Peter Sculthorpe was the first non-Indigenous Australian composer to create a distinctively Australian musical language.
Responding to the vastness of the landscape, its beauty and also its harshess, he was fascinated by the sense of alienation experienced by many of the early European arrivals. This can be heard in The Fifth Continent, which draws on excerpts from D.H. Lawrence’s novel Kangaroo to trace the emotional journey of an Englishman newly arrived in Australia: from fear to a kind of reluctant love.
Also in The Fifth Continent, representing the ancient, unchanging land, is the sound of the didjeridu. Sculthorpe would go on to use the instrument extensively in some of his later works, but this piece is the first time he featured the didjeridu in his music.
Reflecting the composer’s deep admiration for the living cultural heritage of the traditional custodians of the Australian land, in a number of his pieces Sculthorpe drew on a melody from Arnhem Land called Djilile, which he translated as ‘Whistling-Duck on a Billabong’.
Born in Launceston, Tasmania, Sculthorpe moved to Melbourne at 16 to study music. In his mid-20s he received a scholarship to go to Oxford; it was there, far from Australia, that he realised his musical vocation lay not with the rules and abstractions of the European modernist school that was fashionable at the time, but with his own land: ‘the curious feeling of timelessness … a sense of endless space, of mystery, of legend, of life stretching beyond historical memory, of emptiness and yet an emptiness that is filled with the spirit of a people whose history begins with the beginnings of time.’ The piece which set him on this path was a work called Irkanda IV, which he wrote in 1961, in the grief of losing his father to cancer. He later used the music from Irkanda IV as the second movement in The Fifth Continent.
This recording of his early masterpiece The Fifth Continent features the composer himself as narrator.