concert in Launceston at the time. Am I right?

Oh no, not at all.

What sort of music were you being, as it were, officially asked to listen to?

Well, basically nineteenth-century German music. Which is fine but I still can't relate to it very well. It doesn't ...

What composers?

Well, basically, Beethoven, Brahms and Mozart.

And they weren't intriguing you, they weren't stimulating you at the time?

No, because I didn't relate to them or to what the music was about really. It seemed to be music that was very rooted to its place and its period, really. I still have trouble with Mozart because, for me, only in a few works does Mozart transcend the period. I have no interest in the architecture or the garden landscaping or the writing or anything of that particular period, and so, of Mozart's, so why should I care for the music as well?

Given that it was so accepted at the time that this was really the best music available and it was presented to you that way, in retrospect what do you think gave you the confidence as a young boy to hold out against what you were being told to believe about music?

Oh, because I simply went with what I believed, with my feelings, I think. What other people might have said, might have written, wasn't really important.

And it didn't seem important to you at the time, you just made up your own mind about everything?

I think about most things. Yes.

Do you think that was just in your nature or do you think it came from your parents' attitude?

It wouldn't have come from my father's attitude because he was very conservative, but it certainly would have come from my mother because she was always questioning, and brought us up to question everything. Yes. I keep saying how fortunate I was in my parents. They ... [INTERRUPTION]

So having decided that you would be a composer and that that was going to be your vocation, if you like, what did you do about it?

Well, again through Marjorie Allen, my music teacher, I met different examiners; they would come to Launceston. One in particular, J. A. Steele, Jimmy Steele, who was a modest composer and an examiner for the AMEB. And he really liked my music and he wanted me to come to study in Melbourne, and we, over a few years, became so friendly that he sometimes stayed with us, with my family, and he more or less convinced my father, that's what I should do. On the other hand, my father desperately wanted me to stay home. We had a great relationship and he wanted me to go into business, as a father thinking of my security and on and on, and finally in desperation - I loved cars, and because we used to drive in our village long before we needed to have a licence, because the local policeman shut his eyes anyway, and I dreamt of owning wonderful sports cars and so on - he promised me that if I stayed home I could have any sports car that I wanted. I don't know how he would have paid for it but he would have beggared himself I think, if I had stayed home. And I just looked at him, and I said, 'I love cars but a car is only a car and music is my life.' And somehow that seemed to convince him, he was a very practical man. And from that time he was right behind me really. And even though I won scholarships, when I was living in Melbourne, I used to work in Myer's hardware department in vacations and then I used to work in haystacks in somewhere in Tasmania, to earn money. I still couldn't have managed without my father's financial help really and he didn't ever stint.

So where did you go to study in Melbourne and what did you do and what was it like?

So, I went to study at the University Conservatorium of Music, University of Melbourne. In those days Bernard Heinze was Professor. It was also just after the war and we had all the rehabilitation students, an influx in universities throughout the country. So here were men and women who'd been to war, taken some part in the war and had never been able to afford to do what they really wanted to do and the government was now paying for them. So we had older men and women at the Conservatorium doing music because they had the chance. Therefore they were totally committed, they weren't just doing it for fun or whatever and Bernard Heinz used to refer to those years as the 'golden years' because they were. The excitement in the place, the passion, the commitment, I was so lucky to be there at that time. And so many of my friends from that period went on to become distinguished in many, many different ways throughout the world.

And from the point of view of your own personal progress, what did you get out of that period?

I made a lot of good friends, I was desperate to have a decent composition teacher. Jimmy Steele was a wonderful human being and he had a marvellous collection of Australian painting and I learned a great deal about Australian painting from him, but not a great deal about composition. My counterpoint teacher, A. H. Nickson, Nicky, was a great philosopher and, sitting in his garden often, talking about Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, Hegel, and so on, I learned a great deal about philosophy. But I think when it comes down to music, in those days the course structure was so rigid and so much based upon English models that it didn't really have very much to offer me. But I learnt other things and I made lifelong friends.

How important do you think those other things, the broader cultural perspective, is to a composer?

Well I think that was my first lesson, really. It made me realise that they are more important in fact. And so as a teacher today, I think it's more important for my students to know who won the tennis yesterday, or the footy or what went on in parliament last night, not that it's worth it half the time, to know about books, to know about everything. I think ultimately a musical composition is just like an outer shell and one can learn the technique to make a piece of music but unless one has all, a broad education and a broad view of the world to inform what is inside, then it will be pretty empty.

But you do need the technique and you weren't getting it.

No. I wasn't, and I was desperate.

So where did that lead you?

Because also in those days it was very hard to buy books giving the technique. I did have a friend who was stationed in the army in England and I got him to send me books about Schoenberg and twelve-note technique and so on but ...

You learnt twelve-note technique out of a book?

Out of a book. Yes, but somehow it's not living and that's probably why I rejected it during those student years. The fact that it was almost banned, that kind of music should have been enough to make me want to continue with it, but it didn't have a meaning for me, out of a book.

During that period in Melbourne did you get much opportunity to listen to the more avant-garde composers?

That is a strange question because I don't think we were aware of avant-garde composers. I mean we were lucky to hear Debussy and Ravel, long dead, in a concert. But on the other hand it was Sir Bernard who one day said that he wanted me to give a concert of my own music and he encouraged me to, so I did have a lot of encouragement as far as my own music was concerned.

And after you graduated from that Conservatorium what was the next step for you?

Well, the next step was a job, so I ended up in Tasmania teaching in an area school, that's like a farm school in the country where all the children are bussed in, and teaching for adult education. Then, finally my brother had always dreamed of owning a sports shop, and he first of all became apprenticed to the local sports shop, and then later set up his own business. It was just a little hole in the wall, really. And we decided that I should go into partnership with him in the business. I spent a good four years in partnership with my brother.

And what was happening to your music?

I was writing music for the Launceston Players, that is, theatrical productions but writing less and less, and I remember on the night of my 25th birthday, you know at the age of 25 most composers have been getting on with their work, but I sat on my parents' bed and burst into tears and I said, 'Do you realise I am a quarter of a century old and I've achieved nothing.' And because to be a composer had been my dream, we then decided that I would work just part-time in the business and get on with writing music. And then the first piece that I wrote after that time I entered for an ABC competition for a piano sonatina and it was rejected with a rude note saying they couldn't take the work seriously. And I was so annoyed I sent it off to the International Society for Contemporary Music and they decided to include it in their festival in - I think it was 1954. And that fact even though I'd been rejected here, to be accepted in Europe made us feel that we were on the right track. It was still not easy to write music and earn a living. I went to live in Canberra for a time and stayed with Anne Godfrey Smith, who had gone to Canberra to direct the Canberra Players, [which] became The Playhouse and I wrote music for her. We wrote a musical together, and it was really rather good fun, a bit of a romp.

What was the musical about?

It was called Ulterior Motives and it was about somebody stealing a red shower curtain from a government hostel which was clearly a communist plot, because it was a red shower curtain, and it was a sort of farce, really.

But very Canberra based.

Very Canberra based. In fact Doc Evatt used to bring people to nearly every performance of it. He was a great supporter.

Did it travel, did it go further than Canberra?

I think it was too Canberra oriented. But we wanted to take it to Sydney and so Anne phoned Bill Orr at the Phillip Street Theatre in Sydney and Bill came down to Canberra to have a look, and he liked it but it was clear that it wouldn't travel. He particularly liked the music and so he asked me to come to Sydney and I wrote music for some of the early Phillip Street Theatre revues, [such as] Cross Section. In other words I was writing for Gordon Chater, June Salter, and Reg Livermore's first big stage appearances, [and] Max Oldaker. They were good days in Sydney.

And how did you enjoy this lighter music?

Well, I'd hoped that by writing light music, I could earn money to live and get on with my so-called serious music, but it was very clear, very clear, that the two worlds don't mix and the light music world was pretty time consuming and exhausting and the last thing I wanted to do when I finished in that area was to get on with writing music. And it was fairly clear that that was not my future.

What kind of a living were you making out of it?

Oh, next to nothing. Just enough to get by. I can't remember, but it was barely a living.

Was it a lot of fun, were you drawn to the theatrical?

It was a lot of fun, yes.

Do you think there is something in you that loves the theatrical anyway?

Yes, I mean I would still love to write another opera, but again, it's the time that it takes, just fashioning a libretto and so on. I think most composers are attracted to the theatre.

And so when you realised that it was competitive with your more serious music, what did you do?

I didn't have a choice, really. It was either stay here in Sydney or go back to my brother Roger and the gun shop in Launceston. So I stuck it out here. Then suddenly, out of the blue I was offered a Lizette Bentwich fellowship, scholarship, I've forgotten now.

It was money anyway.

It was money. And she must have been an extraordinary woman, Lizette Bentwich. She died in the year that I was born and she left money to the University of Melbourne for a scholarship for students to go abroad to study, but it wasn't fixed. It was very loose in requirements. And the will didn't get sorted out until that very year, about 1955 or 1956. It took all that time.

It had been waiting for you.

It was waiting for me, because I was the first recipient of it. And this meant that I had money to leave Australia and do whatever I wanted to do. I mean they would have been perfectly happy for me to have a musical sightseeing tour of the world in other words.

So how did you decide what to do with it?

Well I decided that ...

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