A major national prize for the Wagner bicentenary has been won by 17-year-old John Rotar.

Bundaberg is more famous for its rum than for classical music, but a 17-year-old local has beat out established composers and professional musicians from around the country to win the Wagner Bicentenary Composition Competition.

John Rotar’s piece for chamber orchestra was one of several scores submitted to Queensland’s Wagner Society by Australian and New Zealand hopefuls of all ages vying for a cash prize of $10,000 as well as a performance and recording of the winning work. With all entries received by the end of June 2012 and rendered anonymous for the panel’s six-month deliberation process, the judges were astonished to discover that the standout candidate was in fact the youngest, and a high-school student at that.

John’s original ten-minute composition, Ein Lied aus Murmeln grab Wagners (A Song From Wagner’s Murmuring Tomb), is scored for an unusual combination of 18 instruments including strings, harp, celesta, piano, piccolo and other winds. He estimates it took him six months to complete – factoring in writers’ block. “I hurried to put it together and I had about seven minutes done in just a month,” he explains. “Then, I got stuck.”

To satisfy the competition’s stated criterion of “quoting or otherwise making use of one or more themes from the stage works of Richard Wagner,” John turned to the “Forest Murmurs” of Siegfried, as well as weaving fragments from Die Walküre, Götterdämmerung and Die Meistersinger into the instrumental texture.

As principal trombone in the Bundaberg Youth Orchestra, John has played his fair share of Wagner excerpts. But he says that the competition celebrating the bicentenary of the German composer’s birth “has opened up my view of Wagner quite a lot, though I haven’t ever seen a full Wagner production. I’ve opened my ears to Wagner a lot more. His presence is undeniable in so much music, especially in his use of leitmotifs.” 

In his own score, John acknowledges that influence on subsequent generations of composers with subtle stylistic references to Debussy (who had a love-hate relationship with the music of Wagner) and, surprisingly, American minimalist Philip Glass.

Thanks to a conductor/trombonist father, Robert, and mother Bernadette, a violinist and music teacher, John was always encouraged creatively – he also plays piano and double bass. He started simply “making things up on the piano” from an early age, but it wasn’t until the age of ten that he turned to composition: “ever since I learned you’re allowed to, I started writing it down. I never took a serious interest until Dad said to listen to The Rite of Spring.” He had his earliest success in 2009 as a 14-year-old budding composer, when the Queensland Youth Orchestra’s Junior String Ensemble premiered his work Tilt Train Ride in Brisbane.

Chairman of the Wagner Society competition and judging panel Peter Bassett said that John’s winning entry is, “clever and insightful, and something of a 21st-century parallel to the Siegfried Idyll. I could imagine a concert program that included both works very effectively.” The Wagner Society is in talks with orchestras about performing and recording John’s work in 2013, alongside others submitted for the competition.

John will begin a Bachelor of Music degree at the University of Queensland this year. He won’t be using his $10,000 prize to make a Ring pilgrimage to Melbourne; rather he hopes to travel further abroad. “For music, especially composition, you have to go and experience Europe for at least a little while so you can see the birthplace of Western classical music.”