Peter Sculthorpe: String quartet no. 7

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Peter Sculthorpe was born in Tasmania in 1929 and educated at Launceston Church Grammar School, the University of Melbourne and Wadham College, Oxford.

Sculthorpe composed over 350 works, almost all influenced by the social climate and physical characteristics of Australia. He had a deep love for his country and for its landscape, which he regarded as sacred.

One of the most constant themes in Sculthorpe’s output was the protection of Australia’s environment, as well as that of the whole planet. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island music and the gamelan music of Indonesia were also significant influences on his musical language.

Recent works include the String Quartet No. 18 (2010), Shining Island (2011) for strings, and Pastorale (1949/2013) for orchestra. Recent premieres include the 2013 performance of the cantata The Great South Land, reworked from Sculthorpe’s 1982 television opera Quiros.

Sculthorpe was Emeritus Professor at the University of Sydney and held honorary doctorates from Tasmania, Melbourne, Sussex, Griffith and Sydney. He was appointed OBE in 1977 and AO in 1990.

Adapted from the Australian Music Centre biography of the composer

Peter Sculthorpe (1929–2014)
String quartet no. 7: Red landscape

You can almost feel heat radiating from the searing opening notes of Peter Sculthorpe’s String quartet no. 7, Red landscape, composed in 1966. The Tasmanian-born composer is celebrated for breaking from European traditions and seeking to forge a uniquely Australian sound in his music, inspired by the often-harsh landscapes of his home country and drawing on elements of Indigenous music traditions as well as the musical traditions of Australia’s neighbours in Asia and the Pacific. His Seventh String Quartet, however, was originally named Teotihuacán, for the ancient city in Mexico.

Sculthorpe wrote this piece in the USA while he was a visiting fellow at Yale University and the Yale String Quartet premiered it at the Norfolk Chamber Music Festival. ‘I planned to go to Teotihuacán myself,’ the composer wrote in his memoir, ‘to see the Toltec pyramids of the Sun and the Moon, which still stand there. They are possibly the first buildings to be constructed on the principle of the slope and the platform, the slope representing the rays of the sun.’

Sculthorpe never visited the pyramids, but they captured his imagination. You can hear their architecture in the quartet’s solid ‘blocks’ of sound, music the composer described as ‘ferocious and austere’. While he was concerned how this ferocity might go down with the audience, the premiere ‘was an immense success,’ he wrote to his publisher. ‘I was amazed that it had such an impact.’ Sculthorpe later attached the name Red landscape to the quartet – in reference to a vivid painting by Australian artist Russell Drysdale – and he would reuse the musical material in his Sun Music IV.

© Angus McPherson, 2023

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