Peter Sculthorpe was born in Launceston, Tasmania, in 1929. As a child he was severely reprimanded by his first piano teacher for returning to her, not with well-practised pieces, but with a handful of original compositions. Consequently, the seven-year-old Sculthorpe took to writing music under the bedclothes with a torch. When discovered, his parents were supportive and later transferred him to a teacher who encouraged his writing. In addition to his interest in music, he also pursued interests in literature and drawing. However, in his early teens he realized that, whereas his poems and drawings drew heavily on the work of poets and artists he admired, his compositions said something about himself. It was at this stage that he decided to be a composer. Aged 16, he went to Melbourne University, graduating with a Bachelor of Music in piano in 1950.
Returning to Launceston, he was unable to find a sustaining music job and so agreed to start a sports shop with his brother. A breakthrough came in 1955 when his Piano Sonatina (1954), based on an Aboriginal legend, was the first work of a resident Australian chosen for performance at the International Society for Contemporary Music Festival in Baden-Baden. Then, in 1958, he was awarded the Lizette Bentwich Scholarship by the University of Melbourne, which allowed him to undertake postdoctoral studies at Oxford. There he studied composition with Edmund Rubbra and Egon Wellesz and came into contact with contemporaries such as Peter Maxwell Davies and John Cage. Rather than adopting an English or European style, however, the experience raised his awareness of his uniquely Australian perspective.
Sculthorpe returned to Australia in 1960 and in 1963 accepted the first appointment in composition at the University of Sydney's Music Department, in which position he mentored the next generation of composers, including Anne Boyd, Ross Edwards, and Barry Conyngham.
Another defining moment came with the first performance of Irkanda IV, written in 1961 following the death of his father. The acclaim this work received established him internationally and in his words "gave him the courage to continue". In 1965, a most successful business relationship was established when the London music publisher, Faber, approached him about joining its list of composers.
Sculthorpe continues to be actively involved in the national and international music scene, attending festivals and performances and teaching at summer schools, as well as composing. His music is widely performed and recorded and he regularly receives commissions from overseas performing groups such as Kronos Quartet, Verdher Trio and Brodsky Quartet, as well as from Australia's major orchestras and chamber music groups.
Sculthorpe has been honoured with many awards and prizes, including an MBE (1970), OBE (1977), and Order of Australia (1990). He is also a Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities and holds four honorary doctorates. His contribution to Australian society was acknowledged in 1998 when, by popular vote, he was elected one of Australia's 100 Living National Treasures. Then in 1999 he was made one of Australia's 45 Icons—"a visionary, an opinion maker, one who is making statements about something the nation needs to think about at this time." Of this award, Sculthorpe wrote to his publisher, "I was happy enough to become one of our 100 Living National Treasures, but this is much more impressive. It means that music has at last found a place in our consciousness." In April 2002, he joined the ranks of A.D. Hope, Sidney Nolan and Christina Stead as the only Australians to be made life members of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. At the same time as his music is local and specific, this international recognition illustrates its universal and global qualities.