An "Open Book" to Peter Tahourdin

An "Open Book" to Peter Tahourdin
New bronze sculpture on display in the Special Collections Reading Room
3 March 2017

Open Book, a gift in memory of the English-born Australian composer Peter Tahourdin (1928-2009) is now on display in the Special Collections Reading Room here at the Library. The sculpture by Dutch artist Wiea Duintjer (1951-) is of a conductor with baton in his hand.  

Bronze sculpture in Special Collections Reading Room

Music is here represented as an ‘open book’, inviting discovery. The conductor is on the podium, bringing the notated score to life through performance. The figure’s hair, in the style of Mozart, hints at Tahourdin’s elegant, concise and refined musical, qualities reminiscent of Mozart, whom he greatly admired.

Peter Tahourdin came to be one of Australia’s most important composers. Born in Bramdean, England, he was already established in the United Kingdom when he migrated to Australia in 1964 to be Visiting Composer at The University of Adelaide. The works he had composed for the BBC and other musical organisations survive in his personal papers, held in the National Library’s Manuscripts collection, and testify to his growing reputation. He loved Australia and stayed, with his family, although he took a one-year sabbatical to Canada in 1965-66 where he gained a Masters degree in electronic composition, one of the earliest such courses available. It was during this period that he drew critical interest as composer for the Australian Ballet’s new work, Illyria, choreographed by Garth Welch for the 1966 Adelaide Festival of Arts.

On his return to Adelaide, he established the first electronic music studio in Australia, with the financial backing of businessman Derek Jolly. From this pioneering studio, he taught the first practical electronic music course. When Peter took a position at the University of Melbourne in 1973, the studio was taken over by his colleague, the composer Tristram Cary. Tristram Cary’s personal papers are also held by the Library, and their careers intertwined.

Peter Tahourdin remained at the University of Melbourne until 1988, when he retired to compose full-time. Peter said he was attracted to electronic music because it gave him immediate control over the sound without dependence on having the music performed – he was ever frustrated by the lack of opportunity for performance of his own works. However, he also saw electronic music as an alternative to the avant-garde, a way out of a stylistic impasse for a composer more influenced by the English music tradition. Peter was also a masterful orchestrator who loved the sound of the symphony, writing five symphonies from early to late phases of his life. Tahourdin composed other music for orchestra, opera, chamber ensembles, solo instruments and voice.

Looking back on his career, Tahourdin reflected that he had never sought to be a composer on the world stage. Rather it was teaching that truly motivated him, a desire to pass on what he knew and loved. He was an inspired, inspiring and passionate teacher of composition and a much-loved mentor for 40 years in Australia, influencing the next generation of composers such as Martin Wesley-Smith and Barry Conyngham.

Peter Tahourdin remained always unassuming and diffident in promoting his own composition. Like many other Australian composers, he suffered from the lack of premiere or repeat performances of such works as his symphonies; his operas Héloise and Abelard and The Tempest; his settings of the sixteen Ern Malley poems in a ‘Dramatic Testament’ incorporating Sidney Nolan’s drawings and paintings and his later Ern Malley Sequence; his Indian raga inspired works of the 1980s; and exquisite late works such as his deeply spiritual Look at the Sky. In a sense, Tahourdin was the consummate working composer, who, in his own words, “lived a rewarding and productive life in Australia”, composing up to his death in 2009.

His scores, archival recordings and associated research materials are now preserved in the National Library for a new generation of musicians and researchers to discover, and there is now a detailed Finding Aid to this collection, created with the support of the Peter Tahourdin Bequest Trust.

We hope this sculpture will serve to remember a life richly lived, in and through music, and encourage new users to ‘open the book’ on this and many other rich collections in the National Library.

Robyn Holmes is Senior Curator at the Library and, as former Curator of Music, collected the Papers of Peter Tahourdin soon after his death. She is launching the Finding Aid to this collection in Melbourne in March when a new recording of some of Tahourdin's works Elegy: Reflections on the music of Peter Tahourdin will be released.