Peter Sculthorpe, who became one of Australia’s most celebrated composers by developing a distinctive aesthetic influenced by the country’s landscape and using indigenous instruments like the didgeridoo, died on Aug. 8 in Sydney. He was 85.
His death was announced by the publisher Faber Music, whose roster Mr. Sculthorpe joined in 1965, the company’s founding year.
Mr. Sculthorpe, who was named a National Living Treasure in 1997 by the National Trust of Australia, said that his aim was not to create aural depictions of any particular landscape, but “to find the spirit of the land and the landscape — the sacred, if you like — in nature.”
Japanese and Balinese influences can be heard in Mr. Sculthorpe’s expansive, richly scored and often brooding works. He was also admired for pieces that incorporated elements of aboriginal music, like the orchestral work “Earth Cry,” which uses the didgeridoo to evocative effect. He wrote the libretto for his 1974 opera, “Rites of Passage,” partly in the Aranda dialect of Northern Australia.
In his roughly 350 works, mournful melodies intertwine with evocations of natural sounds like birds and thunder; driving rhythms and vivid use of percussion are also integral elements. Reviewing a 1989 performance of his String Quartet No. 8 (one of 18) by the Kronos Quartet, Bernard Holland wrote in The New York Times:
“He has a wonderful ear for the sounds of nature and has found ways to imply them through Western instruments. Listening to his long dark lines colored by augmented intervals and to his vivid percussive effects was to receive an exotic, almost tropical quality — one that is neither totally borrowed nor totally made up.”
Many of Mr. Sculthorpe’s compositions reflect his concerns with issues like the environment and the plight of asylum seekers in Australia. His “Requiem” (2003) reflected his distress about civilian deaths in the Iraq war.
Peter Joshua Sculthorpe was born in Launceston, Tasmania, on April 29, 1929, to Joshua Sculthorpe, who owned a hunting and fishing store, and the former Edna Moorhouse.
He began piano lessons at 7 and started composing shortly afterward. His piano teacher, he recalled later, was not pleased: She informed him that all the composers were dead and caned him across the knuckles. He continued to write music in secret at night, by flashlight.
When it became clear that he intended to pursue a career as a composer, his father tried to dissuade him, but his mother, the headmistress of a school in Tasmania who had a passion for literature and the arts, encouraged him. According to Adrienne Levenson, Mr. Sculthorpe’s personal assistant of 43 years, his mother told his father, “There are 100 boys out there playing football and only one in here composing.”
Mr. Sculthorpe struggled financially after graduating with a music degree from the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music and returned home to work in his father’s store with his brother, Roger.
But he kept composing. One of his first breaks came in 1955 when his Sonatina for Piano, based on an aboriginal legend, received an airing at the International Society for Contemporary Music festival in Baden-Baden, Germany.
In 1957 he received a scholarship to Oxford University, where he met John Cage. He returned to Australia after his father became ill with cancer in 1960 and did not complete the doctorate. He dedicated his “Irkanda IV,”which features a mournful violin lament, to his father. The title uses an Australian aboriginal word meaning a remote, lonely place.
Mr. Sculthorpe began teaching at the University of Sydney in 1964. He was also a fellow at Yale University in 1966 and a visiting professor at Sussex University in Brighton, England, in 1971.
Mr. Sculthorpe was engaged twice but never married. No immediate family members survive.
Despite his many stints abroad, Mr. Sculthorpe’s national identity grew stronger throughout his career. “Australia really is the only place, I think, for an Australian composer,” he once said. “I know that I can’t work properly outside the country.”