|Sorabji: 100 Transcendental Studies||Composer||1940-1944|
|Sorabji: Piano Sonata No.1||Composer||1919|
|Sorabji: Fantaisie Espagnole||Composer||1919|
|Sorabji: Pastiche No.3 on Hindu Merchant's Song||Composer||1922|
|Sorabji: Gulistan (“The Rose Garden”)||Composer||1940|
|Sorabji: Pastiche No.1 on Minute Waltz Op.64 No.1 from Chopin||Composer||1920|
|Sorabji: Piano Sonata No.2||Composer||1920|
|Sorabji: Pastiche No.2 on Habanera from Carmen||Composer||1922|
Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji (born Leon Dudley Sorabji; 14 August 1892 – 15 October 1988) was an English composer, music critic, pianist and writer. He was one of the 20th century's most prolific piano composers.
As a composer and pianist, Sorabji was largely self-taught, and he distanced himself from the main currents of contemporary musical life early in his career. He developed a highly idiosyncratic musical language, with roots in composers as diverse as Busoni, Debussy and Szymanowski, and he dismissed large portions of the established and contemporary repertoire.
A reluctant performer, Sorabji played a few of his works in public between 1920 and 1936, thereafter "banning" performances of his music until 1976. Since very few of his compositions were published during those years, he remained in public view mainly by writing essays and music criticism, at the centre of which are his books Around Music and Mi contra fa: The Immoralisings of a Machiavellian Musician. He had a tendency to seclusion, and in the 1950s he moved from London to the village of Corfe Castle, Dorset, where he spent most of the rest of his life quietly.
Sorabji's music is characterised by frequent use of polyrhythms, complex juxtaposition of tonal and atonal elements, and copious ornamentation. Many of his works contain sections employing strongly contrasting approaches to musical architecture; some of them use baroque forms, while others are athematic. His musical output consists of over 100 compositions, ranging from aphoristic pieces to works spanning several hours. Most are for piano solo or feature an important piano part, but he also composed for orchestra, chamber ensembles, organ and other instruments. Partly because of this, Sorabji has been described as a descendant of a tradition of composer-pianists such as Frédéric Chopin, Franz Liszt and Charles-Valentin Alkan.
Although there has been speculation about earlier works, Sorabji's earliest known (albeit lost) composition is a transcription dating from 1914 of Delius's In a Summer Garden. His early works are predominantly piano sonatas, songs and piano concertos. Of these, Piano Sonatas Nos. 1–3 (1919; 1920; 1922) are compositionally the most ambitious and significant. They are characterised mainly by their use of the single-movement format and by their athematism. The main criticism levelled at them is that they lack stylistic consistency and organic form. Sorabji himself developed a largely unfavourable view of his early works, to the extent that late in his life he even considered destroying many of their manuscripts.
Mature works and symphonic thought
Various people have stated that Sorabji achieved compositional maturity with Three Pastiches for Piano (1922) and Le jardin parfumé: Poem for Piano Solo (1923), or with only the latter, but Sorabji himself regarded his First Organ Symphony (1924) as his first mature work. It is his first piece in which baroque organisational principles play an important role. The union of these and his earlier compositional ideas led to the emergence of what has been described as his "symphonic style", which provided the basis for most of his piano and organ symphonies. The first piece to apply the architectural blueprint of this style is his Fourth Piano Sonata (1928–29). It consists of three sections:
- A "tapestry of motives";
- An ornamental slow movement (almost always labelled as a nocturne);
- A closing compound movement, which includes a fugue.
Sorabji's symphonic first movements have been labelled as "symphonic tapestries" and "a kind of pure music drama". Their organisation is related to that of his Second and Third Piano Sonatas and to that of the closing movement of the First Organ Symphony. They have been described as being based superficially on either the fugue or the sonata-allegro form, but they differ from the normal application of those forms in that the exposition and development of themes are guided not by conventional tonal principles but by the way the themes, in the words of the musicologist Simon John Abrahams, "battle with each other for domination of the texture". These movements can last over 90 minutes, and their thematic character varies considerably: while the opening movement of his Fourth Piano Sonata (1928–29) introduces seven themes, that of his Second Piano Symphony (1954) has sixty-four.
The nocturnes are generally considered to be among Sorabji's most accessible works, and they are also some of his most prestigious; they have been described by Habermann as the best of his output, and by the pianist Fredrik Ullén as "perhaps ... his most personal and original contribution as a composer." Sorabji's descriptions of his Symphony No. 2, Jāmī, give an insight into their organisation. In a 1942 letter, Sorabji compared this composition to his Gulistān—Nocturne for Piano, and he later wrote of the symphony's "self-cohesive texture relying upon its own inner consistency and cohesiveness without relation to thematic or other matters". Melodic material is treated loosely in these works, reflecting their harmonic freedom; ornamentation and textural patterns assume a preeminent position. Because of their emphasis on non-thematic processes, the nocturnes have been described as "static". Some examples of them are The Garden of Irām,[n 4] Anāhata Cakra[n 5] and Symphonic Nocturne for Piano Alone.
Sorabji's fugues, the most atonal of his works, generally follow traditional methods. After a subject and between one and four countersubjects have been presented in an exposition, there follows a development section in which the subject (and countersubjects, particularly in the earlier fugues) are usually developed in their original form and in inversion, retrograde and retrograde inversion. The movement continues with a stretto and concludes with a section featuring augmentation and a thickening of lines into chords.[n 6] His multi-subject fugues repeat this pattern for each subject, and combine thematic material from all expositions in the last section.[n 7] The fugues are more conservative than most of his output, in that they rarely use polyrhythms. They can contain up to six subjects, and it is these that mark Sorabji's fugues as different from most others. Some of the subjects are among his most unconventional melodic creations, lacking the frequent changes of direction that characterise most melodies; other subjects are possibly the longest ever conceived. This has led some people either to treat them with suspicion or to criticise them.
Other important forms in Sorabji's mature work are the toccata and the variation set. The latter, along with his non-orchestral symphonies, are his most ambitious works and have been praised for the imagination exhibited in them. Sequentia cyclica super "Dies irae" ex Missa pro defunctis (1948–49), a set of 27 variations on the original Dies Irae plainchant, is considered by some to be his greatest work. His toccatas are more modest in scope and take the structure of Busoni's work of the same name as their starting point.
Already in 1953, Sorabji manifested a lack of interest in continuing to compose, when he described his Sequentia cyclica super "Dies irae" ex Missa pro defunctis (1948–49) as "the climax and crown of his work for the piano and, in all probability, the last he will write". Around 1968, Sorabji vowed to cease composing, and eventually stopped doing so after writing Concertino non grosso for String Sextet with Piano obbligato quasi continuo (1968).
Hinton played a crucial role in Sorabji's resumption of compositional activities. Sorabji's next two pieces, Benedizione di San Francesco d'Assisi and Symphonia brevis for Piano, were written in 1973, the year after the two first met, and mark the beginning of what several people have identified as Sorabji's "late style", one characterised by thinner textures and a denser harmonic idiom.
Style and inspiration
Sorabji's early influences include Cyril Scott, Ravel, Leo Ornstein and particularly Scriabin. He later became more critical of Scriabin and, after meeting Busoni in 1919, was influenced primarily by the latter.[n 8] His mature work was also significantly influenced by Alkan, Debussy, Godowsky, Reger and Szymanowski.
Sorabji was also influenced by Eastern culture. According to Michael Habermann, this manifests itself in the following ways: highly supple and irregular rhythmic patterns, abundant ornamentation, an improvisatory and timeless feel, frequent polyrhythmic writing and the vast dimensions of some of his compositions.[n 9]
Non-musical subjects, both religious and numerological, influenced Sorabji's music, too, and he took inspiration from various sources. His Fifth Piano Sonata (Opus archimagicum) is inspired by the tarot, and his Tāntrik Symphony for Piano Alone has seven movements titled after the bodily centres of Tantric and Shaktic yoga. The song Benedizione di San Francesco d'Assisi sets the text of a Catholic benediction. However, Sorabji did not intend the first two of these works to be programmatic, and he heaped scorn on attempts to represent stories or ideologies in music.[n 10] Nevertheless, some of his works have been described as programmatic.
Sorabji, who claimed to be of Spanish–Italian–Sicilian ancestry, composed various pieces that reflect an enthusiasm for those cultures, such as Fantasia ispanica, Rosario d'arabeschi and Passeggiata veneziana sopra la Barcarola di Offenbach. These are works of a Mediterranean character and are inspired by Busoni's Elegy No. 2, All'Italia, and the Spanish music of Isaac Albéniz, Debussy, Enrique Granados and Liszt. They are considered among his outwardly more virtuosic and musically less ambitious works.
Harmony, counterpoint and form
Sorabji's counterpoint stems from Busoni's and Reger's. The influence of these composers led Sorabji to employ various baroque contrapuntal forms (chorale prelude, passacaglia, fugue and others), but he rejected the symmetry and forms that characterise the music of composers such as Mozart and Brahms. Sorabji was dismissive of the Classical style, mainly because he saw it as restricting the musical material to conform to a "ready-made mould", and his musical thinking is closer to that of the Baroque era than to the Classical.
Ornamentation assumes a preeminent role in much of Sorabji's music. His harmonic language, which frequently combines tonal and atonal elements, is thus freer than in the music of many other composers and less amenable to analysis. Like many other 20th-century composers, Sorabji displays a fondness for tritone and semitone relationships. The opening gesture of his Fourth Piano Sonata, for example, emphasises these two intervals, and the two long pedal points in its third movement are a tritone apart. However, some people have remarked that his music rarely contains the tension that is commonly associated with very dissonant music.
Creative process and notation
Because of Sorabji's sense of privacy, little is known about his compositional process. Other people's accounts of it state that he composed off the cuff and did not revise his work, and it has been claimed that he used yoga to gather "creative energies". These claims, however, contradict statements made by Sorabji himself (as well as some of his musical manuscripts), which reveal that he planned his compositions carefully in advance and used yoga to regulate his thoughts. Nevertheless, he wrote extremely fast, and there is an unusually high number of ambiguities and inconsistencies in his musical autographs. They are among the most distinctive features of his scores, and have prompted comparisons with his other characteristics. Hinton suggested a link between them and Sorabji's speech, saying, "he invariably spoke at a speed almost too great for intelligibility", and Stevenson remarked, "One sentence could embrace two or three languages." A state of frenzy is reflected in several of Sorabji's letters to Chisholm, which provide a unique insight into the creation of Opus clavicembalisticum and into Sorabji's feelings while writing music, showing that Sorabji found composition highly enervating.
As a performer
Sorabji's pianistic abilities have been the subject of much contention. After his early lessons, he appears to have been self-taught. In the 1920s and 1930s, when his works were being published for the first time and he was performing some of them in public, there were controversies involving their alleged unplayability and his pianistic proficiency. At the same time, some people—particularly his closest friends—hailed him as a first-class virtuoso. From this disagreement it has been inferred that he was neither sloppy nor a player of the highest calibre. Sorabji repeatedly denied being a professional pianist and always focused primarily on composition; from 1939, he no longer practised the piano very often. He was a reluctant performer and had difficulty handling the pressure of performing in public. The private recordings that he made of some of his works in the 1960s contain substantial deviations from his scores (although largely due to his impatience and disinterest in playing clearly and accurately). This has been used to argue that the early criticisms of his playing were at least partly justified and that the negative reviews of his music by some of its first listeners were the result of flaws in his performances.
As a composer
Many of Sorabji's works are written for the piano or have an important piano part. His writing for the instrument was influenced by that of composers such as Liszt, Alkan and Godowsky, and he has been described as a composer-pianist in their tradition, partly because he was one of the 20th century's most prolific piano composers. It exhibits particularly the influence of Godowsky, specifically in its polyphony and its use of polyrhythms and polydynamics. This necessitated the regular use of systems of more than two staves in Sorabji's keyboard parts, reaching its peak on page 124 of the manuscript of his Third Organ Symphony (1949–53), which uses 11 staves, as well as frequent calls for use of the sostenuto pedal.
Sorabji's piano writing has been praised by some for its variety and understanding of the piano's sonorities.[n 11] His approach to the piano was non-percussive, and he emphasised that his music is conceived vocally. He once described Opus clavicembalisticum as "a colossal song", and Geoffrey Douglas Madge said that his piano playing had much in common with bel canto singing. Sorabji once said, "If a composer can't sing, a composer can't compose."
His piano music—not just that which is designated as symphonic—often strives to emulate the sounds of instruments other than the piano, as is evident from score markings such as "quasi organo pieno" (like a full organ), "pizzicato" and "quasi tuba con sordino" (like a muted tuba). In this respect, Alkan was a key source of inspiration; Sorabji admired his "orchestral" writing for the piano and was influenced by his Concerto for Solo Piano and his Symphony for Solo Piano.