Simon J. Abrahams: Sorabji’s Orchard: The Path to Opus Clavicembalisticum and Beyond (2/3)

The fact that Opus clavicembalisticum is something of an anomaly within Sorabji’s output may come as a surprise, bearing in mind that it is perhaps the best known of the composer’s œuvre. However, this relative familiarity (or notoriety) has remained the case for so many years simply because it was the only example of the large-scale solo piano works that had been published and was thus accessible to the public. So this somewhat error-ridden score, along with the recordings and intermittent performances by Geoffrey Douglas Madge and John Ogdon, has provided the only real opportunity, until very recently, for the public to assess the composer’s compositional language in a large-scale context.

The most immediately obvious difference between Opus clavicembalisticum and the major solo piano works that were to follow is overall design. In the “shortform-analysis” that he wrote for the work the composer states: “Like the FANTASIA CONTRAPPUNTISTICA, the Opus Clavicembalisticum is primarily a Fugue-Sequence”, a point that he re-iterated in an essay written in 1953, in which he described it as “a series of fugues, variations, and Interludes”.

This extensive use of fugue is one area where the Opus is unique. The fugal form itself does have an extremely important role to play in his other works — it is to be found in all of his largest works, with the exception of the Second Piano Quintet and the Symphonic Nocturne (1977–78) — but Opus clavicembalisticum is the only piece with four entirely separate fugues, carefully positioned throughout, rather than just at the end, as though by an architect. Here, then, the fugues serve a special purpose: apart from supporting the structure, they create a cumulative effect that is generated by the increasing length and complexity that is the result of increasing the number of subjects employed in each subsequent example. On the other hand, this would appear to be the first time that this kind of long-range structural device is employed by Sorabji as a means of increasing tension over a large-scale: he adapts this technique (albeit within a single fugue) in some later works. For example, the massive five-part fugue that concludes Sequentia cyclica super “Dies Iræ” (1948–49) begins with only two voices, but adds another voice with the appearance of each new subject until six true voices are in play.

The treatment of the variation sets in Opus clavicembalisticum is similarly idiosyncratic. Like the fugue, they are common in the larger pieces — and, indeed, often appear as complete works in their own right — but the symmetrical positioning here of a theme-and-variations and a passacaglia of approximately the same scale within the same work is unique. The closest Sorabji comes to replicating this design is in Toccata No. 4 (1964–67), but in this case the theme and variations opens the work, while the passacaglia is positioned at the centre; moreover, the passacaglia is several times larger than the other set. Those used in Piano Symphony No. 4 (1962–64) are similarly varied in scale, with the theme and 49 variations dominating this time. They are also all confined to the second part of the work, creating a large-scale design in which a single three-phrase theme fertilises three different types of variation set. More curiously, some of Sorabji’s autonomous variation sets devote a single variation to a complete passacaglia; for example, the Symphonic Variations and Sequentia cyclica. Although these “inner” sets are often themselves quite sizable (that of Sequentia cyclica is comparable in scale to the passacaglia of the Opus!) they again differ from Opus clavicembalisticum by accounting for only a small proportion of the complete composition.