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Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji

Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji (August 14, 1892October 15, 1988) was a British Parsi composer, music journalist and pianist.

He occupies a curious place in the repertoire. Most of his works are of extraordinary length and difficulty, making them inaccessible to many pianists. One of his most famous works, "Opus Clavicembalisticum" - the fame enhanced by once being listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the longest piano work ever written - has a reputation as a mythic, nearly impossible staple of the super-virtuoso repertoire. However, its difficulties are not insurmountable and it has been recorded several times. Many of his major piano works have not been recorded at all, and some others have had recordings of selected movements only. The record label Altarus intends to eventually release a full discography of the composer's work.

Biographical details

He was born Leon Dudley Sorabji in Chingford, Essex (now Greater London), of mixed Indian Parsi and apparently English descent. He later changed his name to demonstrate his strong identification with his Parsi heritage. He explained why he did this. Sorabji: A Critical Celebration, edited by Paul Rapoport includes his response to the suggestions that his name was not his real one:

"It is also stated that my name, my real name, that is the one I am known by, is not my real name. Now one is given one's name - one's authentic ones - at some such ceremony as baptism, Christening, or the like, on the occasion of one's formal reception into a certain religious Faith. In the ancient Zarathustrian Parsi community to which, on my father's side, I have the honour to belong, this ceremony is normally performed, as in other Faiths, in childhood, or owing to special circumstances as in my case, later in life, when I assumed my name as it now is or, in the words of the legal document in which this is mentioned "... received into the Parsi community and in accordance with the custom and tradition thereof, is now and will be henceforth known as..." and here follows my name as now."

As a critic he was loosely connected to the "New Age" Magazine group surrounding A. R. Orage. His critical publications were of concentrated bitterness, weight and sharpness, yet were wickedly funny and displayed an extreme mistrust of the English public taste. Among his best publications are essays about Busoni, Reger, Szymanowski and Bernard van Dieren. Studies about Tantric Hinduism led him to his essay Metapsychical motivation in music and to his Tantrik Symphony.

His works were influenced by Alkan, Busoni (to whom his second piano sonata is dedicated), Godowsky, Reger, Szymanowski, Scriabin and Delius. He was friends with Philip Heseltine (pseudonym: Peter Warlock) and became a music journalist in part because of their friendship.

His work Opus Clavicembalisticum (1930) for solo piano takes between about 3¾ and 4¾ hours to play, and consists of three sections, each divided into several movements, and each larger than the last. It was once listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the longest piano piece ever written. The accuracy of this claim has been disputed, as Sorabji himself wrote works of even greater length. His fifth piano sonata Opus Archimagicum; Sequentia Cyclica Super Dies Irae ex Missa Pro Defunctis; and the complete set of 100 Transcendental Studies, all have substantially longer durations than Opus Clavicembalisticum. His longest work Symphonic Variations occupies 484 A3 pages of manuscript in three volumes, and could take about 8 hours to play.

Characteristic is his use, inspired by Busoni, of baroque forms — chorale prelude, passacaglia, and fugue — with harmonies, melodies, and approaches that are not neoclassical as usually understood.

Many details of his life were for a long time hard to come by, as Sorabji was extraordinarily reticent about his life. He was notorious for almost always refusing requests for interviews or information, often with rude messages and warnings not to approach him again. This has led to numerous misunderstandings, for instance, that he lived in a castle, probably because the village in which he lived was named 'Corfe Castle'. He was equally notorious for refusing permission for his works to be publicly performed. Since he had independent financial means, he felt no need to be tactful in his dealings with the public, critics, and musicians interested in performing his works. His home, which he named "The Eye", had a sign at the gate: "Visitors Unwelcome.

The group of musicians who have tackled Sorabji's often extremely difficult works includes: Michael Habermann, Soheil Nasseri, Donna Amato, John Ogdon, Geoffrey Douglas Madge, Jonathan Powell, Yonty Solomon, Ronald Stevenson, Reinier Van Houdt, Tellef Johnson, Fredrik Ullén, Kevin Bowyer, Carlo Grante, Daan Vandewalle, Marc-André Hamelin.

Selected List of Works

This is adapted from Sorabji: A Critical Celebration below, with permission, together with information from the brochure of the Sorabji Archive. Many of the manuscripts have been edited, and copies of the original manuscripts, and of the new editions, are available from the Sorabji Archive.

Works for orchestra

  • Poem, Chaleur, a short piece for orchestra (1917)
  • Symphony no.1 for piano, organ, chorus and large orchestra (1921–22)
  • Opusculum, a fairly short piece for orchestra (1923)
  • Symphony no.3 "Jāmī" for baritone solo, wordless chorus, and large orchestra (including piano and organ) (1942–51)
  • (The second symphony, 1930–31, was intended for piano, large orchestra, organ, a final chorus and six solo voices; only the piano part was completed, though this is, in number of pages, itself longer than the Opus Clavicembalisticum and seems to be a self-sufficient work.)
  • Messa alta sinfonica (Symphonic High Mass) (8 soloists, 2 choirs and orchestra.) (1955–61)

Works for piano with orchestra

  • Eight Piano Concertos (no. 1, 1915–16 to no. 8, 1927–28, some unpublished, full score of no. 2 missing. The numbering used by Rapoport et al. is based on rediscoveries and reconstructed chronology, not on the numbers given in contemporary publications or even on the manuscript (eg. "Concerto V" written 1927–28 seems to have been the eighth in order of composition.)
  • Symphonic Variations for Piano and Orchestra (orchestrated in 1953–56 from the first book of the three-book piano work written in 1935–37)
  • Opus clavisymphonicum — Concerto for Piano and Large Orchestra (1957–59)
  • Opusculum clavisymphonicum vel claviorchestrale (Little Work for Keyboard and Orchestra) (1973–75)

Works for Voice and Orchestra

  • Music to "The Rider by the Night" (text, Robert Nichols), only exists in full score
  • Cinque Sonetti di Michelangelo Buonarroti (baritone and chamber orchestra)

Works for Bells

  • Suggested Bell-Chorale for St. Luke’s Carillon (St. Luke's Church, Germantown, Philadelphia)

Songs

  • The Poplars (Ducic, translated Selver) (2 versions)
  • Chrysilla (de Régnier)
  • Roses du Soir (Louÿs)
  • l’Heure Exquise (Verlaine)
  • Vocalise (2 versions)
  • Apparition (Mallarmé)
  • Hymne à Aphrodité (Tailhade) (2 versions)
  • l’Étang (Rollinat)
  • I was not Sorrowful (Dowson)
  • Le Mauvais Jardinier (Gilkin) (incomplete)
  • Trois Poèmes (Baudelaire and Verlaine)
  • Arabesque (Shamsu’d-Dīn)
  • Trois Fêtes Galantes (Verlaine)
  • Trois Poèmes du “Gulistān” de Sa‘dī (translated Toussaint) (2 versions)
  • l’Irrémédiable (Baudelaire)
  • Vocalise “Movement”
  • Three Songs (Baudelaire and Verlaine)
  • Frammento Cantato

Chamber works

  • Primary among these are the two piano quintets, written 1919–20 and 1932–33 (a lengthy work at 432 pages, challenging Morton Feldman's String Quartet II for longest chamber work status). New typeset editions of all of the chamber works are available from the Sorabji Archive.
  • Concertino non grosso (4 violins, viola, and cello)
  • Il Tessuto d’Arabeschi (flute and string quartet)
  • Fantasiettina Atematica (oboe, flute, and clarinet)

Works for solo piano

  • Five sonatas (sonatas 1–5, 1919–1934–5. Also sonata '0', 1917, rediscovered posthumously, premiered 2002 by Soheil Nasseri)
  • Six piano symphonies (Tantrik Symphony, 1938–39, Second Symphony, 1954, Third Symphony, 1959–60, Fourth Symphony, 1962-4, Symphonia brevis, 1973, Symphonia claviensis, 1975–76)
  • Four numbered toccatas (Toccata, 1928; Toccata seconda, 1933-4; Toccata terza (lost); Toccata quarta, 1964–7. Also Toccata from two piano pieces, 1920 and Toccatinetta sopra C.G.F, 1929)
  • Opus Clavicembalisticum (1929–30)
  • Symphonic Variations (1935-7) (in three books, of which the first was later orchestrated. Despite the name they are not sketches but complete piano pieces. This is arguably Sorabji's longest work, approx. 7–9 hours)
  • 100 Études transcendantes (1940–44) (in 4 volumes) (These range from short virtuoso studies to expansive concert works, such as no.75 'Passacaglia')
  • Concerto da suonare da me solo e senza orchestra, per divertirsi (1946)
  • Sequentia cyclica super "Dies iræ" ex Missa pro defunctis (1948–49)
  • Quasi Habanera (1917) (Not to be confused with the Quasi-Habanera movement of the Fantasia Ispanica)
  • Désir éperdu (1917)
  • Two Pieces (In the hothouse, and Toccata)
  • Fantaisie Espagnole
  • Prelude, Interlude, and Fugue
  • Trois Pastiches (Pastiches of Chopin, Bizet, and Rimsky-Korsakoff)
  • Rapsodie Espagnole (Transcription of the Ravel orchestral work)
  • Le Jardin Parfumé (1923)
  • Valse-Fantaisie (Hommage à Johann Strauss) (1925)
  • Variations and Fugue on “Dies Iræ” (1923–26)
  • Fragment (Prelude and Fugue) (1926)
  • Fragment for Harold Rutland (1926/28/37)
  • Toccata No. 1 (1928)
  • Djami (1928)
  • Passacaglia (unfinished) (1929)
  • Introduction, Passacaglia, Cadenza, and Fugue (completion by Abercrombie of unfinished 1929 Passacaglia)
  • Toccatinetta (1929)
  • Symphony (unnumbered solo piano work intended for piano, orchestra, chorus, and soli) (1930-1931)
  • Fantasia Ispanica (1933)
  • Pasticcio Capriccioso (Chopin Pastiche) (1933)
  • Toccata No. 2 (1933–34)
  • Quaere Reliqua Hujus Materiei inter Secretiora (based on the story "Count Magnus" by M. R. James)
  • Gulistān (“The Rose Garden” [Sa‘di])
  • St. Bertrand de Comminges: "He was Laughing in the Tower" (based on the story "Canon Alberic's Scrap-Book" by M. R. James)
  • Prelude in E flat (J.S. Bach transcription)
  • Schlußszene aus “Salome” (Strauss concert paraphrase)
  • Un Nido di Scatole
  • Toccata No. 3 (lost)
  • Passeggiata Veneziana (based on “Barcarolle” from “Les Contes d’Hoffman” [Offenbach])
  • Rosario d’Arabeschi
  • Fantasiettina sul nome illustre dell’egregio poeta Christopher Grieve ossia Hugh M’Diarmid
  • 20 Frammenti Aforistici
  • Toccata No. 4
  • 104 Frammenti Aforistici (Sutras)
  • Variazione Maliziosa e Perversa sopra “la Morte d’Åse” da Grieg
  • 4 Frammenti Aforistici
  • Symphonic Nocturne (A large work for solo piano still in manuscript form)
  • Il Grido del Gallino d’Oro (variations and fugue on a theme from “Le Coq d’Or” [Rimsky-Korsakov])
  • Villa Tasca
  • Opus Secretum
  • Passeggiata Variata
  • 2 Sutras sul Nome dell’amico Alexis
  • Passeggiata Arlecchinesca (based on material from “Rondò Arlecchinesco” [Busoni])
  • Trascription in the Light of Harpsichord Technique for the Modern Piano of the Chromatic Fantasia of J.S. Bach Followed by a Fugue, as well as a number of other transcriptions

Works for organ

  • Three organ symphonies (1924, 1929-32, 1949-53)

Voice and organ

  • Benedizione di San Francesco d’Assisi (baritone)

Selected list of performed and recorded works

List of works listed above that are known to have received public or broadcast performances, and/or recordings.

There is information on performances up to its date of publication in the book A Critical Celebration, in the chapter Un tessuto d'esecuzioni (named in parallel with the composer's chamber piece Il tessuto d'arabeschi (1979, for flute and string quartet and dedicated "To the Memory of Delius.") Information on premieres, again up to that date and so far as known can also be found in the entries on individual works in The "Detailed Catalog" section of the chapter called "Could you just send me a list of his works?"

  • Orchestral works
    • Two performances of Chaleur have taken place in Frankfurt, in 1999 and 2000.
  • Works for piano with orchestra
    • Piano concerto no. 5 (Published as Concerto II pour piano et orchestre in 1923 by F. and B. Goodwin Ltd. of London, written in 1920. Premiered in Utrecht in March 2003, and broadcast by Radio Hilversum, Netherlands in May 2003 with Donna Amato, soloist)
  • Works for chamber ensemble
    • Piano quintet no. 1 (public performance, Chris Berg piano. String quartet known? This concert also contained the "modern premiere" of the second piano sonata, that is, its first performance since the composer had performed it in the 1920s, performed by Tellef Johnson.)
    • Il tessuto d'arabeschi — performed May 1982 in Philadelphia.

  • Works for organ solo
    • Organ symphony no. 1 — second movement performed in 1928 by E. Emlyn Davies. Entire work premiered by Kevin Bowyer and Thomas Trotter in 1987. Recorded by Kevin Bowyer on Continuum Records (1001/2, released in 1988.)
    • Organ symphony no. 2 — first movement performed in 1994 by Kevin Bowyer. The entire work is scheduled to receive its first complete performance (over 7 hours) in June 2009 in Glasgow.
  • Works for piano solo
    • Sonatas
      • Sonata 1 premiered by Sorabji in 1920, recorded by Marc-André Hamelin for the label Altarus in 1990
      • Sonata 2 premiered by Sorabji in 1922, recorded by Tellef Johnson for the label Altarus in 1999
      • Sonata 3 premiered by Yonty Solomon in 1977; a recording by Tellef Johnson is scheduled for release from the label Altarus in 2006
      • Sonata 4 premiered by Sorabji in 1930, recorded by Jonathan Powell for Altarus in 2004
    • Symphonies
      • Fourth Symphony premiered by Reinier van Houdt at Utrecht in March 2003 and performed several times, in Canada in 2003
      • Symphonia Brevis premiered in New York City, 2004 by Donna Amato
    • Toccatas
      • Of the numbered toccatas, Toccata (1928) is recorded (also by Jonathan Powell, for Altarus in 2003). Toccata 2 was premiered by Sorabji in 1936.
    • Opus Clavicembalisticum
      • Premiered by Sorabji in 1930. Given its second complete performance in 1982 by Geoffrey Douglas Madge, who performed it several times. Two of these performances have made it to recording media; his first, from Utrecht, was recorded for Keytone Records, and has long since been deleted. A subsequent performance in Chicago has been released on a set of BIS CDs (a Swedish label). Madge has also performed the work in Montréal, Bonn, Paris, and Berlin. He has since made the decision not to perform the work. Altarus has also released a recording by John Ogdon. The piece has been performed six times by Madge, four times by Jonathan Powell, twice by John Ogdon and once by Daan Vanderwalle.
    • Études transcendantes
      • Individual ones of these (and individual numbers of his set of Symphonic variations) have found their way into concerts (e.g. at the Newport Festival and the Schloss vor Husum festival of unusual piano music) and onto recordings. BIS have announced that the complete set will be recorded by the pianist Fredrik Ullén; the first volume was released in 2006.
    • Other piano works
      • Michael Habermann recorded many short works in the 1980s for the MusicMasters label, as well as a CD for Elan and a CD of transcriptions for BIS. The earlier recordings have been re-released by the British Music Society.
      • Donna Amato has also recorded several shorter works, all released on the Altarus label.
      • Altarus have also released other shorter works, with recordings by Yonty Solomon, Carlo Grante, Charles Hopkins, and Jonathan Powell, who has a number of other recordings scheduled for release.
  • Songs

Books

  • Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji, Around Music, reprinted 1979 by Hyperion Press. ISBN 0-88355-764-9. Available from the Sorabji Archive.
  • Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji, Mi Contra Fa: The Immoralisings of a Machiavellian Musician, reprinted 1986 by Da Capo Press, ISBN 0-306-76275-7. Available from the Sorabji Archive.
  • Paul Rapoport has edited a book, Sorabji: A Critical Celebration, Aldershot: Scolar Press, 1992, ISBN 0-85967-923-3. This book, the first to be devoted to the composer's life and music, clarifies some once‐obscure biographical details, contains a more complete list of works than was previously available, and also includes several interviews and analyses.

Notes and references

External links

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