Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji

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Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji in 1945 Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji.jpg
Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji in 1945

Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji (born Leon Dudley Sorabji; 14 August 1892 – 15 October 1988) was an English composer, music critic, pianist and writer. One of the 20th century's most prolific piano composers, he is best known for his works for the instrument, which include seven symphonies for piano solo, four toccatas, Sequentia cyclica , 100 Transcendental Studies, Opus clavicembalisticum , six piano sonatas and his "Gulistān"—Nocturne for Piano.


Sorabji expressed a sense of otherness early in his life. As a homosexual of mixed ancestry and feeling alienated from English society, he was educated privately and had a lifelong tendency to seclusion. His mother was English and his father a wealthy Parsi businessman from India, who set up a modest trust fund that freed him from the need to work. Although a reluctant performer and not a virtuoso, Sorabji played a few of his works in public between 1920 and 1936. In the late 1930s, a shift in his attitude took place and he imposed restrictions on performance of his music (commonly known as a "ban"), which he lifted in 1976. His compositions received little exposure during those years and he remained in public view mainly through his writings and music criticism, at the centre of which are his books Around Music and Mi contra fa: The Immoralisings of a Machiavellian Musician. In the 1950s, he left London, eventually settling in the village of Corfe Castle, Dorset. Information on Sorabji's life, especially his later years, is scarce, much of it coming from his extensive correspondence.

Following early lessons in composition, Sorabji was self-taught. While at first attracted to modernist aesthetics, he came to dismiss large portions of the established and contemporary repertoire, drawing instead on a variety of composers. His absorption of diverse influences—Busoni, Debussy and Szymanowski, among others—resulted in a highly individual musical language. Frequent polyrhythms, interplay of tonal and atonal elements, and lavish ornamentation are some of its traits; another is the coexistence of contrasting forms, chiefly baroque and athematic ones. Between 1914 and 1984, he produced over 100 compositions, ranging from aphoristic fragments to works lasting several hours. Orchestral, chamber and organ pieces number among them, but his main expressive medium was the piano. Accordingly, Sorabji has been likened to many of the composer-pianists he admired, including Chopin, Liszt and Alkan. Features of his music, not least its harmonic language and complex rhythms, anticipated trends from mid-20th-century and later composition.


Early years

Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji was born Leon Dudley Sorabji in Chingford, Essex (now Greater London), on 14 August 1892. [1] His father, Shapurji Sorabji [n 1] (née Shapurji Hormusji Shroff; 18 August 1863 – 7 July 1932), was a Parsi civil engineer and businessman born in Bombay, India, to a long line of industrialists and businessmen. [3] His mother, Madeline Matilda Worthy (13 August 1866 – 5 May 1959), was English. [4] She is said to have been a singer, pianist and organist, but little evidence has been found to support these claims. [5] They married on 18 February 1892. [2]

Little is known of Sorabji's early life and musical beginnings. He reportedly started to learn the piano from his mother when he was eight, [6] and he later received help (but no lessons) from Emily Edroff-Smith, a friend of his mother's. [7] [8] Sorabji attended a school of about twenty boys where, in addition to general education, he had piano, organ and harmony lessons, as well as German and Italian classes. [9] From the early 1910s until 1916, he studied music with pianist and composer Charles A. Trew (1854–1929). [10] He was also educated by his mother, who took him to concerts. [11]

The first significant insight into Sorabji's life comes from his correspondence with composer and critic Peter Warlock (also known as Philip Heseltine), which began in 1913. Warlock inspired Sorabji to become a music critic and focus on composition, and his letters convinced him to avoid a university setting. Sorabji, who had obtained a Matriculation and had contemplated going to the University of London, thus decided to study music privately. [6] [12] [13] He was a late starter, having composed no music before the age of 22. [5] Initially, he was vocal and active in promoting his music, and he showed great interest in interacting with the world of musicians—an attitude that was to change dramatically. [14] In late 1919, Warlock sent music critic Ernest Newman several of Sorabji's scores, including that of his First Piano Sonata. Newman paid them no attention, and in November that year, Sorabji privately met Ferruccio Busoni and played the piece to him. Busoni expressed reservations about the work but gave him a letter of recommendation, which helped Sorabji get it published. [15] Warlock, writing in his own journal, The Sackbut , accused Newman of systematic avoidance and sabotage. Sorabji later joined the controversy and claimed Newman had refused to look at his works, to which the critic responded by describing the circumstances that prevented him from reviewing the scores and meeting Sorabji in person. Warlock went on to make public accusations of abuse and stubbornness on Newman's part, and the issue was settled only after another journal, Musical Opinion , reproduced correspondence between Newman and Sorabji. [16]

In his youth, Sorabji took great interest in recent developments in art music—in the work of Schoenberg, Scriabin, Mahler and Debussy, among others—at a time when they received scant attention in England. This interest, along with his ethnicity, cemented his reputation as an outsider. [17] Early editions of his compositions were published with his father's financial aid, and their modernist idiom and increasing dimensions and technical demands baffled critics and audiences. [18] [19] His music had its detractors, but some musicians received it positively: [20] Frederick Delius, who heard a 1930 radio broadcast of Sorabji playing his own piece Le jardin parfumé—Poem for Piano Solo, sent a letter of admiration to Sorabji; [21] French pianist Alfred Cortot expressed interest in performing Sorabji's piano concertos; [22] and Alban Berg reportedly took an interest in his work. [23]

Sorabji first played his music in public in 1920, and he performed his works in the UK and abroad over the next decade. [24] In the mid-1920s, he began correspondence with and befriended Scottish composer Erik Chisholm, which led to the most fruitful period of his pianistic career. Sorabji joined his Active Society for the Propagation of Contemporary Music soon after its creation and first met him in Glasgow, when he premiered his Piano Sonata No. 4 on 1 April 1930. [25] The Society's concerts featured a number of distinguished composers and musicians, including Paul Hindemith, Nikolai Medtner, Alfredo Casella and Béla Bartók, yet for all his reluctance and his protestations that he was "a composer—who incidentally, merely, plays the piano", [26] Sorabji was the guest performer to make the most appearances in the series. [27] [28] He came to Glasgow four times [n 2] and played some of the longest works he had written to date: in addition to the Fourth Sonata, he premiered Opus clavicembalisticum (in 1930) and Toccata seconda (in 1936) and he gave a performance of his Nocturne, "Jāmī" in 1931. [29] [30]

Ban and seclusion

A view of the village of Corfe Castle, where Sorabji settled in the 1950s and led a largely secluded life CorfeCastleFromCastle2.jpg
A view of the village of Corfe Castle, where Sorabji settled in the 1950s and led a largely secluded life

On 10 March 1936 in London, pianist John Tobin gave a partial reading of Opus clavicembalisticum. This performance was highly inadequate, as it lasted 90 minutes—twice as long as it should have. Sorabji left before it finished, and later denied having attended it, paid for it or supported its taking place. [31] The concert was attended by a number of leading critics and composers, and generated negative reactions in the press, which was a severe blow to Sorabji. [32] He made his last public appearance on 16 December 1936 in Glasgow, when he premiered his Toccata seconda, and afterwards withdrew from the concert platform for the rest of his life. [29] Shortly before this, Sorabji said he was no longer interested in having his works performed, and over the next decade, he made remarks expressing his opposition to the spread of his music. [33]

The restrictions Sorabji placed on performances of his works came to be known as a "ban", but there was no official or enforceable pronouncement to this effect; rather, he discouraged, by and large successfully, others from playing his music. This was not without antecedents and even his first printed scores bore a note reserving the right of performance. [34] Few concerts with his music took place in those years, most of them semi-private or given by his friends and with his approval, and he turned down offers to play his works in public. [35] This shift in attitude has usually been ascribed to Tobin's recital, [36] but other reasons have been put forward for his decision to leave the world of music: the deaths of people he admired (such as Busoni and van Dieren), the silence of Sibelius, the changes in Szymanowski's style, and the increasing prominence of Stravinsky and twelve-tone music. [37] Furthermore, the fall of the pound and rupee in 1931 affected Sorabji's father, who stopped supporting the publication of his scores that same year; plans to publish other pieces by Sorabji, which had been in the works, were thus cancelled. [38] In spite of all this, the 1930s marked an especially fertile period in Sorabji's career. The decade was the most prolific of his life and saw the creation of many of his largest works. [39] His activity as music critic also peaked during this period, and in 1938, Oxford University Press became the selling agent for his published works, which it remained until his death in 1988. [40]

Sorabji was not drafted during either World War I or World War II and surviving documents are silent on the reason why. After the First World War, he praised conscientious objectors for their courage, but there is no proof he tried to register as one. Likewise, it remains unclear how he avoided military duties during World War II. His production of open letters and music criticism did not cease, nor did he touch the topic of war in his published writings from the time. [41] For much of the Second World War, Sorabji focused on his set of 100 Transcendental Studies (1940–44), many of which were written during German bombings. He remained in his home at Clarence Gate Gardens even as most other blocks were empty, writing during the night and early morning. Wartime records show that a high explosive bomb hit Siddons Lane, where the back entrance to his former place of residence is located. [42]

Sorabji left London in 1950, and in 1956, he settled in The Eye (its name referencing the Eye of Horus, which was engraved on a metal plate near the entrance [43] ), a house that he had built for himself in the village of Corfe Castle, Dorset. [44] This has been described as a parallel to his distancing from the world of music. [45] He had been on holidays in Corfe Castle since 1928 and the place had appealed to him for many years. [46] In 1946, he expressed the desire to be there permanently, and once settled in the village, he rarely ventured outside. [47] Living expenses also played a role in his decision to leave London. [46]

Admirers and inner withdrawal

In spite of his isolation and withdrawing from the concert platform and the world of music, Sorabji retained a circle of close admirers. Over the years, concerns over the fate of his legacy intensified, given that Sorabji had not recorded any of his works, and that none of them had been published since 1931. [45] The most ambitious attempt to ensure the preservation of his music and writings was initiated by Frank Holliday (1912–1997), an English trainer and teacher who met Sorabji in 1937 and was his closest friend for about four decades. [1] [48] In 1951, Holliday began organising the presentation of a letter inviting Sorabji to make recordings of his own music. [49] Sorabji received the letter, signed by 23 admirers, in 1953, but made no recordings then, in spite of the enclosed cheque for 121  guineas, equivalent to just over £127 at the time [50] (and £3,574 today [n 3] ). Sorabji was concerned by the impact copyright laws would have on the spread of his music, [51] but eventually, following years of opposition, objections and stalling, Holliday persuaded him. Several recordings (amounting to a little over 11 hours of music) were made in Sorabji's home between 1962 and 1968. [52] Despite his requests to limit circulation of the tapes and Holliday's attempts to comply, leaks took place and the recordings were included in a 55-minute WBAI programme broadcast in December 1969, and an expanded three-hour version produced by WNCN in 1970. The latter programme, which was rebroadcast several times in the 1970s, attracted attention in the United States and helped in the dissemination and understanding of Sorabji's music. [53]

The friendship between Sorabji and Holliday ended in 1979 due to a perceived rift between them and disagreements over custodianship of Sorabji's legacy. [54] In spite of this, Holliday preserved his collection of Sorabji's letters and other related items, one of the largest and most important sources of material on the composer. He felt close to a giant of music history and took many notes during his visits to Sorabji, often accepting everything he told him at face value. [55] His collection of Sorabjiana was purchased by McMaster University (Hamilton, Ontario, Canada) in 1988. [56]

Another devoted champion was Norman Pierre Gentieu (1914–2009), [1] an American writer who discovered Sorabji by reading his book Around Music just after World War II. Because of post-war shortages in England, Gentieu sent Sorabji some provisions, and the depth of their friendship appears to have been such that he continued to do so for the next four decades. In the early 1950s, Gentieu made an offer to Sorabji to pay for the microfilming of his major piano works and to give copies to selected libraries. Gentieu also sent him a tape recorder, but issues with operating the machine and Sorabji's reluctance prevented recordings from being made. [57] [58] To put the plan to microfilm the scores into motion, Gentieu set up a mock society (called Society of Connoisseurs) intended to mask the financial investment on his part, but Sorabji suspected what the actual state of affairs was. The microfilming began in January 1953 and, as new works were produced, continued until 1967. [59] Copies of the microfilms became available in several libraries and universities in the United States and South Africa. [57]

Over the years, Sorabji grew increasingly tired of composition. Health problems, stress and fatigue interfered with it more and more and writing music began to elicit revulsion. Following the completion of his largest work, the Messa grande sinfonica (1955–61), which covers 1,001 pages of orchestral score, Sorabji wrote he had no desire to continue composing, and in August 1962, he suggested he may abandon composition and destroy his extant manuscripts. Extreme anxiety and exhaustion due to personal, family and other issues, including the private recordings and preparing for them, had drained him and he took a break from composition. He nevertheless returned to it, but worked at a slower pace than in the past and produced mostly short works. Sorabji eventually ceased composing in 1968 and declared his intention not to write any more music. Documentation of how he spent the next few years is unavailable, and even his production of open letters declined. [60]

Renewed visibility

In November 1969, Scottish composer Alistair Hinton (born 1950), then a student at the Royal College of Music in London, discovered Sorabji's music in the Westminster Music Library while looking for scores of guitar works by Fernando Sor. [61] Hinton wrote a letter to Sorabji in March 1972 [62] and met him for the first time in Sorabji's home on 21 August 1972. [63] They quickly became good friends and Sorabji began increasingly to turn to him for advice on legal and other matters. [64] Hinton was to play a major role in the preservation of Sorabji's music. In 1978, he and musicologist Paul Rapoport microfilmed the manuscripts of Sorabji's of which copies had not been made yet, and in 1979, Sorabji wrote a new will, bequeathing Hinton (now his literary and musical executor) all the manuscripts in his possession. [65] [n 4] Most importantly, Sorabji, who had not written any music since 1968, returned to composition in 1973 as a result of Hinton's interest in his work. [68] He also persuaded Sorabji to give pianist Yonty Solomon permission to play his works in public, which was granted on 24 March 1976; this marked the end of the "ban", although Michael Habermann may have received tentative approval at an earlier date. [69] [70] Several recitals ensued and led to the making of a television documentary on Sorabji, which was broadcast in 1977. The images in it consisted mostly of still photographs of his house; Sorabji did not wish to be seen and there was just one brief shot of him waving to the departing camera crew. [71] [72]

Sorabji went on to take part in two more broadcasts: one in 1979 for the centenary of the birth of composer Francis George Scott, and one in 1980 on BBC Radio 3, commemorating Medtner's centenary. The former, although lacking any footage of Sorabji, was significant in that it brought about his first meeting with Ronald Stevenson, whose music and writings he had known and admired for more than 20 years. [73] After they met, Sorabji wrote Villa Tasca [n 5] (1979–80), a piano piece dedicated to Stevenson. While working on it, Sorabji received his first and only commission; it came from Gentieu, acting on behalf of the Philadelphia branch of the Delius Society. Sorabji fulfilled it with Il tessuto d'arabeschi (1979) for flute and string quartet. He dedicated it "To the memory of Delius" and received £1,000 for it [75] (equivalent to £5,096 in present-day terms [n 3] ).

Last years

Towards the end of his life, Sorabji ceased composing, due to his failing eyesight and difficulties in holding a pen. [76] His health deteriorated severely in 1986, obliging him to abandon his home and spend several months in a Wareham hospital, and in October that year, he put Hinton in charge of his personal affairs. [69] In March 1987, he moved into a two-room suite in Marley House Nursing Home, a private nursing home in Winfrith Newburgh (near Dorchester, Dorset), where he was permanently chairbound and received daily nursing care. [77] In June 1988, he suffered a mild stroke, which left him slightly mentally impaired. He died of heart failure and arteriosclerotic heart disease on 15 October 1988 at a little after 7 pm, at the age of 96. He was cremated (in accordance with Zoroastrian funeral traditions) in Bournemouth Crematorium on 24 October of that year, and the funeral services took place in Corfe Castle in the Church of St. Edward, King and Martyr, on the same day. [78]

The Sorabji Archive (originally called The Sorabji Music Archive) was founded in 1988 by Hinton (the sole heir to Sorabji's oeuvre ), to disseminate knowledge of Sorabji's legacy. [1] [79] His musical manuscripts are located in various places across the world. [80]

Personal life

Mystique and fabrications

During Sorabji's lifetime, and especially since his death, people have been confronted with a number of myths and legends that his life was shrouded in. Dispelling the myths and inaccuracies surrounding Sorabji became a priority for scholars, who have focused on various areas: [81] his compositional method and the nature of his music; [82] his skills as a performer; [82] the dimensions and purported unplayability of his pieces; [83] and the existence of a so-called "ban" on performances of his work. [84] This has proven a most challenging task. While nearly all of Sorabji's known works have been preserved and there are almost no lost manuscripts, [85] few documents and items relating to his life have survived. His extensive correspondence is the main source of information on this area, yet much of it is missing, too. Sorabji, a voracious reader, often discarded large volumes of his letters and books without inspecting their content, probably to make space for new ones. Marc-André Roberge, the author of Sorabji's first biography, Opus sorabjianum, writes that "there are years for which hardly anything can be reported". [86]

Foremost among these myths is the one that his mother was Spanish-Sicilian, and by extension, Sorabji himself was not English. Research carried out by Sean Vaughn Owen in the early 2000s revealed she had been born to English parents christened in an Anglican church, which refutes the claim that she had been adopted or had recent Spanish-Sicilian ancestry. [87] He further established that his mother repeatedly used aliases and gave false birth dates (even on legal documents [88] ), and suggested she passed this habit onto Sorabji, who "developed throughout his life a complex sense of otherness" and "represented himself to others in a manner that was not in keeping with reality". [89] Sorabji did not deny his mother's Englishness in his youth, but later he insisted she was of Spanish-Sicilian extraction and he objected to being called English. [90] He also claimed his mother had been a singer, yet there is little evidence she had a stage career. [91]

There were other myths, some of which were peddled by Sorabji himself. He claimed to have had relatives in the hierarchy of the Catholic Church and wore a ring that was allegedly supposed to go to the Pope upon his death. [92] [93] The villagers in Corfe Castle sometimes referred to him as "Sir Abji" and "Indian Prince". [94] Sorabji would often mislead others, especially lexicographers, by feeding them incorrect biographical information on himself. [95] One of them, Nicolas Slonimsky, who in 1978 erroneously wrote that Sorabji owned a castle, [96] once called him "the most enigmatic composer now living". [97] Sorabji's deception regarding his age may be why he was not drafted during World War I, though his precarious health has also been suggested as an explanation. [41]

It remains unclear why Sorabji insisted on a Spanish-Sicilian ancestry and other fabrications. Owen says he may have shielded himself from being viewed as a mixed-race Englishman, choosing to instead portray himself as a foreigner. [98] His interviews with people from Corfe Castle and neighbouring areas show that Sorabji's personality exhibits many contradictions, which he terms "posturing of otherness". [89] Owen concludes that despite Sorabji's elitist and misanthropic image, those who knew him on a personal level (while not necessarily his friends) found him serious and stern but generous, cordial and hospitable. [99] He summarises the tensions displayed in Sorabji's reputation, writings, persona and behaviour thus:

The contradictions between his reputation and the actuality of his existence were known to Sorabji and they appear to have given him much amusement. This sense of humour was detected by many in the village, yet they too were prone to believe his stories. The papal connection of course was a particular favourite and as much as Sorabji detested being spotlighted in a large group, he was perfectly content in more intimate situations bringing direct attention to his ring or his thorny attitude regarding the ban on his music. [100]

Sexuality and otherness

Havelock Ellis, whose thoughts on homosexuality shaped Sorabji's own Havelock Ellis cph.3b08675.jpg
Havelock Ellis, whose thoughts on homosexuality shaped Sorabji's own

Sorabji's otherness was two-fold: he was homosexual and of mixed race. In his youth, he was apparently mistreated by other boys in the school he attended and his tutor, who sought to make an English gentleman out of him, would make derogatory comments about India and hit him on the head with a large book, causing him recurring headaches. These experiences have been identified as the root of Sorabji's dislike of England, which he expressed in his writings and elsewhere. [9] He described English people as mean to foreigners, and he saw them as intentionally and systematically mistreating them. [101] He once recalled how, in 1914, a "howling mob" with brickbats and large stones pursued him and "half killed" him, [101] and he may have been blackmailed over his homosexuality. [102] Sorabji felt despised and misunderstood by the English music establishment, and he made remarks opposing the dissemination of his works in England. [103] London in particular received his ire; he called it the "International Human Rubbish dump" [104] and "Spivopolis". [46] [105] In the 1950s, he conceded he had been unduly harsh in his assessments of the English, acknowledging that many of his close friends were or had been Englishmen. [106]

Sorabji detested being called English. He identified with his Parsi and alleged Spanish-Sicilian ancestry instead, attributing his explosive temperament to the latter. [107] During the First World War, he and his mother had plans for a move to France or Italy, but these did not materialise, and with the exception of two trips to India, he never left Europe. [108] He visited Italy at least eight times, occasionally for extended periods. [109] French culture and art also appealed to him, and he set French texts to music. [110] Many of his pieces have titles in Latin, Italian and other foreign languages, accounting for around 60% of his known works. [111]

In 1919, Sorabji experienced what has been called a sexual awakening, which led him to join the British Society for the Study of Sex Psychology and the English branch of the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft. [112] In the early 1920s, at a time of considerable emotional distress, he consulted Havelock Ellis, a British psychologist and writer on sexual psychology, on the matter of his orientation. Ellis held progressive views on the subject, and Sorabji expressed great regard for him, inscribing a dedication "To Dr. Havelock Ellis.—in respectful admiration, homage and gratitude" in his Piano Concerto No. 7, Simorg-Anka (1924). [113] [114] He would go on to reference Ellis in many of his articles on the topic, often building on the concept of sexual inversion. [115]

Sorabji's homosexual tendencies first expressed themselves in 1914, in his letters to Warlock, [116] yet nowhere did they manifest themselves more strongly than in his correspondence with Chisholm. Sorabji sent him a number of exceptionally long letters that capture a desire for intimacy and to be with him alone, and that have been interpreted as expressing that Sorabji was in love with him. [117] Chisholm apparently set things straight at some point, possibly in 1932, when he got married; from there on, Sorabji's letters became less sentimental and their communication more and more infrequent. [118]

Sorabji spent the last 35 years or so of his life with Reginald Norman Best (25 September 1909 – 29 February 1988), the son of a friend of his mother. Best spent his life savings to help Sorabji buy The Eye and shared with him the costs of living. [119] He was homosexual, and although Sorabji often described him to the villagers as his godson, many suspected there was more to their relationship and those close to them believed they were partners. [120] Sorabji once called him "one of the two people on earth most precious to me". [121] Best was reserved and considered a recluse even compared to Sorabji; [122] he suffered from depression and multiple congenital deficiencies, and around 1970, he began taking electroconvulsive therapy. [119] The treatment caused Best considerable anxiety and Sorabji was upset by the effect it had on him, and it has been suggested that this exacerbated their reclusiveness. [123] In March 1987, they moved into Marley House Nursing Home, where Sorabji called him "darling" and complimented him on his looks, thereby scandalising the nurses. His death on 29 February 1988 was a blow to Sorabji; he suffered a mild stroke in June and died later that year, and his ashes were buried next to his. [124]

Sorabji's vocal music includes texts by homosexual artists such as Michelangelo and Paul Verlaine, [125] and he wrote Gianandrea and Stephen, a short homoerotic story set in Palermo. Roberge says that in this text, which purports to be biographical, Sorabji "let his imagination run at its wildest". [126] Sorabji probably had sexual encounters with men while he lived in London, and in 1977, he wrote, "deep affection and indeed love between men is the greatest thing in life, at any rate it is in my life". [127] [128] Roberge further writes that "the loneliness that he must have often felt surely accounts for his desire to create for himself an ideal world in which he could believe—and have his friends believe". [129]

Social life

Many of Sorabji's friends were not musicians and he said that their human qualities meant more to him than their musical erudition. [130] He sought warmth in others and said he depended emotionally on the affection of his friends. He could be extremely devoted to them, though he admitted to preferring solitude. [131] Some of his friendships, like those with Norman Peterkin or Alistair Hinton, lasted until the death of either party; others were broken, such as the one with Frank Holliday. [132]

Sorabji appears to have been more approachable when he moved to Corfe Castle and his reclusiveness strengthened with age. [133] He cherished his privacy (going as far as to call himself a "claustrophiliac" [134] ) and has often been called a misanthrope. [131] He planted more than 250 trees around his house and had a number of minatory notices affixed to it, with warnings against uninvited visitors. [43] Sorabji did not like the company of two or more friends simultaneously and would accept only one at a time, each about once or twice per year. [135] In an unpublished text titled The Fruits of Misanthropy, he justified his reclusiveness by saying, "my own failings are so great that they are as much as I can put up with in comfort—those of other people superadded I find a burden quite intolerable". [136]

Family and finances

Sorabji was always close to his mother, which may account for the fact that he was educated privately and did not go to university. She accompanied him on his travels and he spent nearly two-thirds of his life with her, until the 1950s, when he began living with Best. [11] [110] Sorabji also looked after his mother in her last years, when they were no longer living together. [137] Despite the emotional attachment he had to her, their close bond has been attributed in part to being abandoned by Shapurji Sorabji and the impact this had on their financial security. [11]

There is little evidence that Shapurji Sorabji, the composer's father, lived with his family. [138] Although he was musically cultured and financed the publication of several of Sorabji's compositions (enabling 14 of them to be published between 1921 and 1931 [18] ), he did not want his son to become a musician. After the marriage, he returned to Bombay, where he played a significant role in the development of India's engineering and cotton machinery industries, among other things. [1] In October 1914, he set up the Shapurji Sorabji Trust, a modest trust fund that would provide his family with a life income, freeing them of the need to work. [139]

Shapurji Sorabji died in Bad Nauheim, Germany, on 7 July 1932. Sorabji left London soon after and travelled to India to settle matters related to his father's estate, arriving by boat some two weeks later. Little happened during his stay there and he returned on 9 February 1933. His mother accompanied him on the second trip to India, which began on 29 May 1933 and ended with their return on 23 January 1934. [140] Soon after arriving, they learned that Shapurji Sorabji had been living with another woman since around 1909 and had married her in 1929. [141] Sorabji and his mother were excluded from his will and received a fraction of what his second wife and adopted son did. [142] After a long process that began in 1936, the bigamous marriage was declared null and void in 1949, but this had no impact on the financial side of the earlier ruling. [143] [144]

Sorabji earned no money as a critic, and at times, he had to sell his possessions to get out of financial difficulties. [145] His lifestyle was modest, though he was fond of some alcoholic beverages, including sweet wines and chocolate liqueurs. [146] Sometimes, he helped his friends financially, and in older years, when he was dependent on others to take care of him and help him with daily chores, he would thank them with gifts. [147] Near the end of his life, the Shapurji Sorabji Trust had been exhausted [148] and his house, along with his belongings (including some 3,000 books), had to be put up for auction to pay for the nursing home he was to stay in. [149] As performances of his music became more common starting in the mid-1970s, Sorabji joined the Performing Right Society and derived a small income from the royalties they generated. On 19 September 1988, less than a month before his death, he registered for the Mechanical Copyright Protection Society, thus becoming the oldest composer to have ever applied to join the list. [150]

Health and religious views

Sorabji suffered from frail health throughout his life. He broke his leg as a child; possibly as a consequence of his two trips to India, he experienced recurring attacks of malaria; in 1976, due to sciatica, he had trouble walking and at some points he even found himself housebound; and near the end of his life, he was crippled with arthritis. [151] He distrusted doctors, preferring instead his physiotherapist, and he had an interest in alternative medicine and spiritual healing. [152] He experimented with herbal remedies and over-the-counter products, and practised weekly one-day fasts and yearly one-week fasts for many years. [153]

Sorabji's attraction to these things was linked to his interest in the occult, numerology and related topics, and Rapoport has suggested that Sorabji chose to hide his year of birth for fear that knowledge of it could be used against him. [154] Early in his life, Sorabji published articles on the paranormal and he included occult inscriptions and references in his works. [155] His interest in extra-sensory perception led him to join the Society for Psychical Research in the early 1930s, and in 1922, he met Aleister Crowley, an event Sorabji found disappointing and caused him to dismiss Crowley as a "fraud" [156] and "the dullest of dull dogs". [157] [158] His occult interests also led to a 20-year friendship with Bernard Bromage (1899–1957), an English writer on mysticism and a member of the secret order Fraternity of Inner Light. [159] He acted as joint trustee of the Shapurji Sorabji Trust between 1933 and 1941 and produced a highly defective index for Sorabji's book Around Music, with which Sorabji was displeased. [160] Bromage also apparently behaved incorrectly as trustee, causing Sorabji considerable monetary losses, which led to his removal from the Trust and to the end of their friendship around 1942. [161] Occult themes more or less disappeared from Sorabji's music and writings afterwards. [157]

Sometime in 1913 or 1914, Sorabji joined the Parsi community and changed his name. [162] [n 6] He spoke favourably of Parsis as a group, their culture and history, though his experiences with them in India upset him. He embraced only a few aspects of Zoroastrianism and he later cut off his ties to various Parsi and Zoroastrian organisations over objections to their actions. [165] Sorabji's attitude towards Christianity was mixed. In early life, he denounced it for fueling war and deemed it a hypocritical religion, yet this attitude changed. [166] He later voiced his admiration for the Catholic Church, attributing the most valuable parts of European civilisation to it, and his interest in the rite of the Mass inspired his largest work, the Messa grande sinfonica. [167] Though he professed not to be a Catholic, he may have embraced some of the faith in private. [168]

During the 1930s, Sorabji began practising yoga, the only form of exercise he engaged in. [169] He credited it with infusing his life with greater order and balance, enabling him to command inspiration, and helping him achieve focus and self-discipline. The practice led him to write an essay titled "Yoga and the Composer" and inspired the composition of his Tāntrik Symphony for Piano Alone (1938–39), which has seven movements titled after bodily centres in tantric and shaktic yoga. [170]


Early works

Although there has been speculation about earlier works, Sorabji's first known (albeit lost) composition is a transcription dating from 1914 of Delius's orchestral piece In a Summer Garden . [171] [172] [173] His early works are predominantly piano sonatas, songs and piano concertos. [174] Of these, Piano Sonatas Nos. 1–3 (1919; 1920; 1922) are compositionally the most ambitious and significant. [175] They are characterised mainly by their use of the single-movement format and by their athematism. [176] The main criticism levelled at them is that they lack stylistic consistency and organic form. [177] [178] Sorabji himself developed a largely unfavourable view of his early works, describing them as derivative and lacking in cohesion, [179] and late in his life he even considered destroying many of their manuscripts. [180]

Mature works and symphonic style

The closing page of "Muladhara", the opening movement of Sorabji's Tantrik Symphony for Piano Alone. The numbering of themes follows the manuscript. Sorabji, Piano Symphony No. 1 (Tantrik), edition, page 96.png
The closing page of "Mūlādharā", the opening movement of Sorabji's Tāntrik Symphony for Piano Alone. The numbering of themes follows the manuscript.

Various people have stated that Sorabji achieved compositional maturity with Three Pastiches for Piano (1922) and Le jardin parfumé (1923), [181] but it was Organ Symphony No. 1 (1924) that Sorabji regarded as his first mature work. In contrast to his previous pieces, baroque organisational principles play an important role in it. [182] 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:

Sorabji's symphonic first movements have been labelled as "symphonic tapestries" [183] and "a kind of pure music drama". [184] 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. [185] They have been described as being based superficially on either the fugue [186] or the sonata-allegro form, [187] 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 musicologist Simon John Abrahams, "battle with each other for domination of the texture". [188] These movements can last over 90 minutes, [189] 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-nine. [190] However, even in these polythematic movements, there is a "dominant theme" or "motto" that is given primary significance and permeates the rest of the composition. [191]

An example of Sorabji's nocturnal music: an extract from "Anahata Cakra", the fourth movement of his Tantrik Symphony for Piano Alone Sorabji, Piano Symphony No. 1 (Tantrik), edition, page 244.png
An example of Sorabji's nocturnal music: an extract from "Anāhata Cakra", the fourth movement of his Tāntrik Symphony for Piano Alone

The nocturnes are generally considered to be among Sorabji's most accessible works, [192] and they are also some of his most prestigious; they have been described by Habermann as the best of his output, [192] and by pianist Fredrik Ullén as "perhaps ... his most personal and original contribution as a composer". [193] 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, [194] 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". [195] Melodic material is treated loosely in these works, reflecting their harmonic freedom; [196] ornamentation and textural patterns, rather than themes, assume a preeminent position. [197] [198] The nocturnes are usually to be played at subdued dynamic levels, though some of the later ones contain explosive passagework. [199] They can be stand-alone works, such as Villa Tasca, or parts of larger wholes, like "The Garden of Iram", which concludes the first book of the Symphonic Variations for Piano. [200] [201] Sections titled "aria" and "punta d'organo" (the latter of which have been likened to "Le gibet" from Ravel's Gaspard de la nuit [202] ) are included in this genre. [203] [204]

Sorabji's fugues usually follow traditional methods and are the most atonal [205] and least polyrhythmic of his works. [206] After an exposition presenting a subject and between one and four countersubjects, the thematic material [n 7] is usually developed in its original form and in inversion, retrograde and retrograde inversion. This is followed by a stretto and leads to a section featuring augmentation and a thickening of lines into chords. If a fugue has multiple themes, [n 8] this pattern is repeated for each subject and material from all expositions is combined near the end. [209] [n 9] Sorabji's fugal writing has at times been treated with suspicion or criticised. The subjects can lack the frequent changes of direction present in most melodic writing, and some of the fugues are among the longest ever penned—the largest being the two-hour "Fuga triplex" that closes the Second Symphony for Organ. [205] [211] [212]

This structural layout was employed and refined in Sorabji's piano and organ symphonies. In some cases, a variation set takes the place of the slow movement. [191] Starting with the Second Symphony for Piano (1954), there is a change in the positioning of fugues, which are placed either midway through the work or right before a closing slow movement. [213] Interludes and moto perpetuo-type sections link together larger movements and make appearances in Sorabji's later fugues, [214] [215] like in the Sixth Symphony for Piano (1975–76), whose "Quasi fuga" alternates fugal and non-fugal episodes. [216]

Other important forms in Sorabji's mature work are the toccata and the autonomous variation set. [217] The latter, along with his non-orchestral symphonies, are his most ambitious works [218] and have been praised for the imagination exhibited in them. [175] [219] 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. [220] His toccatas are more modest in scope and take the structure of Busoni's work of the same name as their starting point. [221]

Late works

A passage from the "Arabesque-Nocturne" from Sorabji's Piano Symphony No. 6, which reflects the textural thinning out of his late music K k sorabji p symphony 6.png
A passage from the "Arabesque-Nocturne" from Sorabji's Piano Symphony No. 6, which reflects the textural thinning out of his late music

Already in 1953, Sorabji expressed disinterest in continuing to compose, when he described Sequentia cyclica (1948–49) as "the climax and crown of his work for the piano and, in all probability, the last he will write". [222] [n 10] His rate of composition slowed down in the early 1960s, [60] and around 1968, Sorabji vowed to cease composing, which he eventually did after writing Concertino non grosso for String Sextet with Piano obbligato quasi continuo (1968). [76]

Hinton played a crucial role in Sorabji's resumption of compositional activities. [223] 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 has been identified as his "late style", one characterised by thinner, less polyphonic textures, and a harmonic idiom making greater use of extended harmonies. [224] [225] [226] Roberge writes that Sorabji, upon completing the first movement of Symphonia brevis, "felt that it broke new ground for him and was his most mature work, one in which he was doing things he had never done before". [227] Sorabji described his late works as being designed "as a seamless coat ... from which the threads cannot be disassociated" without compromising the coherence of the music. [228] Another feature of his late style, which had developed several years before his creative hiatus, are aphoristic pieces consisting of brief musical utterances, some of which last just a few seconds. [229]

Inspiration and influences

Ferruccio Busoni, who exerted a strong influence on Sorabji's music and writings Ferruccio Busoni.jpg
Ferruccio Busoni, who exerted a strong influence on Sorabji's music and writings

Sorabji's early influences include Cyril Scott, Ravel, Leo Ornstein and particularly Scriabin. [230] He later became more critical of Scriabin and, after meeting Busoni in 1919, was influenced primarily by the latter, both in his music and writings. [231] [232] [233] [n 11] His mature work was also significantly influenced by Alkan, Debussy, Godowsky, Reger and Szymanowski. [237] [238] [239]

Eastern culture had some influence on Sorabji. According to Habermann, this manifests itself in the following ways: highly supple and irregular rhythmic patterns, abundant ornamentation, an improvisatory and timeless feel, frequent polyrhythmic writing [240] and the vast dimensions of some of his compositions. [197] Sorabji wrote in 1960 that he almost never sought to blend Eastern and Western music, and although he had positive things to say about Indian music in the 1920s, he later saw limitations inherent in it and the raga, including a lack of thematic development, which was sidelined in favour of repetition. [241] A major source of inspiration were his readings of Persian literature, especially for his nocturnes, [242] which have been described by Sorabji and others as evoking tropical heat, a hothouse or a rainforest. [243]

Religious and occult references appear in Sorabji's music, too, and they come from various sources. [244] His Fifth Piano Sonata (Opus archimagicum) is inspired by the tarot and the song Benedizione di San Francesco d'Assisi sets the text of a Catholic benediction, [245] while the Variazioni e fuga triplice sopra "Dies irae" per pianoforte end with sections named after the seven deadly sins. [246] However, Sorabji rarely intended his works to be programmatic, and although some of them have been described as such, [200] he repeatedly heaped scorn on attempts to represent stories or ideologies in music. [247] [248] [n 12]

Part of Sorabji's formal planning was allotting a fixed number to sections or components of his works, which reflects his interest in number symbolism. [170] This can be seen in the length of his manuscripts, how many variations a piece contains or the number of bars in a work. [250] Recent scholarly writings on Sorabji's music have also suggested an interest in the golden section as a means of formal division. [251] [252] Squares (e.g. 64, 81 and 100) and cubes (e.g. 27) are common, as are repdigits and other numbers with special symbolism. [253] Page numbers may be used twice or absent, in order to achieve the desired result; [170] a notable example is Piano Sonata No. 5 (Opus archimagicum), the last page of which is numbered 343a, although the score has 336 pages. [160] This kind of tweaking is also seen in the numbering of variations. [254]

Sorabji, who claimed to be of Spanish-Sicilian ancestry, composed pieces that reflect an enthusiasm for southern 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! in modo napolitano", 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. [255] [256]

Harmony, counterpoint and form

Sorabji's counterpoint stems from Busoni's and Reger's. [257] [258] The influence of these composers led Sorabji to employ baroque contrapuntal forms (chorale prelude, passacaglia, fugue and others), but he rejected the symmetry and architectural approaches that characterise the music of composers such as Mozart and Brahms. [259] Sorabji was dismissive of the Classical style, mainly because he saw it as restricting the musical material to conform to a "ready-made mould", [260] and his musical thinking is closer to that of the Baroque era than to the Classical. [261] The use of baroque, theme-oriented forms is often contrasted with the more rhapsodic, improvisatory writing of his fantasias and nocturnes, [262] which, owing to their non-thematic nature, have been called "static". [198] Abrahams describes Sorabji's approach as built on "self-organising" (baroque) and athematic forms whose ebb and flow is not dictated by themes, and can thus be expanded as needed. [198] While Sorabji wrote pieces of standard or even minute dimensions, [6] [263] his largest works are of exceptional length and difficulty, and thus inaccessible to most performers. [264] These include his Piano Sonata No. 5 (Opus archimagicum), Sequentia cyclica and the Symphonic Variations for Piano, which last about six, eight and nine hours respectively. [265] [266] [267] Roberge estimates that Sorabji's extant musical output, which he describes as "[perhaps] the most extensive of any twentieth-century composer", [268] may occupy up to 160 hours in performance. [269]

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. [270] [271] It makes ample use of triadic harmonies and bitonal combinations, and it does not seek to avoid tonal references. [272] Sorabji also displays a fondness for tritone and semitone relationships. [273] 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. [274] In spite of using harmonies traditionally considered harsh, it has been remarked that his writing rarely contains the tension that is associated with very dissonant music. [275] Sorabji achieves this in part by using widely spaced chords rooted in triadic harmonies and pedal points in the low registers, which act as sound cushions and soften dissonances in the upper voices. [272] [276]

Creative process and notation

Because of Sorabji's sense of privacy, little is known about his compositional process. Early accounts claim that he composed off the cuff and did not revise his work, and it has been said that he used yoga to gather "creative energies". These claims are generally regarded as dubious and contradict statements made by Sorabji himself (as well as some of his musical manuscripts). In the 1950s, Sorabji stated that he would conceive the general outline of a work in advance and long before the thematic material. [277] A few sketches survive, and crossed-out passages are found mostly in his early works. [278] Yoga helped Sorabji regulate his thoughts and achieve self-discipline. [279] He found composition highly enervating, often completing works with headaches and experiencing sleepless nights afterwards. [280]

The unusual features of Sorabji's musical language and the "ban" resulted in idiosyncrasies and irregularities in his notation: a shortage of interpretative directions; with the exception of chamber and orchestral works, time signatures appear only in his early pieces; and bar-lines are not used systematically. [281] He wrote extremely fast, and there is a high number of ambiguities and inconsistencies in his musical autographs. [282] [283] They are among the most distinctive features of his scores, and have prompted comparisons with his other characteristics. [284] Hinton suggested a link between them and Sorabji's speech, [285] saying, "he invariably spoke at a speed almost too great for intelligibility", [7] and Stevenson remarked, "One sentence could embrace two or three languages." [285] Sorabji's handwriting, particularly after he began to suffer from rheumatism, can be difficult to decipher. [286] After complaining about misprints in an open letter he had submitted, the editor of the journal responded, "If Mr. Sorabji will in future send his letters in typescript instead of barely decipherable handwriting, we will promise a freedom from misprints". [287] [288] In later life, his typewriting also became problematic and error-ridden. [289]

Pianism and keyboard music

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. [290] In the 1920s and 1930s, when his works were being published for the first time and he was performing them in public, their alleged unplayability and his piano technique generated considerable controversy. At the same time, his closest friends and a few other people hailed him as a first-class virtuoso. Most writers take the view that he was neither sloppy nor a player of the highest calibre; Roberge, for instance, describes his performances as "very problematic". [86] He was a reluctant performer and had difficulty handling the pressure of playing in public. [291] On various occasions, he stated that he was not a pianist, [7] and he always prioritised composition; from 1939, he no longer practised the piano very often. [292] Early reviews noted Sorabji's tendency to rush the music and his lack of patience with quiet passages, [293] and the private recordings that he made in the 1960s contain substantial deviations from his scores, partly due to his impatience and disinterest in playing clearly and accurately. [294] [295] Writers have thus argued that early reactions to his music were significantly coloured by flaws in his performances. [196] [296]

As a composer

Page 124 of the manuscript of Sorabji's Third Organ Symphony, with the writing spread on 11 staves Sorabji, Organ Symphony No. 3 manuscript, page 124.jpg
Page 124 of the manuscript of Sorabji's Third Organ Symphony, with the writing spread on 11 staves

Many of Sorabji's works are written for the piano or have an important piano part. [297] His writing for the instrument was influenced by that of composers such as Liszt, Alkan and Godowsky, and he has been called a composer-pianist in their tradition, [270] [298] partly because he was one of the 20th century's most prolific piano composers. [299] It exhibits particularly the influence of Godowsky, specifically in its polyphony and its use of polyrhythms and polydynamics. [237] This necessitated the regular use of systems of three and more staves in Sorabji's keyboard parts, reaching its peak on page 124 of the manuscript of his Third Organ Symphony, which uses 11 staves, as well as frequent calls for use of the sostenuto pedal. [300] [301] In some works, Sorabji writes for the extra keys available on the Imperial Bösendorfer. While its extended keyboard includes only additional low notes, at times, he called for extra notes at its upper end. [302]

Sorabji's piano writing has been praised by some for its variety and understanding of the piano's sonorities. [193] [303] [304] [n 13] His approach to the piano was non-percussive, [306] 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. [307] Sorabji once said, "If a composer can't sing, a composer can't compose." [308]

His piano music—not just that which is designated as symphonic—often strives to emulate the sounds of instruments other than the piano, as seen in score markings such as "quasi organo pieno" (like a full organ), "pizzicato" and "quasi tuba con sordino" (like a tuba with mute). [309] In this respect, Alkan was a key source of inspiration; Sorabji was influenced by his Symphony for Solo Piano and the Concerto pour piano seul, and he admired his "orchestral" writing for the instrument. [188] [310]

Organ music

Besides the piano, the other keyboard instrument to occupy a prominent position in Sorabji's output is the organ, which he apparently studied in his youth. [311] Sorabji's vastest orchestral works have organ parts, [203] yet his most significant contribution to the instrument's repertoire are his three organ symphonies (1924; 1929–32; 1949–53), all large-scale tripartite works consisting of multiple subsections and lasting up to nine hours. [312] Organ Symphony No. 1 was regarded by Sorabji as his first mature work [182] and he numbered the Third Organ Symphony among his finest achievements. [313] He considered even the best orchestras of the day inferior to the modern organ, [66] praising the "tonal splendour, grandeur and magnificence" of the instruments in Liverpool Cathedral and the Royal Albert Hall, [214] [n 14] and he wrote highly of organists, describing them as more cultured and possessing sounder musical judgement than most musicians. [314]

Creative transcription

Transcription was a creative endeavour for Sorabji, as it had been for many of the composer-pianists who inspired him. Busoni wrote that composition is the transcription of an abstract idea, as is performance. [315] This view was echoed by Sorabji, [316] for whom transcription was a means for older material to undergo transformation and give birth to an entirely new work (which he did in his pastiches, among them two reworkings of Chopin's "Minute Waltz"), and he saw the practice as a way to enrich and bring to the fore the ideas concealed in a piece. [317] Most of his transcriptions date from the 1940s and include an adaptation of Bach's Chromatic Fantasia, in the preface to which he denounced those who perform Bach on the piano without "any substitution in pianistic terms". [318] Accordingly, Sorabji dismissed performers like Albert Schweitzer, whom he deemed rigid and inflexible, and praised Egon Petri, Wanda Landowska and others for their ability to "re-create" music. (He also encouraged a less-than-literal approach to his compositions.) [319]


As a writer, Sorabji is best known for his music criticism. He contributed to publications dealing with music in England, including The New Age , The New English Weekly , The Musical Times and Musical Opinion. [320] His writings also cover non-musical issues: he was, among other things, a critic of British rule in India and a proponent of birth control and legalised abortion. [321] Being homosexual at a time when homosexual acts were illegal in England (and remained so until 1967), he wrote of the biological and social realities that homosexuals faced for much of his lifetime. [125] [322] He first published an article on the subject in 1921, in response to a legislative change that would penalise "gross indecency" between women. The text referenced research by Ellis showing that homosexuality was inborn, rather than a perversion, and could not be cured by imprisonment. It further called for the law to catch up with the latest research and medical findings, and advocated for decriminalising homosexual behaviour. In 1954, Sorabji denounced English laws against same-sex acts and the futility of the punishments they reserved for homosexuals, and in 1958, he joined the Homosexual Law Reform Society. [323]

Books and music criticism

Charles-Valentin Alkan, whose music Sorabji championed throughout his life Charles-Valentin Alkan.png
Charles-Valentin Alkan, whose music Sorabji championed throughout his life

Sorabji first expressed interest in becoming a music critic in 1914, and he started contributing criticism to The New Age in 1924, after it had published some of his letters to the editor. By 1930, Sorabji had become disillusioned with concert life and developed a growing interest in gramophone recordings, believing that he would eventually lose all reason to attend concerts. In 1945 he stopped providing regular reviews and only occasionally submitted his writings to correspondence columns in journals. [324] While his earlier writings reflect a contempt for the music world in general—from its businessmen to its performers [325] —his later reviews tend to be more detailed and less caustic. [326]

Although in his youth Sorabji was attracted to what were then the newest developments in European art music, his musical tastes were essentially conservative. [327] He had a particular affinity for late Romantic and Impressionist composers, such as Debussy, Medtner and Szymanowski, [328] and he admired composers of large-scale, contrapuntally elaborate works, including Bach, Mahler, Bruckner and Reger. He also had much respect for composer-pianists like Liszt, Alkan and Busoni. [329] Sorabji's main bêtes noires were Stravinsky, the late Schoenberg, Hindemith and, in general, composers who emphasised percussive rhythm. [330] He rejected serialism and twelve-tone composition, considering both to be based on artificial precepts, [331] and he denounced the treatment of the voice and use of Sprechgesang in Schoenberg's music, [332] while criticising even his later tonal works and transcriptions. [333] He loathed the rhythmic character of Stravinsky's music and what he perceived as its brutality and lack of melodic qualities. [334] He viewed Stravinsky's neoclassicism as a sign of lack of imagination. Shostakovich and Fauré are among the composers whom Sorabji initially condemned but later admired. [335]

The bulk of Sorabji's music criticism is contained in the books Around Music (1932; reissued 1979) and Mi contra fa: The Immoralisings of a Machiavellian Musician (1947; reissued 1986), which include revised versions of some of his articles. [320] [336] Both received mostly positive reviews, though Sorabji considered the latter book much better. Readers commended his courage, expertise and intellectual incisiveness, but some felt that his verbose style and use of invectives and vitriol detracted from the solid foundation underlying the writings. [337] This echoes general criticisms of his prose, which has been called turgid and in which intelligibility is compromised by very long sentences and missing commas. [338]

Roberge writes that Sorabji "could sing the praises of some modern British personalities without end, especially when he knew them, or he could tear their music to pieces with very harsh and thoughtless comments that would nowadays lay him open to ridicule"; [339] he adds that "his biting comments also often brought him to the edge of libel". [339] Sorabji championed a number of composers and his advocacy helped many of them move closer to the mainstream, at a time when they were little known or understood. [340] In some cases, he was recognised for promoting their music: he became one of the (honorary) vice-presidents of the Alkan Society in 1979, and in 1982, the Polish government awarded him a medal for championing Szymanowski's work. [341]



Sorabji's music and personality have inspired both effusive praise and outright condemnation, which has often been attributed to the length of some of his works. [342] [343] During his life, various individuals, particularly his close friends, spoke of him in the highest terms: Hugh MacDiarmid ranked Sorabji, Denis Saurat and Francis George Scott among the greatest minds Great Britain had produced in his lifetime, placing them only below T. S. Eliot, [344] and composer and conductor Mervyn Vicars put Sorabji next to Richard Wagner, who he believed "had one of the finest brains since Da Vinci". [345] A number of contemporary reviews of his music voiced concerns and scepticism regarding its intelligibility, the technical demands he was making of performers, and undue length. [346] Several major books on music history, including Richard Taruskin's Oxford History of Western Music and Nicholas Cook's Cambridge History of Twentieth-Century Music, do not mention Sorabji, and he has never received official recognition from his country of birth. [347] A 1994 review of Le jardin parfumé (1923) suggested that "the unsympathetic might say that besides not belonging in our time it equally belongs in no other place", [348] and one critic, writing in 1937, felt that "one could listen to many more performances without really understanding the unique complexity of Sorabji's mind and music". [349]

In more recent times, this divided reception has persisted to an extent. While some, such as pianist John Ogdon and organist Kevin Bowyer, speak of Sorabji as comparable to such composers as Bach, Beethoven, Chopin and Messiaen, [196] [350] [351] [352] others dismiss him altogether. [342] [343] [353] [354] Pianist and composer Jonathan Powell writes of Sorabji's "unusual ability to combine the disparate and create surprising coherence". [355] Abrahams finds that Sorabji's musical oeuvre exhibits enormous "variety and imagination" [175] and calls him "one of the few composers of the time to be able to develop a unique personal style and employ it freely at any scale he chose". [198] Bowyer counts Sorabji's organ works, together with those of Messiaen, as among the "Twentieth-Century Works of Genius". [356] Others have expressed more negative sentiments. Music critic Andrew Clements calls Sorabji "just another 20th-century English eccentric ... whose talent never matched [his] musical ambition". [357] Pianist John Bell Young described Sorabji's music as "glib repertoire" for "glib" performers. [358] Musicologist and critic Max Harrison, in his review of Rapoport's book Sorabji: A Critical Celebration, wrote unfavourably about Sorabji's compositions, piano playing, writings and personal conduct and implied that "nobody cared except a few close friends". [359]

Sorabji's isolation, and sometimes the resulting lack of interaction with the music world, have been criticised even by his admirers. [359] [360] [361] His writings have also been highly divisive, being viewed by some as profoundly perceptive and enlightening, and by others as misguided. [362]


Sorabji has been described as a conservative composer who developed an idiosyncratic style fusing diverse influences. [363] [364] [365] Early in his life, however, he was drawn to musical modernism and critics found his works bewildering, [366] with a 1922 review stating, "compared to Mr. Sorabji, Arnold Schönberg must be a tame reactionary". [367] More than 20 years later, composer Louis Saguer, speaking at Darmstadt in 1949, mentioned Sorabji as a member of the musical avant-garde that few will have the means to understand. [368]

Various parallels have been identified between Sorabji and more progressive composers. Ullén suggests that Sorabji's 100 Transcendental Studies (1940–44) can be seen as "presages of the piano music of, say, Ligeti, Finnissy or Ferneyhough", although he cautions against overstating this. [363] Roberge likens the opening of Sorabji's Chaleur—Poème (1916–17) to Ligeti's Atmosphères of 1961, writing that it bears resemblance to the latter composer's micropolyphony, [369] and Powell has noted the use of metric modulation in Sequentia cyclica (1948–49), which was composed around the same time as (and independently from) Elliott Carter's 1948 Cello Sonata, the first work in which Carter made use of this technique. [370] The mixing of chords with different root notes and the use of nested tuplets, both present already in Sorabji's earliest works, have been described as anticipating Messiaen's music and Stockhausen's Klavierstücke (1952–2004) by several decades. [371] Sorabji's fusion of tonality and atonality into a new approach to relationships between harmonies, too, has been called a significant innovation. [372]

Notes and references


  1. This name has also been spelled Shapurjee Sorabjee. [2]
  2. The recital featuring the Fourth Sonata was not sponsored by Chisholm's Society, but was rather part of a concert series titled "Recitals of National Music". [8]
  3. 1 2 UK Retail Price Index inflation figures are based on data from Clark, Gregory (2017). "The Annual RPI and Average Earnings for Britain, 1209 to Present (New Series)". MeasuringWorth. Retrieved 2 February 2020.
  4. Sorabji's 1963 will dictated that his manuscripts should go to Gentieu's Society or, should that prove impossible, to the Library of Congress. [66] In his will of May 1969, he changed this to Holliday. [67]
  5. The full title of the piece is Villa Tasca: Mezzogiorno siciliano—Evocazione nostalgica e memoria tanta cara e preziosa del giardino meraviglioso, splendido, tropicale. [74]
  6. Sorabji experimented with various forms of his name, settling for "Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji" only in 1934. [163] In a 1975 letter, he offered the following information on its pronunciation: "KYKHOSRU with accent of FIRST syllable; Y long, as in EYE. Shapurji: SHAPOORji with accent on FIRST. Sorabji should really also have accent on FIRST syllable but English-speaking persons seem to have an innate tendency to lean upon the SECOND, so I've usually left it at that, but it SHOULD be on the FIRST. The vowels all with CONTINENTAL or, say, ITALIAN values." [164]
  7. Particularly in the earlier fugues, this includes not only the subject, but occasionally also the countersubjects. [207]
  8. Sorabji's fugues can contain up to six themes. [208]
  9. The number of voices is sometimes changed with the introduction of a new subject. [210]
  10. Although written in the third person, this is how Sorabji himself expressed it.
  11. Sorabji repeatedly changed his mind about Scriabin's music. [231] For instance, in 1934, he stated that it lacks any kind of motivic coherence, [234] but later he came to admire and be inspired by it again. [235] [236]
  12. The only piece for which Sorabji wrote a programmatic preface is Chaleur—Poème (1916–17), one of his earliest works. [249]
  13. Sorabji's orchestration, in turn, has been sharply criticised. [211] [291] [305]
  14. This comment was added to the score of Organ Symphony No. 3 in the 1950s, when it was being microfilmed. [214]

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