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

After Opus clavicembalisticum Sorabji’s interest in large-scale design manifested itself almost exclusively in the symphony, the autonomous variation set, and (to a lesser degree) the toccata. Of these, the toccatas have most in common with Opus clavicembalisticum, being similarly episodic in form. However, neither the Second Toccata (1933–34), nor the Fourth — the manuscript of the Third being currently missing, possibly destroyed — displays the clarity of organisation and carefully balanced structure to be found in the Opus.

It is this underlying lucidity, which tends to be overlooked due to the plethora of notes on the page, the daunting scale of the work, and its equally forbidding reputation, that renders it — somewhat surprisingly — one of the most approachable and easiest to grasp of the large-scale compositions. This unlikely state of affairs becomes more believable when considered in comparison with the nature of the piano and organ symphonies — without doubt the most ambitious, of Sorabji’s compositions.

The “symphonic tapestry”, which has already been discussed in detail, is the most characteristic feature of these remarkable works. These epic constructions, described as “a kind of pure music drama” by Kevin Bowyer, can last 90 minutes or more, placing tremendous demands on the stamina and concentration of listener and performer alike. Coupled with the length of these individual movements, the thematic proliferation presents a fearsome obstacle to comprehension. Although many of the individual themes are extremely strongly characterised, the sheer number involved, as well as the frequent complexity of the harmony and rhythm that underpins them, makes them difficult to remember upon first hearing. It can therefore take a number of hearings — or read-throughs of the score — before the thematic material becomes more familiar and the overall design can start to be appreciated.

If anything, the opposite situation is true in the case of the autonomous variation sets, such as the Symphonic Variations and Sequentia cyclica, since the nature of the form renders them all but mono-thematic; moreover, Sorabji often follows the examples of Reger and Szymanowski in producing variations that maintain only the most tenuous of connections to the original theme, leading to an endlessly imaginative, yet occasionally disorientating, array of fantastic textures, rhythms, and harmonies. So, in their own way, the giant variation sets can seem just as overblown and intractable as the piano and organ symphonies. By comparison, Opus clavicembalisticum, with its episodic design and careful balance of fugal and variation form, is relatively straightforward.

However, while the Opus is one of the easier of the large-scale solo piano works from the point of view of comprehension and interpretation, it remains one of the more demanding from a technical standpoint, surpassed only by the likes of the Fifth Piano Sonata “Opus archimagicum” (1934–35) or Second Piano Symphony (1952–54) in its unrelenting physical demands.