The great Australian composer, indeed one of the world’s great contemporary composers, Peter Sculthorpe this week passed from this world to the next. Sculthorpe was a prolific giant in the Australian music scene, with an ability to place a western classical music tradition within both the Australian landscape as well as the south east Asian region, and an acknowledgement of our traditional inhabitants. Earth Cry, Kakadu, Nourlangie are all evocative pieces that are amongst my favourite classical pieces, and always forms part of my travelling music.

My interest for writing about him here is that he wrote a beautiful short piece, Port Arthur: In Memoriam in response to the Port Arthur massacre in 1995. As a Tasmanian, and as someone who had a family member incarcerated at the Port Arthur Prison, he said he felt it was a duty to compose something that reflected the events and also held out for the future.

The piece is short and simple, two versions on the recording I have, bookended by plaintive Trumpet, and the fragility of the oboe. I like the fact that it is short. He captures a lot of the power of the trauma of the events through the use of the trumpet. The Last Post comes to mind.There is sadness and melancholia, but the strings to my mind bring an accompanying support and finally hope. The length is enough to capture you, focus you, and then let you go again. Not like, John Adams on Transmigration of Souls, or Steve Reich’s WTC, both in memoriam pieces, which are much longer, and in that more challenging. I find I need to be “in the mood” to listen to them, as my senses will be confronted with sorrow.

The liner notes for the CD version of the piece carry this simple note

This work was written for the victims of the massacre at Port Arthur, 28 April 1996,for thosewho died, and for those who live with the memory of it.

What is beautiful about these simple words is that you know that he not only had those people who died in mind, but recognised the impact on those left behind, the traumatic grief, the terror of those there on the day, and the horror of the community.

The power of music in healing and recovery has long been recognised. When conceived as a memorial piece, it becomes more poignant. This must be one of the hardest things for a composer (or any other artist) to take on, and do it justice. It is why only the most skilled composers, such as Peter Sculthorpe can carry it off. Rest In Peace Peter, the world is a richer place for your presence, and poorer place for your passing.

I haven’t been able to find the original recording, but these Monash students do a terrific job of it

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