Australian Biography

Peter Sculthorpe - full interview transcript

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Peter, what's your earliest memory?

My very earliest memory is of the day that my mother brought my younger brother home from hospital after he was born, so I would have been three years old. And I was so furious about this situation. I can see it now. I actually stood on the couch and threw the cushions onto the floor and I sort of found my way about the house and kept throwing cushions on the floor. That's my earliest memory and then I can't remember anything until I was probably about five or six. So clearly this brother of mine was a real intrusion in my life at that time because it didn't take long before I loved him dearly and we've been very close, very dear friends all our lives in fact. But that - it is a very clear memory.

He was your only brother.

Yes, there were just two of us in the family.

And how did your parents handle your tantrum? Do you remember that?

I think they probably let me go. I don't think they would've tried to restrain me. They were - well I know everybody thinks their parents are special but I think my parents were very special because they did give us a lot of rope in a way. On the other hand they were also very strict. You know later when I was a little older if I didn't wind the hose up after watering the garden - that was one of my jobs - and if I didn't wind it up properly, well I'd have to go without dinner that night. You know, it was very simple. So one soon learnt that there's a place for everything and everything in its place.

And so they were strict about standards, about what you had to achieve.

Yes that's right. Like, when you speak to somebody, look into their eyes. There were a lot of rules that we had and I value that. Also my mother had been a school teacher and she'd been headmistress of an infant school and so I think she was fairly good at handling these two fairly wild boys that she had. Dad used to thrash us with his razor strap when we were naughty, but in fact it was Mum's tongue that we both found more painful than Dad's razor strap because she always knew exactly what to say that was going to make us feel really bad.

Make you feel guilty?

Guilty and realise that we'd done wrong. But with a beating from Dad that was just temporary pain but with Mum it tended to last longer.

You say however that she gave you a lot of rope, where did the freedoms come?

Well a very simple example of that is that when we were in our early teens, Mum and Dad said if we wanted to smoke that's all right but do it in front of them, don't go and hide behind bushes and do it. And so therefore we didn't want to smoke, that I think was their approach to bringing us up. But actually what I treasure more than anything is the fact that my mother encouraged my love for literature, for reading and so by the time I was in my early teens I'd read almost all the great books. And she'd give me certain books to read and then, after a few weeks, or at the end of the month, I had to report to her on the books and discuss them with her and I've treasured that, that she did that all my life really. Because it gave me a lifelong love of books and certain writers in particular became very special to me.

Where did you spend your childhood? Where were you physically?

I was born in Launceston in 1929 during the Great Depression. There was also the great flood, I think, just before I was born. But I was rowed to safety in my mother's womb and then my parents later bought a small business. They had a general store. Well, my father had a job and then there was the Depression. He worked in a hardware business. Dad, he lost his job so my mother said, 'Well, what about selling the motorbike and sidecar and buying a little business.' And so they bought the little business in Launceston and what was very interesting is that Dad loved fishing and shooting, and they found that during the Depression they did very well with fishing and shooting gear because men would go out to find their own food, fish for it or shoot it. And the business actually flourished, as much as anything, because of the fishing and shooting gear that they sold. And then they bought a little business in St Leonards which was outside Launceston and moved there and that's where I grew up in fact.

And what was that like for you? Did that give you a lot of outdoors freedom?

Yes I grew to love the bush and loved really more wandering on my own. I always, always liked my own company, I mean I love other people's company too. But I was never lonely. I think it's because at an early age instinctively I wanted to conserve time. For instance, I once heard my father say to my mother, 'What's he doing inside writing music all the time. Why isn't he outside playing football with the other boys?' And I remember my mother said, 'Well Jos,' she said, 'You know, there are thousands of boys out there playing football, there's only one of them inside writing music.' Which was a pretty good answer. But I wanted to please my father and therefore at quite an early age I decided that I would take up sports, because he loved sport, but sports that depended only upon me. While our school preached teamwork I was against that and I decided therefore that I'd take up running and jumping and swimming, and those sports where one depended only upon oneself. I also decided that as my father at one time, his sister at another time, had been champion swimmers of Tasmania that I too wouldn't stop until I was as well, because I knew that would please my father. And it did.

So you succeeded in becoming a champion swimmer?

Yes, yes.

Why do you think you wanted to do these sports that involved an independent success?

Because I could swim in my own time, I could train in my own time, but when other people were involved, there were set times. It wasn't in my time and it took more time and so therefore it was really about preserving one's time. At school, teachers would always say, 'Well here we go again, everybody in the battalion out of step except Sculthorpe.' And I actually thought that was true and I believed that everyone was out of step because I wouldn't follow the pattern. It didn't worry me that fact. It's just that at quite an early age I decided that I wanted to be a composer, although that wasn't any good because everyone said that all the composers were dead. Or a writer or a painter, and therefore I wanted to get on with these. I needed time for these pursuits.

What's your earliest musical memory?

My earliest musical memory is [that] once a week Dad would go to a Chinese market garden and they had a lot of musical instruments in this garden and as I got to know them, the Chinese, I'd talk them into playing them and then as time passed they'd play more of their music to me, and that I found really thrilling. I mean I've often talked about how, when I was much older, I went to my first orchestral concert in the National Theatre in Launceston and how I looked forward to hearing my first Beethoven symphony, and how pallid it sounded in this enclosed theatre after this wonderful vibrant Chinese music in the open. I treasure then my first musical experience.

When did you start to learn music?

I started to learn music ... we've lost track of this a little bit because somehow I've got to try to pin it down. Because in my own memory, and from what I read [that] people have written, it varies from six to eight. It was probably about seven actually when I went to my first music lesson. And I went to have lessons in painting also. I was learning to paint, and so I went to my first music lesson and naturally assumed that I was to learn to write music. And so ...

Why did you assume that, why did you assume that you were there to learn to write music rather than to play it?

Well, because Mum was always very busy in the shop, I mean she worked from six in the morning until well into the evening. And she brought us up to invent and create our own games in a way. And she looked after me with my writing, I used to write poetry, and she sent me to painting lessons, so I painted. So I just assumed that when you go to a music lesson, you go to learn to write music. I mean, it seemed to be obvious. I can't explain, rather stupid of me looking back.

So what happened, did the teacher share your view of what a music lesson was?

No, she was furious and she hit me across the knuckles with the cane end of a feather duster so I couldn't even play the piano, and she assured me that all the composers were dead and that I was wasting my time. So I then had to practise the piano, and I wrote music under the bedclothes with a torch for a year or so until my parents discovered me. And I think this is what I mean about my parents being very good and very liberal. They didn't carry on and say, 'Oh, isn't he fantastic, isn't he wonderful', or they didn't say, 'You shouldn't be doing it.' They just said, 'Alright, if that's what you want to do, fine but you don't have to do it under the bedclothes with a torch.' They didn't make me feel either bad or guilty or special. They just took it for granted, or just in the day's flow of things really.

Now that's such a good story and I came at it from slightly the wrong angle, so I'm going to ask a very open question and get you to tell that whole story straight. I'll ask you again, what happened when you went to your first music lesson, did it go well?

When I went to my first music lesson, oh, sorry no ... I'm lost.

Yes sorry, I shouldn't have done that to you.

No, I went to my first music lesson, and it was to do with the piano and to do with theory and then I went home. So it was really my second music lesson that I took all the music that I'd written and that is when my teacher was furious. I am telling all this wrong.

No that's right, it's fine, it's fine. So you discovered that you could write music and your parents were pleased with what you'd done, and so, did that then make you decide that you would be a composer or was that later?

I think the general impression was that all the composers were dead and I think Mum and Dad probably thought it's nice for him to be doing what he wants to do.

With your creativity that your mother clearly encouraged right across the board - the painting, the literature, the music - do you think she was encouraging that because she saw creativity in you, or was it a reflection of her own hopes for you?

I would say it may well have been a reflection of her own hopes. I think that the power of women is incredibly strong, or the energy. Maybe I had a few gifts but no, I think also she was hoping through me to realise some of the things that she didn't realise. Because when she was one of the first women to study at the University of Tasmania a visiting theatre company came to Hobart, and she decided to audition, and they wanted her to join the company, to leave the University and travel with them. And when she plucked up the courage to tell her parents they were horrified, you know, 'But what have you done!' because only wicked women go on the stage. I think she maybe would have liked to have been on the stage, or liked to have done other things, but was unable to and therefore she was realising a lot of this through me.

What about your brother, was he encouraged to do artistic things?

Well, my brother, because Mum and Dad treated us the same, had to have music lessons too. So he learned the violin, and used to play (not very well) little pieces, and whenever we played together at the piano, me at the piano and him at the violin, he would always end before I did. I would race to catch up with him, to try to end at the same time, and this went on for a while. And then it turned out that he thought that the whole idea of it, when you play violin and piano, was a race and whoever got to the end first won. And the moment I pointed out to him that it's not a race, you have to play together, he lost all interest and I had to go to Mum and Dad to ask them if he could stop having lessons. So it was fairly obvious that he was going to be into sport and of course inevitably he had a sports shop in Launceston, still does. A gun shop actually, in Tasmania. I think because of me and music he had to find his own, his world, and as we grew older, into our teens and I said, 'I'm going to be the most famous composer in Tasmania,' he used to say, 'Well I'm going to have the best gun collection in Tasmania,' and even before he left school, he had probably the best collection in Tasmania including weapons that had belonged to Wild Bill Hickok, and has still got them and [INTERRUPTION]

So your brother was really a sportsman, how did he fulfil that?

Well he decided that he was going to have the best gun collection in Tasmania. If I was going to be the best composer, he was going to have the best gun collection, and even before he left school he had, he did have the best, including some weapons that belonged to Wild Bill Hickok and so on. Looking back, I don't know how our friendship survived because as time passed, I mean naturally, my parents would trot me out to play my latest little composition to visitors and Roger, my brother, would leave the room. And it attests to what a wonderful person he is that he didn't ever grow to resent me and to resent what I was doing. As the years passed we just became closer really. So he is a very special person.

As a boy were you conscious of the problem that he might feel overshadowed?

No, not at all, not at all. But I think, because he was three years younger and as when you're young that's quite a lot, I'm sure my parents were, and did all they could to manoeuvre things, events around this. But looking back it suddenly occurred to me that he tended to take to pieces anything that I had. Like I'd get a new bike and then I'd come home and he would have taken a lot of it to pieces, and lost a lot of the nuts and bolts and we couldn't get it back together again. That might have been some self-conscious thing driving that, although I've always thought that it was his natural curiosity because he's got a fairly curious brain. He's into mechanical matters.

What happened when you went to school? How did school appeal to you?

I loved school. I went first of all to St Leonards State School. It was my first school and I think because it was about learning I loved it, and I remember when I was quite young, I fell in love with Miss Sleeth, who was [my first teacher and] the policeman's daughter in our village. I was going to marry her when I grew up. And my teachers always meant a great deal to me. I did find at an early age that I tended to have to prove myself as far as catching a ball was concerned or in athletics. If I was able to prove myself in that area then it was all right for me to be writing music or doing whatever I was doing. That wasn't so evident at the state school but it was when I went to Grammar School. My father wanted us to go to - well we call them public schools in Tasmania, but private schools - Launceston Grammar. My mother wanted us to go to the state school in Launceston and it must be one of the few arguments that my father won. Because we ended up going to Grammar and I think that was because he felt that living in a small island like Tasmania it's like a club and going to Grammar would open doors for the two of us, particularly if we were to go into business. Mum, on the other hand, had wanted us to be better educated and certainly education in those days was better at the state schools, but we went to Grammar where team work was emphasised so I had really to work harder on swimming and athletics there. But I really loved every moment of my school days and I was very lucky because there were some teachers who became very important to my life. One was Wilfred Teniswood who had gone to school with my mother and he was walking past the music room one day and I heard him come trotting back, and he said, 'Oh, who wrote that music?' And I said, 'I did, of course,' and he was rather surprised. He had been Head of Talks on ABC Radio in Hobart and so he organised for me to go and play my music on the ABC before I'd reached my teens in fact. And so therefore while the other boys were doing their homework - it was boarding school - I'd trot off to the ABC in the city to play my pieces. I suppose I was sort of tolerated by the other boys in a rather curious way. Wilfred was a friend to me all his life, and also - we used to call him 'Yak' - Harry, Mr Harry our Latin teacher was very crucial because I used to go to his place often in the afternoon just to sit in the garden and we'd read Latin together and he was just special in my life.

Because he treated you seriously, intellectually?

At the time I don't think I looked at it that way, but when he was opening up to me all this wonderful language, the story of Dido and Aeneas in Carthage, I mean it was a whole wonderful world that he was showing me and I think I was just responding to a wonderful human being actually.

You were writing poetry too at the time, what kind of poetry were you writing?

My poetry was very heavily influenced by French symbolists, impressionists, in particular Verlaine and Baudelaire. Looking back I find it a bit ridiculous that here is a young schoolboy writing second-hand poetry about evenings rose and grey, about this decadent world inhabited by those people. It had nothing to do with my own experience, but it gave me a lot pleasure.

So, having nothing to do with your own experience you were still drawn to it, why do you think that was? Why do you think you were drawn to this type of poetry?

Well, I would say, again just off the top of my head, looking back it was probably the musicality of the language of the poetry. Perhaps I was drawn to some of the sentiments because I remember when I was quite young I wrote a poem about autumn leaves and I think it ended with something like, 'autumn leaves, autumn leaves'... sorry ... [INTERRUPTION]

Do you remember any of those poems that you wrote?

Yes, I remember that I did write a poem and I sent it to the Bulletin and it was published and the last verse of the poem went something like, 'Autumn leaves, autumn leaves are strewn about my feet, Their smell of death tonight is faintly sweet.' And then a few weeks later somebody wrote a letter to the editor saying how could a mere schoolboy understand these matters or know anything about death. I was actually very wounded by that, maybe it was to be the first criticism of anything that I created. The first of many throughout my life. But in fact I did know about death because my next-door neighbour, Ian, was one of my best friends, [and] used to climb over the fence in St Leonards when we were very young and there were lots of boxes in the backyard because of Dad's business. We used to build castles and great buildings out of all the boxes. And one day Ian came over the fence and caught his foot in a rusty nail and got tetanus, and the last I saw of him in hospital he was almost like in a little ball. It was terrible. And he died of course. And his parents blamed me for it and never spoke to me again. And because I didn't want to cause trouble between the families I found I couldn't tell my own parents and I couldn't share it with my brother because he was too young being three years younger. And so, I had to somehow come to grips with that at ... really. I could look it up I suppose but I was quite young and certainly before I wrote that poem about the smell of autumn leaves. So I had come across death in fact.

For a boy at that time you were writing poetry and some of it was getting published. You were playing your own compositions on the ABC. What was happening to your painting? [INTERRUPTION]

Were you still learning painting?

Well no, my painting lessons came to an abrupt end because, I had private tuition and my teacher was very beautiful and she thought I should paint from real life. And so she started to take her clothes off and I used to have to draw her and paint her, and I remember she used to get me to put my hand in certain places and she used to say, 'But you must never tell your parents,' and, 'Don't show these to your parents.' And after a while I thought, well mother has always brought me up ... because I'd have Reubens paintings around my bed which I pulled out of the old Lilliput magazine. Mum ... Dad would say, 'That's dreadful, a young boy shouldn't have things like that around his bed' and Mum would say, 'Jos it's art for art's sake,' and so on. And so, I thought to myself it's all art for art's sake and I was dying to show my parents the paintings of my teacher that I had done. Certainly I discovered it wasn't art for art's sake any longer and painting lessons were stopped very abruptly. And there we are. But I still kept painting.

You were an adolescent boy at the time weren't you? Was it art for art's sake or were you slightly affected by this beautiful teacher who took her clothes off?

I think that I was slightly affected but I didn't quite understand. I used to look forward to going to my lessons, I know that.

And you didn't like it when they were stopped?

No, no.

But did you know at the time why? Were you clear in your mind why they were stopped?

Well, I always thought Mum and Dad know best. I couldn't quite reconcile it with art for art's sake. That always remained with me really. But in the meantime, I was encouraged by my teacher - I was also rather into cubism. As I was attracted to impressionism in literature so it was cubism in painting. And I used to put my paintings and drawings in for prizes and I'd be very lucky if I'd get commended, but usually I'd be told that it was rubbish and I didn't feel very encouraged.

So here is this boy who was painting, who was getting his poetry published, was playing his own music on the ABC. How did that go down with the other boys, despite the fact that you were swimming and so on, were you seen as a bit of a sissy?

I had to go to some lengths to really ... basically to beat them (laughs) and that soon put a stop to that. Looking back and knowing the attitudes of the time, I'm surprised that I wasn't given a bad time, but I wasn't in fact.

Yes certainly in Australia in the '30s and '40s, that would have not always have been encouraged. How did your father feel about it?

[end of tape]

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