Australian Biography

Peter Sculthorpe - full interview transcript

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So with this money that you could do with as you wished, how did you decide what to do with it?

Well, it wasn't very hard because my father, who'd been been such a wonderful support to me, emotionally as well as financially, but didn't understand a thing about what I was on about, or my music, and I thought to myself if I could get an Oxford doctorate that's something he really would understand, so I decided to go to Oxford and to get a PhD in music. And so I set out. Went off to Oxford. The only time I ever saw my father cry was on the wharf at Melbourne as the ship drew out and the streamers broke. In fact I've got a photograph of it. So ...

And what about you? What did you feel? Having been, as it were, anchored by your family and perhaps even frustrated by that, how did you feel as those bonds broke?

Oh, miserable, but on the other hand looking forward, to feeling that I was behind because I was a little later in my 20s, and that my life as a composer in the real sense was only just beginning. So I felt excited because I felt it was all ahead of me.

And what was Oxford like for you?

Well, at first, I really didn't like Oxford. I had always had a dream of it, an Oxford of dreaming spires, as in Matthew Arnold and I'd imagined it was going to be grandly and beautifully laid out, and I actually found all these different kinds of architectures, huddling against each other, actually found it offensive when I first arrived.


Visually, yes. And maybe because it didn't fit in with my dream of Oxford, I decided I would stay with some dear friends in Birmingham, of all places, and commute.

You preferred the architecture of Birmingham to the architecture of Oxford?

Well, my friends lived in quite a grand Victorian, Edwardian terrace which, of its kind was a gem architecturally, and Oxford won me over, of course, eventually. It was just the initial shock and so I'm glad that I did live in Birmingham because my tutor, Egon Wellesz, had had a very brilliant student, Wilfrid Mellers, who lived in Birmingham and he said, 'You must meet Wilfrid.' And so I began what has been a lifelong friendship in Birmingham at the time with Wilfrid. Eventually I moved back towards Oxford. I stayed in my college for a time, but there was only one other PhD student there, in music that is, [and] we both found that undergraduates were coming to us expecting pearls of wisdom from us, and drinking our coffee, sherry - yes, maybe we could afford a bit better than they could. And I said to Robert, 'Why don't we find a place outside Oxford?' So we found a place that had been an old pub called the Old Crown at Thame and we lived at Thame for several years. Eventually Robert Henderson finished his degree and went back to London and I then moved into Oxford. It took a long time.

In terms of your musical development at that time and your growth as a composer, what did Oxford give you that you hadn't had before?

Oxford gave me the realisation that nobody can give me the key to writing music. My first composition teacher was Edmund Rubbra, a wonderful man, much respected; but he didn't really teach me composition, but he became a wonderful friend. Unfortunately Egon Wellesz was very much the world's authority on Byzantine music and a great scholar, good composer. He would wait for me in the passage after I'd had a lesson with Edmund Rubbra and then he'd take me to his rather grand Georgian house in Woodstock Road and pour sherry into me, and poison my ears about everybody and tell me how I should come to him. And I thought, what is this great man, why is he taking such an interest in little me? And I was very flattered. It wasn't until after I left Rubbra, which was a very unhappy time for me ...

So you were seduced?

I was seduced by Egon and I then discovered that he had converted Edmund Rubbra to Catholicism and a little before I arrived in Oxford, Edmund had left the Catholic Church and become Buddhist, and that I was really just a part of Egon's revenge. Egon also wanted to take over the reins of the music department there and I was also a pawn in that. And yes I was seduced, and it was not good. I also realised that as long as I was with Egon I would never get a PhD what's more.


Because he was so hard on students. And so my world was crumbling a little bit. I would perhaps have gotten an MPhil, Master of Philosophy, but not a PhD. Also because he wanted me to write my thesis on his music and I didn't go all the way or halfway round the world to write on a composer like Egon. So there was a great deal of tension.

Who did you want to write on?

Well, that's very interesting. What I wanted to write on was certain aspects of rhythm in twentieth-century music. Now, of all aspects of music, rhythm is the area that has been the most developed, that the twentieth century has concentrated upon above all else. I mean when you think about it all that German music is basically either a march or a waltz, is in four/four or in three/four time, or six/eight, whereas in the twentieth century there's rhythm. Also because popular music has been brought into so-called serious music. Anyway, so when my topic went to the Board it was decided that I should write on musical form in the twentieth century, with a small chapter on rhythm (laughs) which is ridiculous because you could write books and books on nothing but rhythm and I think that demonstrated the old-fashioned thinking of Oxford at that time. So therefore I wasn't especially happy from the academic point of view. But I loved the life and Oxford did win me over and I think my stay there was one of the happiest times of my life.

What were the musical influences then that you carried away from that, that affected you in later life? If it wasn't in your formal teaching, did you learn things from others?

Well yes I bought every possible score and book that I could afford and soaked it up and I think eventually what I learned was that everything must come from within me, and must be concerned with what I am concerned with. I was very friendly with the composer Peter Maxwell Davies and at that time I was wildly enthusiastic about Japanese music. When I mentioned it to Max he couldn't care less and, in fact, nobody that I knew could care about Japanese music but I did. So I thought well, that's what I'm on about as an Australian and therefore it helped strengthen my own beliefs. A very good example of this is that Egon Wellesz my tutor had just edited the first volume of the Oxford History of Music. The first volume is called Primitive and Oriental Music, and in the book there's not one mention, not even in a footnote, of Aboriginal music and when I brought this up with him, he said, 'but, Aboriginal music is not important.' Well to me it was important. So, nothing he could say would convince me otherwise. In that volume Western, is always spelt - we're talking of the Western world - is always spelt with a capital w, Eastern in lower case (laughs). And so I quickly came to feel that this Eurocentric view of the world was not for me.

We're talking here about the 1950s ...

Yes the late '50s.

You must have been an unusual Australian, at that time, to see the East and Japanese music as being relevant to Australia?

Well, I think, I mean it probably goes back to childhood, when [clears throat], excuse me, some business friends of my uncle's would go to Japan every year and they'd bring back wonderful presents for my cousins. And I had this early contact with Japanese cardboard cut-out castles, Tales of the Genji, and at an early age I began collecting Buddhas for some reason or other, and therefore Asia became very important to my life quite early on.

And Chinese music, in the Chinese market garden as well.

And Chinese music is the first music that I ever heard.

So for you it was associated with your Australian life that the Asian influence ...

Yes, that's right. I don't think that at that time that I brought the two together, like the Chinese music and the market garden and the Japanese presents. I don't think I actually pulled all those together in my mind. It was only later. But by the early 60s I had come to feel very strongly that Australia's ... that our next hundred years would be Asian in some way, and I still believe that.

What did you get out of your friendship with Wilfrid Mellers? In a musical sense I mean.

Wilfrid introduced me to much music, particularly American music that was hard to find on recording. Music that I had read about and dreamed about, music written by composers who had been in a similar situation to me. In other words they weren't European and therefore on the outside. I think probably above all while he was quite a bit older, almost 20 years separates us, he made me feel like an equal, he treated me as an important up-and-coming young composer and made me feel good. I suppose in a way he was my real composition teacher, just sitting talking with him and spending time with his family.

What was his attitude to your Australianess?

He was overjoyed with it. I think this is what he loved actually. Maybe it was because he felt I was a bit exotic. Who knows! But he loved the fact that I was wanting to relate to my own country. I mean he later wrote a book called Music in a New Found Land and that was music about the United States covering so-called serious music, jazz and all kinds of music. That is still the seminal book, and in fact, on the strength of that he was invited to be Andrew Mellon Professor of Music at Pittsburgh. So in the time that I knew him in England he rose from being a humble, extramural lecturer in Birmingham to the highest paid professor of music in the world.

And a lot of artists who went to England at that time felt a great need to become, as it were, part of their environment and in fact it seems that you, in going to England, became much more aware that you were Australian.

Absolutely, but I mean it was my real moment of truth. Going to England at that time was perhaps one of the most important things that ever happened to me. The realisation that maybe because ... oh, I was going to say the world is more of a global village now. It's not really, thank goodness. I mean when it is, we'll have to fly off to the moon or somewhere. Communication might be easier today but the differences in thinking were so clear to me then, that I realised, that either I could ... As Malcolm Williamson the composer said to me 'How could you could go back to Australia,' and, 'How could you, because there is nothing there for you.' And I said, 'Well I could only live where I'm happy' and he said, 'Well, I can only live where I'm successful and maybe if you ...' [INTERUPPTION]

For you going to England, what did it tell you, what did you learn about your own identity?

Well, that was my first real moment of truth because it made me realise, simply realise how Australian I am, how that I think in a different way from these people in England even though my mother was born in England. And so I had the opportunity then of deciding whether or not to stay and adapt my way to their way or whether to return home and be what I felt I was, and of course there was no choice. The composer Malcolm Williamson once said, 'How can you go back to Australia, there is nothing there you know for a composer?' And I said, 'Well, I can only live in a place where I'm happy,' and he said, 'Well I can only live in a place where I'm successful.' And at that time I think I could have had success in England because different opportunities certainly came up. I was also writing a good deal of music for the theatre in Oxford and there were more possibilities there than at home. But, I mean, I'm Australian, there wasn't a choice really.

How would you characterise the differences that you noticed, particularly in relation to your approach to music that made you feel different from the English? [INTERRUPTION]

So what, how would you characterise those qualities that you felt were different about you, especially in relation to your music as an Australian? Were you seen to be different from the English around you?

That's a very hard question to answer, but I can perhaps express it like this. Egon, my tutor [clears throat] excuse me, [clears throat].

That's a very hard question to answer. But I will try to put [it] in a nutshell with a little story. Egon, my tutor, felt that I should go to the summer school of music at Darmstadt in Germany. At that [time] in the 50s and 60s Darmstadt was the centre in the world for all contemporary music and it was European and German orientated. So Egon organised a scholarship for me from the German government to go and everyone was so excited. A lot of my friends were so envious because this was the Mecca, and then suddenly I thought summer's coming, we've got vacation, what am I doing going to Germany? I should stay in Thame and write music. And so I decided not to go to Germany and everybody round me thought I was crazy but [you've got] finance, you've got money to go to the home of it all and I said, 'but writing music is more important for me.' Egon was of course mortified. I stayed home in Thame and wrote music and that was, I think, 1959 and the piece that I wrote, the Sonata for viola and percussion, is still going strong today. And looking back not one work that was played at the Darmstadt Festival is now being performed, I think, because it was passing fashion. That's why it was the centre at the time and people were excited. I'm veering from your question ...

Except that ...

This is, it is a different way of thinking. To me it wasn't important as it was to my colleagues, going to Germany. I think I probably didn't understand the ramifications of just how important it was. I do know that writing music seemed to me to be more important.

So you had a capacity as someone who wasn't in the clutches of the social standards of the old world, to cut through to what you thought was essential.

That's right, which if I had been English I simply wouldn't, well, I wouldn't have wanted to anyway. But I was fortunate in being Australian. So I think that sums up the differences between us.

What actually precipitated your return to Australia?

That's very sad and rather ironic. I was very lucky at Oxford - I'm going to do a bit of a preamble here. I was lucky enough to have a kind of patron or patroness. A woman in her late 80s called Jessie Drummond-Hay and she was Scotland's first lioness of the keyboard and she'd studied with Godowsky in New York and then she married Sir Robert Drummond-Hay, a very wealthy diplomat. I think he was British Ambassador in Egypt at the time of the Suez Canal. He was outrageously unfaithful to her and so one day she just packed up her bag and her young son Robin and went off to New York and lived with the Godowskys. By the time I got to Oxford many years later, it is too long a story to tell how our friendship began, but she became like my patron and she had a house full of wonderful grand pianos that had been given to her as presents. And she wanted [me to] leave Thame and live in Oxford and come to her house to write music at any time. And scholarships are never enough money of course to live on, so I was a barman at a so-called gentlemen's club in North Oxford. And I remember one night I'd closed the bar and then went to Jessie's place and Jessie said, 'your mother phoned from Tasmania,' and I thought that's strange because in those one only every phoned at Christmas, not even on birthdays. We sent cards for birthdays. And so I phoned my mother back and my father had cancer and they'd kept it from me for some time hoping that he'd be all right but things were not good and so that meant of course that there was no question that I should return home. It was a very sad leave taking because the morning that I left to take a train to London, I went back to Jessie's house to say goodbye to her. And her companion came to the door and said that Jessie's unwell and I couldn't see her. And knowing that I would never see her again because I didn't think I would ever return to Oxford, even though at the club most of the members ... sorry I'm rambling, most of the members of the club worked for Morris-Cowley, executives at Morris-Cowley motor works and they were going to give me a Mini Minor and I was going to drive back to Australia, and we spent a lot of our time planning my trip, you know the itinerary, where I would be driving and so on, and that was really exciting. And, saying goodbye to all those men was pretty difficult because I knew I wouldn't be back and I wouldn't be taking that drive.

So you didn't go back in the Mini after all, you had to fly back to be with your father?

Yes that's right.

What greeted you when you got back?

Oh, I will never forget seeing my mother's face at the airport and my brother and his wife. My father didn't have long to live. We were able to get him home from hospital for a short time while I was there. In those days you know, it's so ridiculous, his doctor said that he hadn't told Dad that he had cancer and that we must never mention it, never mention a word. So we knew and I assume my father knew but weren't able to talk about it - just seems awful not to be able to have total honesty in relationships. Anyway, so Dad died and after he died I thought, well Oxford's a long way. It was then, and I only wanted a doctorate for him but I didn't want it for me, so it didn't seem worth going back for it, and all the problems with Egon. But I then wrote a piece in his memory. Do we have room for a slightly longer story to do with Wilfrid Mellers because it is quite an important story. I wrote a piece in my father's memory and I'd like to give you the background. Wilfrid Mellers had been made professor of music in Pittsburgh, the highest paid professorial job in the world. When it came time to fill out the forms, there was the question, have you (are you) been communist? His wife, after the war had joined the Communist Party as many young people in England did at the time, and she lost interest and didn't bother defecting. She didn't defect till many years later when a friend of hers kept pestering her to go back. So they had to be honest about the answer and she was told that either an Act of Congress would prove that she was no longer an enemy of the United States of America, or if she had a child born in the States then automatically her enmity would be cancelled out. It so happened that she was pregnant and I went and saw them off at Heathrow and was so excited because this meant living in the States, on a great salary and so on. Then just after that I went home and I'd been to see my father in hospital and I knew there wasn't long. So I came home from hospital and there was a letter from Wilfrid saying that for one day we were not enemies of the United States, and we had a child and it died. And I was so moved by that and the knowledge of my father's impending death. I had written a song cycle for Wilfrid and his wife Peggy, she was a singer, and one of the songs to D. H. Lawrence words I wasn't really happy with, and I just sat down at the piano and played the song. Somehow all the song just fitted into place and then I realised that this is going to be a work in memory of my father. And it became Irkanda IV, and it was the first work that I'd ever written that sustained applause and rapturous reviews from critics. It was like the landmark work in my life. It's so ironic that it had to be written upon the death of my father who never heard it, and Wilfrid and Peggy's baby. It is probably still one of my best works and it's certainly still having many performances, and when I recently arranged it for the Kronos Quartet, I dedicated it to Wilfrid because he is so much a part of it really. He's long since parted from his first wife actually.

You say that it's ironic that it had to be that way. Do you think there is a connection between deeply felt emotion and really successful compositions?

Absolutely, I think in fact that's how it came about because for the first time in my life I experienced real, well, not just suffering, I mean a link in the family was broken and for me it was devastating. And so out of it, I'm not saying that one should suffer to write music, but out of the depth of feeling that I had, if I hadn't written a good piece I probably should have given up I suppose. I had to write a good piece.

It was always your mother who encouraged your creativity, what did your relationship with your father mean to you in your life?

I think because I'd proved myself to Dad in sport at any early age, we didn't ever have any real conflict the way many fathers and sons do. We had a very, very close bond, all throughout his life. Whereas my brother, even at the time of his death, he and Dad were still bickering over things they hadn't resolved, the conflict between them. But mine was just [a] very warm loving relationship. I still do dream about him. He died in 1961, so ...

What was it about his character that you loved?

Oh I think it was his forthrightness, his honesty, his sense of justice and fair play, his - I was going to say his love for my mother. This is another story, slightly different but it says something about both my parents I think. I remember when we were very little crossing a road and thinking to myself if a bus came tearing along, and my father, or my mother had the opportunity to save one person only, only one, who would they save? I thought a lot about it; I probably got it wrong. When I thought about it, I decided that Dad would save Mum and she would save Dad. And that was very important to me, because it made me feel sort of strong in their love. In fact I would say that Dad would have saved Mum, and Mum would have tried to save both Roger and me, and probably not saved any of us, being a mother. But his love for his wife and his family was so great that I did respond to ...

You felt more comforted by the fact that they loved each other than by the fact that they loved you.

Yes, yes. I think if I'd felt that one of them had wanted to save me I would have thought that wasn't fair to my brother, or to another one, but it just seemed to be right. As I say I was probably wrong, but as long as I believed that, it was important, and therefore growing up in their love was important to me.

After your father died how did that affect your decision? Had you already really decided in any case that your future was in Australia? Or was it your mother's need that kept you here?

No, I decided that definitely my future was here because ...

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