Sculthorpe: Music For Strings (CD)

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Australian Chamber Orchestra

Recorded: Sir Eugene Goossens Hall, ABC Centre, March 1995 (Lament) and January 1996

Richard Tognetti Director and Violin
Helena Rathbone Violin
Cameron Retchford Cello

"Peter Sculthorpe believes that the works he has composed for the Australian Chamber Orchestra since its inception more than 20 years ago are among his best, and I'm inclined to agree. In a real sense, of course, these are musical landscapes too, though here the composed music takes over and the bird-song enters a more stylised, even symbolic, domain. the bulk of this music is brooding and intense; there's an urgency about it. It's not the music is fast - most of it isn't - but it is deeply felt by its composer, and the significance he attaches to the pieces is reflected in the conviction of the ACO's performances. They are close to ideal; the players have lived with this music, playing it on most of their international tours, and it shows in the perfect timing of each moment."
- Andrew Ford

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Peter Sculthorpe (1929-2014)

Port Essington (1977) for string trio and string orchestra
1. I. Prologue: The Bush (Con ferocità)
2. II. Theme and Variations: The Settlement (Alla marcia – Con grazia – Con soavità – Teneramente – Cadenza – Alla marcia)
3. III. Phantasy: Unrest (Come veduta a volo d'uccello)
4. IV. Nocturnal: Estrangement (Tristemente – Con ferocità)
5. V. Arietta: Farewell (Con desiderio pieno di malinconia)
6. VI. Epilogue: The Bush (Con semplicità)
Solo Violins: Richard Tognetti, Helena Rathbone
Solo Cello: Cameron Retchford

Sonata for Strings No. 1 (1983)
7. I. Sun Song (Deciso – Più mosso)
8. II. Chorale (Con pietà)
9. III. Interlude (Risoluto – Calmo)
10. IV. Chorale (Con pietà)
11. V. Sun Song (Deciso – Più mosso)

12. Lament for Strings (1976)
Solo Cello: Cameron Retchford

13. Sonata for Strings No. 2 (1988)

Sonata for Strings No. 3 (Jabiru Dreaming) (1994)
14. I. Deciso
15. II. Liberamente – Estatico

16. Irkanda IV (1961) for Solo Violin, Strings and Percussion
Solo Violin: Richard Tognetti

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Notes on these compositions by Graeme Skinner

Irkanda IV (1961) for solo violin, strings and percussion

Joshua Sculthorpe died on 5 May 1961, aged 60, and by the end of June Peter had composed the work he acknowledged ‘marked my real emergence as a fully-fledged composer’. In a single movement,
Irkanda IV (1961), ‘written upon the death on my father’, was the last of the series of works begun with Irkanda I for solo violin in 1955. He had found the word ‘Irkanda’ in Joah H. Sugden’s handbook Aboriginal Words and Their Meanings (1953), where it was defined as ‘scrub country’. It was also the name of a railway halt on Queensland’s north coast line, which is probably where Sugden encountered it. Sculthorpe later invested ‘Irkanda’ with deeper significance, telling a BBC radio audience in 1960 that it was no less than ‘the name of the huge silent scrub-country of Central Australia’. A year later he further refined it to mean ‘a remote and lonely place’, the definition he used from then on. He had also described the first Irkanda as ‘an Aboriginal burial rite’, noting how the solo violin ‘in many novel ways …captures the call of wild birds, the savage tribal dance and the weird sounds of the night’. This funereal tone was maintained to the end of the series.

But his father’s death was not the only impetus behind the last Irkanda. Wilfred Lehmann was booked to appear as violin soloist with the all-women Astra Chamber Orchestra in a concert in Melbourne on
5 August, and Sculthorpe agreed to finish the new piece for the occasion. To do so in time, he recycled ideas and music from his previous Oxford scores. The distinctive opening bars, for instance, were
borrowed directly from Irkanda II (1959), so that, for the rest of his life, Sculthorpe preferred that the earlier work not be performed again. In his program note for the August concert, he described the work as ‘a plain and straightforward expression of the composer’s feelings upon the death of his father … The one movement, predominantly slow, is made up of the alternation of a refrain, heard at the
outset, and developments of the intervals used in the refrain.’ Later he also called the refrain a ‘ritual lamentation’; built around the ‘Irkanda’ intervals of a minor third and a semitone, it is played three times, simply repeated, except that the solo violin’s melody is transposed each time to a higher pitch. Each refrain is followed by an episode of variations, the first, an accelerating canon for the upper strings, also borrowed from Irkanda II. The intensifying central episode has two march-like variations, the first for the violin low in its register, and the second (Quasi marcia funebre) scored fully, which fleetingly also becomes a sort of savage danse macabre. The last episode begins with a sepulchral reprise of the canon (tremolo and sul ponticello), and continues with a further march-like variation, winding down to a resigned echo. It merges into the chant-like coda, that Sculthorpe later described as ‘an affirmation of life and living’. The violin melody is the most important self-borrowing; it follows note-for-note (and syllable-for-syllable) his vocal setting, from Sun (1960), of D.H. Lawrence’s poem, Sun in Me:

A sun will rise in me
I shall slowly resurrect
already the whiteness of false dawn is on my inner ocean.
A sun in me.
And a sun in heaven.
And beyond that, the immense sun behind the sun,
the sun of immense distances, that fold themselves together
within the genitals of living space.
And further, the sun within the atom
which is god in the atom.

He later explained: ‘The melisma of the solo violin is, in fact, a reflection of the poem … Lawrence, in his poem, relates sun and atom to God and atom. The high white C, which must be the whitest note of all, represents the word God.’

His favourite relative, his maternal great-uncle Fred Moorhouse, a committed Theosophist, had encouraged Sculthorpe’s mother, Edna, to develop what he believed were her spiritual gifts. Though
they were not a conventionally religious family, Sculthorpe inherited their inclination to quest after ‘spirits’, and after his father’s death wrote of his hopes to a friend in Oxford who replied: ‘Don’t you
hope there is some form of communication, so he can know that you wrote something beautiful for him?’ And, indeed, Sculthorpe also told a reporter before the premiere: ‘I went quietly on dissonance … because that is the way he [my father] would have liked it.’

Lament (1976/1991) for cello and string orchestra

After being largely absent from those works of the late 1960s and early 1970s that developed Sculthorpe’s interest in the music of Japan and Bali, the expressive melancholy of his earlier Irkanda
style made a brief return for key episodes in his ritualistic opera Rites of Passage (1974). While in Sussex in 1972, Sculthorpe sought advice from the novelist Gabriel Josipovici, who recalled: ‘Three things were vital to his music, he said, and must somehow feature in this new piece: the sun, the desert, and death. Not very dramatic, I said, and he agreed.’ Ultimately, this highly unusual opera had no narrative plot or leading singing characters (the principal roles were taken by dancers), and the music was scored entirely for chorus and orchestra, with amplified pre-recorded and improvised sounds. The yearning lament that recurs as the opening cello melody in the work recorded here was one of the first themes he composed the opera, originally a choral setting in Latin of words by Boethius to be sung near the opening. But, because of its funereal tone, Sculthorpe ultimately saved it for later sections dealing with rituals of Ordeal (initiation) and Death.

When the newly formed Australian Chamber Orchestra asked Sculthorpe in 1976 for some new pieces to perform, he reworked these episodes for them in the Lament (1976) for strings. It was first performed by the ACO on 26 May 1976, at City Hall, Wollongong. (Two other pieces arranged for them at the same time are Small Town and Night Song.) In 1991, hearing that the ACO was  programming the work again during a tour with British cellist Raphael Wallfisch, Sculthorpe made a new version that slightly expanded the original’s already prominent role for a solo cello. This Lament (1976/1991) for solo cello and string orchestra was first performed in the Sydney Opera House Concert Hall on 22 September 1991.

The Lament also uses a second extract from the chorus music of the opera’s ‘Rebirth’ ritual for its full-textured central episode (Con calore). Framing it, before and after, is the lament proper. In it, a
transposed version of Kepler’s planet earth motif (described in the note to the Second Sonata for Strings above) is repeated, developing into a doleful rocking melody for cello, answered by violin. Rather than a memorial for a particular person, Sculthorpe intended the Lament to reflect the melancholic despair that the Australian landscape frequently inspired in the European settlers and travellers, similar to that articulated in the passages from D.H. Lawrence’s Kangaroo read in The Fifth Continent. In this case, Sculthorpe had in mind a passage, quoted by Geoffrey Serle in From Deserts the Prophets Come (1973), from the memoirs of English socialist and journalist Henry Hyndman, recalling his Australian travels in the 1870s:

‘To this day I never look upon a blue gum-tree without a mournful feeling coming over me ... the most dissipated-looking trees I ever beheld.
Dante could well have represented them in his Inferno, in the shape of drunken men, as trees, standing around in semipiternal penitence of their orgies of the past.
And the wretched things with their blotchy trunks and bare foliage give no shade ...’

Port Essington (1977) for string trio and string orchestra

Sculthorpe regarded the Lament as ‘probably my farewell to this melancholia’. Of his next work for the Australian Chamber Orchestra, Port Essington, composed a year later in April–May 1977, he wrote
in 1993: ‘In terms of metaphor and music [it] is probably my most Australian work.’ The piece had its origins in the soundtrack score to Essington – an ABC television drama, to a script by Thomas Keneally, first aired on 6 March 1974 – about the attempted settlement at Essington on the Cobourg Peninsula in far north Australia. Founded in 1838, it was abandoned 11 years later because the settlers failed to adapt to a life of remoteness, heat, floods, fire and white ants, or to the customs and traditions of their Indigenous hosts. They, by contrast – despite suffering the effects of the whites’ introduced pathogens (influenza, dysentery and venereal diseases) and their environmental and cultural insensitivity – remained in harmony with the land, and duly reclaimed it. The producers wanted to use recordings of genuine Indigenous songs for several night corroboree scenes, and one of those Sculthorpe chose, called ‘the whistling duck, Djilile, swimming in a billabong’, was simply dubbed from a set of discs recorded by the ethnographer A.P. Elkin in Arnhem Land in the 1940s and early 1950s.

Sculthorpe scored the rest of the music for piano, using improvised sounds made directly by plucking the strings (similar to those used in sections of his 1974 opera Rites of Passage) to represent the place, the bush and its traditional owners; and composed sections played conventionally on the keyboard to represent the European settlers’ attempts at imposing civilised gentility. Sculthorpe’s music assistants at the time, Michael Hannan and David Matthews, also contributed. Hannan was largely responsible for the improvised music. He also transcribed the opening of Djilile from the recording, fitting its contours roughly to the diatonic scale, for use as the instrumental theme in both the improvised and composed sections for piano. The result would have been almost unrecognisable to the original Indigenous singers (not least, because there were no sung words). But Sculthorpe recalled that he ‘loved the melody so much’ that he used it ‘exactly, note for note, as it is’, not only in the film, but later in several other works. His other assistant, Matthews, helped devise variations based on it, parodying 19th-century musical styles, played on the keyboard in the film.

Port Essington is a set of variations on this same theme. In its original form, it is associated with The Bush, first heard in a violent, highly rhythmicised form in the Prologue, while in Epilogue it comes
closest to the original transcription. Meanwhile, the variations, representing The Settlement, are partly based on the keyboard variations from the film. As Sculthorpe explained:

‘The music exists on two planes: the string orchestra represents the Bush; and a string trio, playing what appears to be 19th-century salon music, represents the Settlement.
The string orchestra is ever-present; the string trio, after many brave and unheeding statements, becomes more and more engulfed by the string orchestra. It seems that no rapprochement is possible.
Toward the end, however, in a section marked “Farewell”, the string orchestra, the Bush, sings poignantly in unison with the string trio, the Settlement.’

The Indigenous theme and its European transformations (the last, in ‘Arietta: Farewell’, a barcarolle intended to echo ‘the feelings of the settlers, rowing out to their rescue ship’) are not the only
references. Among the Bush music, Sculthorpe includes simulated bird choruses (in ‘Phantasy: Unrest’) and insect sounds (‘Nocturnal: Estrangement’). He also scored the trio sections for two violins and cello as a homage to colonial composer John Philip Deane (1796-1849), who reportedly composed several pieces (now lost) for that combination for chamber music concerts in Sydney in the 1840s. This small historical gesture was a tribute to Kenneth W. Tribe (1914–2010), a founder of the chamber-music organisation Musica Viva, and also instrumental in founding the Australian Chamber Orchestra. Port Essington was dedicated to him and his wife Joan. Commissioned by Musica Viva Australia for the ACO, it was first performed on 16 August 1977, at Mayne Hall, University of Queensland, Brisbane.

First Sonata for Strings (1983)

In 1983, in response to a commission from the Australian Chamber Orchestra, Sculthorpe arranged three (in his words) ‘overtly melodious’ earlier pieces – Sea Chant, Little Serenade and Left Bank Waltz – into the Little Suite for Strings (1983). When the ACO asked him for another piece in the same year, Sculthorpe was too busy to compose a new work from scratch. Kim Williams, then manager of Musica Viva and the ACO, suggested he instead rework one of his string quartets for orchestral strings. Sculthorpe agreed, and chose his newly completed String Quartet No. 10 (1983). Orchestrated as the First Sonata for Strings, it was premiered by the ACO in the Sydney Opera House on 29 November 1983.

The Tenth Quartet had been composed for the Kronos Quartet. Since it was to be premiered in San Francisco, where the players were based, Sculthorpe had introduced some Indigenous materials from that side of the Pacific Rim: a melody belonging to the Yaqui people of Mexico, and features borrowed from the Pueblo music from southern California. Having long been interested in making musical connections between the diverse cultures of the Pacific, he had already treated these materials in a short work for recorder quartet in 1976. That piece, and another later reworking as Sun Song (1984) for orchestra (see immediately below) also had a close affinity with his treatments of Australian Aboriginal music around this time, notably in Port Essington. This was in line with his belief that a new ‘high culture will arise from the countries bordering the Pacific Ocean … It is significant that ‘Pacific’ means ‘peaceful’. This suggests to me that not only the similarities in traditions, but also their differences, may coexist harmoniously, that the art within a high Pacific culture might be serene.’

The First Sonata’s symmetrical five-movement structure is among the simplest and most direct in Sculthorpe’s output. In common with Port Essington, there is an audibly discernible ‘duality’, as Sculthorpe himself described it, contrasting the music of the New World (be it Australia, or the Americas) in the two fast ‘Sun Song’ movements and the central Interlude, with that of the Old World in the two slow Chorales. Paradoxically, for all their brightness and activity, the Sun Songs have a much slower rate of harmonic change than the quieter Chorales. For Sculthorpe, this combination of teeming detail with slow motion was emblematic both of the ‘vastness of the Pacific ocean’ and ‘the breadth of the Australian landscape’.

Second Sonata for Strings (1975/1988)

Sculthorpe’s five sonatas for string orchestra – the first three of which are recorded in this collection – are all straightforward arrangements of string quartets. Mostly, the source string quartet was new or recent at the time Sculthorpe made the arrangement. The Second Sonata (1988) is an exception, based on String Quartet No. 9 (1975) composed 13 years earlier. Despite this gap, Sculthorpe made no attempt to update his original conception of the music. Apart from some necessary small revisions to refit it for a larger, more sonorous string band, the music in 1988 (and even after further small revisions in 1990) remains essentially recognisable as it was, in the quartet, in 1975.

In the process of ridding his music of what he called ‘the heroic European gesture’, Sculthorpe began to structure his larger, multi-section compositions using just two, clearly contrasted types of musical material, typically slow and fast, not treated developmentally, but in simple alternation. Two works that fall into a symmetrical, five-section form (slow-fast-slow-fast-slow) are his Eighth Quartet (1969), the Sculthorpe work that perhaps most successfully assimilates the influence of Balinese gamelan music into his own style, and the Ninth Quartet, another early attempt to adapt musical elements from Australian Indigenous song.

Since as early as 1968, Sculthorpe had been planning to write what he called an ‘astronomical quartet’. He’d been inspired by an idea Juan-Eduardo Cirlot proposed in his Dictionary of Symbols (1962), that the slow-moving rituals of ancient civilisations were ‘closely bound up with the rhythm of the astral movements’. He was interested, too, in the astronomer Johannes Kepler’s observation, in Harmonices mundi (1619), that Earth’s orbit was governed by the same harmonic proportions found in music in the rising-and-falling semitone figure: G – A flat – G. This same oscillation – what Sculthorpe described as a ‘mournful palindrome’ – is reflected in several aspects of the structure of this Ninth Quartet / Second Sonata. Recast as a two-note falling figure, A flat – G, it also becomes the driving force of the violas’ obsessively repeated melodic and rhythmic ostinato in the work’s two faster (Molto preciso) sections, which in turn is a reworking of the same transcription of an Indigenous song he had used previously in The Song of Tailitnama (1974). While the two fast sections evoke Aboriginal Australia and reflect Sculthorpe’s desire to compose ‘identifiably Australian’ music, the slow sections represent – almost as if against his better judgment – his lingering ‘yearning for the intellectual and emotional climate of Europe’. Fittingly, then, he based the central slow section (Calmo) on a four-bar theme he wrote England in 1972, when a visiting professor at the University of Sussex near Brighton. Just as he wrote the haiku later used in Sun Music I as an exercise in Webern’s serial style for his students in Sydney, he originally devised this theme to show his English students how to compose a 12-tone piece in the style of Schoenberg and Berg.

This European idea is prefigured, though not fully revealed, in the work’s opening slow section, which is marked Lontano (‘from far away’) as if to symbolise the geographic gulf separating Europe from Australia. The opening music also emphasises the A-flat of Kepler’s ‘Earth’ figure, in contrast to the Molto preciso ‘Aboriginal’ second section, which is dominated by the repeated G of the violas’ ostinato. Accompanying this mesmeric faster music is a percussive pattern, passed between the lower and upper strings, made by tapping the wood of the bow (col legno) on the wooden parts of the instrument. Continuing without a break, the long central Calmo is a sort of passacaglia, based on the repetition of three slow chords in the violas and cellos, the fifth and sixth repeats of which support the first violins finally presenting the European theme in its complete form. The essentially low-pitched rhythmic ‘Aboriginal’ music of the earlier fast section returns in the second Molto deciso, but with added sustained notes from the first violins. Finally, following directly on from the fast music’s intense chordal climax (marked triple forte), the concluding Grave again briefly reworks the European slow-music elements.

The Ninth Quartet was written for the Austral String Quartet. Sadly, however, the second violinist, Ronald Ryder, died in 1974, while Sculthorpe was planning the quartet. Accordingly, he dedicated the finished work to Ryder’s memory, and symbolically gave the second violin(s) the high A-flat in the final chord. In one of those small coincidences that so fascinated Sculthorpe, the Australian Chamber Orchestra gave the first performance of the new version, as the Second String Sonata, on tour in Brighton, England, on 19 May 1988.

Third Sonata for Strings (Jabiru Dreaming) (1990/1994)

After Kakadu (1988), Sculthorpe could no longer get away with not having visited the site of perhaps his greatest orchestral landscape to date. But when he did finally go there in 1989, he was a little taken-back by the sheer vastness and diversity of Kakadu National Park, much of which was drier than he had expected. But he was newly fascinated by such important Indigenous cultural locations within the park as Nourlangie, Ubirr and Jabiru. They inspired a whole new series of post-Kakadu works related by their buoyant tempos and ritual-like rhythmic structures. Among them was a sub-series of works entitled or subtitled Jabiru Dreaming, variously scored for percussion quartet, string quartet and string orchestra, that share some or all of the same music. Having begun to compose the first Jabiru music in mid-1989, Sculthorpe brought the project to fullness in the String Quartet No. 11 (Jabiru Dreaming), completed in Sydney in February 1990 for an Australian tour by San Francisco’s Kronos Quartet. Sculthorpe later rearranged the quartet for conductor Martin Jarvis and the strings of the Darwin Symphony Orchestra to perform at an outdoor concert in Kakadu National Park on 10 July 1993, which, as finally revised back in Sydney in February 1994, became this Third Sonata for Strings.

It is in two movements. The first (Deciso) refers to rhythmic patterns found in Indigenous music of the Kakadu region. The cellos imitate a traditional didjeridu call, which itself imitates the stilted gait of the local jabiru stork. The main melodic idea, carried by the violas, Sculthorpe explained, is ‘not unlike some Torres Strait music’. It is presented in a full texture with counterpointed strands from the other strings. A sparser central episode (Ancora deciso) begins with Kepler’s Earth figure (this is explained above in the note to the Second Sonata for Strings), introduced on the violins col legno, and moves into a buzzing, insect-like chorus, before the pattern-making surrounding the main melody resumes, now sul ponticello. Finally, with a return to ordinary bowing, the main viola melody is combined contrapuntally with the violins’ Kepler motif from the central episode, before the music fades to the background behind a mass of bird sounds.

The music of the second movement was Scuthorpe’s earliest creative response to his first Kakadu visit. He originally composed it as a single-movement piece for the Australian percussion quartet Synergy  to perform in Paris in July 1989, as a musical gift from the Australian Government to France on the 200th anniversary of the Revolution. Six months later it became the second movement of the Eleventh String Quartet, and ultimately of this Third Sonata. Befitting the 1989 Paris premiere, the main theme, introduced here by the cellos (Liberamente), is based on an Australian Indigenous Chant
transcribed by members of the French Baudin exploratory expedition to Australia in 1802, and printed in the atlas of Péron and Freycinet’s Voyage de découvertes aux Terres Australes 1800–04 (1824). It appears there with two other transcriptions, an unpitched rhythmic piece headed Air de danse, and what is called a Cri de ralliement ‘Couhé’: the Australian bush call Cooee! After a brief insect-sound interlude, the main part of the movement (Estatico) begins with a rhythmicised variation, the chant transferred to the second violins and set against a type of accompanimental figuration typical in Sculthorpe’s music since the late 1960s, when it was originally suggested by Balinese gamelan gong patterns. The contrasting central episode then takes up the rhythms of the French atlas’s Air de danse, the tribal women’s song represented by the melody of the first violins, the men’s rhythm sticks in the percussive tapping of the middle-register strings pizzicato then col legno. The Estatico resumes with the chant again in the second violins, combined with the melody of the episode in the first violins. The texture consolidates in the final variation (Meno mosso), for which the violins swap melodies, leading into a brilliant homophonic coda, and, again, a fading bird-chorus close.