Peter Sculthorpe was one of Australia’s most influential composers. It has been said that he was the most prominent character in the development of Australian music and played an important part in capturing this country’s culture in his music. In 1988, the Australian Chamber Orchestra commissioned Sculthorpe to compose a work for their forthcoming European tour. Sculthorpe initially wrote a piece entitled At the Grave of Isaac Nathan, but he was disappointed with the outcome. One of his close friends – violinist Leigh Middenway – agreed with him that the piece was not of the calibre people were expecting. In the end, Sculthorpe decided to add a bass line to the already-existing String Quartet No.9. After doing so, he renamed the piece Sonata for Strings No.2.
Sculthorpe saw Australia as a primarily visual culture, and believed our music should be written in a way to reflect on and complement that idea. Throughout the Sonata, the listener can sense the vastness of the Australian landscape in the chords and long lines, while short technical passages, pizzicatos, and other sounds represent the animals and sounds of the bush. These sounds are amplified through William Barton’s playing of the didgeridoo.
The didgeridoo beautifully captures the essence of the Australian landscape. It is played with various energies of air, making it possible for a player to represent, through different sounds, the landscape and the creatures of Australia. Barton utilises these effects in his playing, and by doing so adds to the Sonata’s atmosphere of mystery and magic. He does not play from a written part, but rather he improvises using his knowledge of the Australian landscape and its sounds to create a unique atmosphere.
Copyright © Helena Maher 2020. All rights reserved.
This program note was written as part of the Words About Music program at the 2020 Australian Youth Orchestra National Music Camp