Peter Joshua Sculthorpe (1929-2014) was born in Launceston, Tasmania, and was educated at Launceston Grammar School and the University of Melbourne. He began composing music as a young boy and several of his early compositions won prizes. After graduating, he returned to Tasmania and, while running a sporting goods shop with his brother, he wrote many short works. His ‘Sonata for Solo Piano’ (1954) formed the basis of his mature style and was performed at the International Society for Contemporary Music Festival in Germany in 1955. In 1958–60 Sculthorpe undertook doctoral studies at Oxford University under Edmund Rubbra and Egon Wellesz and became known to English composers such as Peter Maxwell Davies and Wilfrid Mellers. In 1963 several of his works were performed at the first Australian Composers’ Seminar in Hobart. In the same year he joined the Music Department at the University of Sydney as a lecturer. He was a Reader in Music from 1968 to 1991 and subsequently held a Personal Chair.

Sculthorpe wrote music in a wide range of genres, including works for orchestra, string quartet, solo instrument, voice and choir, film, theatre, ballet and opera. He first attracted wide public attention with his ‘Sun Music’ series (1965–69), several of which were choreographed by Robert Helpmann for the Australian Ballet in 1968. His extensive use of Australian images, such as vastness, heat and haze, in instrumental works and also in film music contributed to his popularity with Australian audiences. He also received growing international recognition for orchestral works such as ‘Mangrove’ (1979) and ‘Kakadu’ (1988). By this stage he had become Australia’s most famous living composer and he received many commissions and requests for new arrangements. As the teacher of younger composers, such as Anne Boyd, Barry Conyngham and Ross Edwards, Sculthorpe exerted an enormous influence on contemporary Australian music.

Sculthorpe was made an Officer of the British Empire (OBE) in 1977 and an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) in 1990. In 1997 the National Trust named him an Australian Living National Treasure.


The Sculthorpe Collection, including music and literary manuscripts, personal papers, photographs, paintings, drawings and sound recordings, was purchased from Sculthorpe in 2002. In 2005 he donated under the Cultural Gifts Program a portrait of himself by Edward Binder and in 2007 he presented a number of music manuscripts.


Manuscripts and Personal Papers

The Sculthorpe Collection is almost certainly the most comprehensive archive of an Australian composer, with the possible exception of the Percy Grainger Collection. Sculthorpe is a natural archivist and not only did he retain manuscripts and papers from an early age, but he maintained an extremely logical filing system. His earliest music manuscripts date from 1941, when he was 12, while his correspondence dates from the 1950s onwards. The wide scope of the collection is evident from the titles of the series in which it has been organised:

  • Correspondence ‘in’, 1957–90
  • Correspondence ‘out’, 1985–90
  • Correspondence with Faber Music ‘in’, 1960–2000
  • Correspondence with Faber Music ‘out’, 1990–2001
  • Correspondence with other composers, writers, artists
  • Family correspondence, 1950s–2001
  • Diaries and notebooks, c. 1950–81
  • Photographs
  • Manuscript scores, 1941–2001
  • Performances of Sculthorpe’s work
  • Recordings of Sculthorpe’s work
  • Writings by Sculthorpe on his own works
  • Other writings by Sculthorpe
  • Awards, 1970–2001
  • Special occasions, 1967–2002
  • Personal treasures
  • Financial records
  • General office papers
  • Subject files, 1963–2001
  • Press cuttings, 1945–94
  • Journals and magazines containing writings on or by Sculthorpe
  • Other writings on Sculthorpe, 1967–2000
  • Special categories, 1956–2001
  • Musical works dedicated to Sculthorpe, 1976–2001
  • Miscellaneous.

There are over 300 manuscript scores and sketches in Sculthorpe’s hand, from juvenilia such as his ‘Adagio in Major Keys’ (c. 1941–42) to major works such as the ‘Irkanda’ series (1955–61), ‘Sun Music’ series (1965–69), ‘Port Essington’ (1977), ‘Manganinnie’ (1980), ‘Earth Cry’ (1986), ‘Kakadu’ (1988) and ‘Quamby’ (2000). Sculthorpe enjoyed copying out his music and most of the manuscripts are fair copies rather than working drafts.

The literary manuscripts of Sculthorpe illustrate the breadth of his interests. As well as writings about his own compositions, there are essays, articles and lectures on Aboriginal music, Asian influences on Australian music, Bali, electronic music, French songs, Indonesian music, Japanese poetry, jazz and rock, Kakadu songlines, the koto (a Japanese instrument), music and the sun, serial music, Alban Berg, Béla Bartók, Benjamin Britten, Eugene Goosens, Percy Grainger, Gustav Mahler, Isaac Nathan and Arnold Schoenberg. There are also poems that he wrote as a young man.

Edna Sculthorpe kept her son’s letters to the family from the time that he left Tasmania until 1972. They cover his early years in Sydney, as well as his life in England and the United States. Sculthorpe’s correspondence and contracts with Faber Music, covering 35 years and occupying four boxes, is of particular importance in documenting the publication and recording of his music. His general correspondence is a major source on his relations with writers, painters and critics, as well as musicians. The correspondents include Don Banks, Anne Boyd, Stuart Challender, George Dreyfus, Russell Drysdale, Ross Edwards, Andrew Ford, Peggy Glanville-Hicks, Sir Bernard Heinze, Robert Helpmann, Miriam Hyde, Wilfred Lehmann, Donald Peart, Vincent Plush, Curt and Maria Prerauer, Randolph Stow, Margaret Sutherland, Ken Tribe, Patrick White, John Williams and Roger Woodward. There is also correspondence with musical groups, such as the Brodsky Quartet and the Kronos Quartet.

Paintings and Drawings

There are a number of portraits of Sculthorpe by leading Australian artists. They include an oil portrait by Judy Cassab (1988), a lithograph by Judy Cassab (1984), an oil portrait by Eric Smith (1982), an ink drawing by Greg Hocking (1966), a pencil drawing and an acrylic painting by Ted Binder (1978), a charcoal drawing by Maisie Drysdale, a watercolour by Alan McIntyre (1951), a charcoal drawing by Elizabeth Parrott (1972), an ink drawing by Graham Bryce (1979), a charcoal drawing by June Mendoza (1966) and an ink drawing by Les Tanner. There are also several studies of Sculthorpe’s home in Woollahra.

Sculthorpe’s music has inspired a number of artworks. Russell Drysdale produced a watercolour and six drawings based on ‘Port Essington’ (1979–80), John Coburn painted Sun Music (1989) for Sculthorpe’s 60th birthday, and Kenneth Rowell painted two watercolour studies for the ‘Sun Music’ ballet (1968). Drysdale also inscribed five watercolours to Sculthorpe in 1975–79 and entitled five pencil drawings The Five Ages of Peter Sculthorpe (1966).

The collection also contains about 50 pen and ink and watercolour drawings and cartoons by Sculthorpe, mostly dating from 1941–43. Many of them were intended to illustrate a children’s book, which he never completed.


The Sculthorpe Collection contains about 150 photographic portraits and about 1500 other photographs of Sculthorpe, his family, friends and musical groups. They extend from his childhood and school days to the 1990s.


There are 83 books about Sculthorpe or containing references to him and about 150 issues of journals with articles about his life and music. In addition, there are teaching kits, several theses and 20 posters announcing performances of his work.

Sound Recordings and Video Recordings

The Sculthorpe Collection includes 37 reel to reel tapes, 77 commercially produced compact discs, 85 cassette tapes and 41 commercially produced 33 rpm sound recordings of performances of works by Sculthorpe. There are also 16 videos of films for which he wrote the music and television interviews.


With the exception of the paintings, drawings and prints, the Sculthorpe Collection has been kept together within the Manuscripts Collection (MS 9676). It occupies 96 boxes and 19 folio boxes. A 32-page finding aid is available online at The paintings and other artworks are held in the Pictures Collection (PIC/7492–7522, 7524, 7526 and 7541–42).


Barnes, Gweneth. Peter Sculthorpe: an Australian composer's influenceBrolga Publishing, Melbourne, 2011.

Hannon, Michael, Peter Sculthorpe: His Music and Ideas, 1929–1979, University of Queensland Press, Brisbane, c. 1982.

Hayes, Deborah, Peter Sculthorpe: A Bio-bibliography, Greenwood Press, Westport, Conn., 1993.

Sculthorpe, Peter, Sun Music: Journeys and Reflections from a Composer’s Life, ABC Books, Sydney, 1999.

Shaw, Patricia, Sculthorpe, Peter Joshua, in Warren Bebbington, The Oxford Companion to Australian Music, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1997, pp. 507–9.

Skinner, Graeme, Peter Sculthorpe: The Making of an Australian Composer, University of New South Wales Press, Sydney, 2007.

Vear, Naomi, Collecting a Living National Treasure, National Library of Australia News, vol. 13 (3), December 2002.

First posted 2008 (revised 2019)