Sorabji’s Piano Concertos

By Alistair Hinton

As their dates suggest, the piano concertos are largely the works of Sorabji’s apprenticeship — and in most cases it shows. Sorabji’s entry into the world of composition seems somewhat bizarre, given his deep and long-term commitment to it and given that he had so much to communicate. Not only do the earliest extant works from his pen date from 1915 when he was already in his 23rd year, it seems that he almost stumbled by accident on the idea of composing, when the private tutor with whom he had been studying species counterpoint challenged him to put all that on one side and write something entirely his own.

Having dipped his toe in the water with a few songs for voice and piano, Sorabji then embarked on his first piano concerto, a three-movement work which he completed in 1916. I suspect that more than a little encouragement to his creative work was provided at that time by his friend and colleague Philip Heseltine, to whom he dedicated this concerto; Sorabji also gave Heseltine its full score manuscript, which he bequeathed to another mutual friend Bernard van Dieren, who in turn left it to his son Bernard who gave it to a friend who sold it some years ago to the British Library where it now resides in peace. It is very much a “first attempt” and, although it displays some sense of colour and leanings towards exoticism, it offers little of melodic interest and the harmonic language, which seems superficially to owe more to Cyril Scott than anyone else, is unrefined and undistinguished.

By the time he began composing, Sorabji had already distinguished (some of his baffled contemporaries might have said vilified) himself by going to as much trouble as it took to familiarise himself with much of the most important new European music from the early years of our century, so he knew well his Mahler, Busoni, Strauss, Debussy, Skryabin, Delius, Ravel, Medtner, Rakhmaninov and even Schönberg, whose Five Orchestral Pieces he begged Henry Wood to programme in England. In view of this copious knowledge, it might seem odd that he did not feel inclined to begin to compose his own works; his only other documented musical work before this was a piano transcription of Delius’s In a Summer Garden which he appears to have begun in 1914 and may or may not have completed, but whose ms., if it exists, has not come to light. It is also somewhat strange that so little of the contemporary music he knew at the time of writing his first piano concerto actually found its way into that work. Once he had got going in earnest, there was no stopping him, however. His second piano concerto was composed in 1917 and, like its predecessor and all the others, except the fifth, is cast in three movements.

There seem to be some unexplained though self-evident links in the form of common ground in some of the material in the 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 6th concertos, almost as though one concerto somehow “spawned” the next, much as George Lloyd has said was the case with his four piano concertos. (To digress briefly from the subject at hand, the respective domiciles of Sorabji and Lloyd may be taken as a matter of some curiosity; they never met or corresponded with one another, as far as I know — indeed, there is not one reference to Lloyd in Sorabji’s published writings — but Lloyd spent a good many years after the last World War living in Dorset where Sorabji made his home for his last 35 years, whereupon he (Lloyd) moved to London to live in the same apartment block near Regent’s Park where Sorabji had lived for the 35 years before he moved to Dorset: were they avoiding one another?).

It is not certain that the 2nd concerto even made it to full score stage; no such score has come to light and the only version in existence is a two piano reduction in Sorabji’s hand. Other than in his earliest years as a composer, Sorabji rarely sketched anything, preferring to work straight into final draft. In his pieces for piano and orchestra he usually wrote the solo part first and then spun an orchestral web around it; the piano soloist has very little opportunity to rest the fingers during these works, although they are by no means as difficult to play as most of his later piano music.

The first eight of Sorabji’s eleven works for piano and orchestra are called concertos and were completed by his mid-thirties; their durations are all such that they would fit into a standard concert programme and all but the eighth are scored for conventional symphony orchestra or more modest forces. The pity is that Sorabji’s orchestral technique was not always a match for his imagination. It used to be said of Sorabji’s idol Busoni that “the louder he played, the more wonderful the sound he produced” — (would that today’s pianists understood how to produce overwhelmingly massive sonorities at the keyboard without any sense of forceful violence — Sorabji used to bemoan the absence of such facility when he used to declaim that “to so many pianists now, fortissimi mean going through to the wood — force, not volume”; Ogdon understood this — Yonty Solomon and Ronald Stevenson likewise — and a handful of others — whose attitude toward the sheer immensity of the expressive capability of the piano manifests itself in part in a vastness of dynamic range without which there would be no hope of communicating the splendours of Sorabji’s pianism).