Sorabji’s Songs

By Alistair Hinton

Scant information has yet emerged about Sorabji’s mother (Madeleine Mathilde Sorabji, 1866–1959) and much that has been written and said about her appears to be less than reliable. She has been described as a soprano of Spanish-Sicilian descent (although doubt has been cast on her origins) who apparently abandoned a singing career for family reasons. Sorabji’s unpublished essay Concert Going Memories, devoted mainly to singers and their art, mentions her having sung the rôle of Marguerite in a French production of Berlioz’s Damnation de Faust at a time when he was too young to recall specific details although, again, this has not been verified.

Sorabji also recalls a later occasion when “confined to the house with a sore throat(,) (she) insisted that I go across to what was then the Bechstein Hall (later the Wigmore) … to hear my first Lieder recital, from that greatest of English singers the incomparable Louise Kirkby Lunn”; a fulsome and revealing page or so follows in which he recalls “the seat that was to be my favourite for fifty years or so, the back row balcony gangway”, the “utterly unique beauty of (her) voice … like purple velvet … the incomparable technique and sheer singing mastery, the transcendent distinction and beauty of her performance (which) is as vivid in my memory as it was then” (at least half a century later) and that “no one has ever … sung the Sapphische Ode of Brahms as she did” (and this from a composer who was never a great fan of Brahms!).

Sorabji said that his mother also played the piano and the organ and gave him his first piano lessons when he was aged about 6. There can be little doubt that she also instilled in her only child a love of fine singing which was to remain with him for the rest of his long life. This is reflected in many of his reviews and in essays such as The Voice in Contemporary Composition, The Singing and Playing of Bach, Animadversions on Singing in General, with Remarks on the Misuse of the term ‘Coloratura’, Opera in the Vernacular, The Operatic Situation, A Note on Ernest Chausson, Blanche Marchesi and The Songs of Francis George Scott.

Sorabji was the very opposite of a child prodigy in the conventional sense and, whilst it seems likely that he recognised early on that his future lay in some kind of career in music, the precise directions that this would take remained unclear to him until he reached his early twenties. As a boy, he absorbed large amounts of the baroque, classical and romantic repertoire but his obsessively enquiring mind also led him at a remarkably early stage to learn a great deal about the newest trends in music. Assimilating substantial quantities of contemporary European music was no mean feat in the inward looking and unadventurous environment of Edwardian England, a pre-gramophone age where such work was performed either very rarely or not at all. Already considered an outsider in racial terms (his father was a Parsi from Bombay), Sorabji must consequently have cut a particularly odd figure in those days, investigating with irrepressible vigour and excitement the most recent creations of composers such as Debussy, Rakhmaninov, Mahler, Ravel, Bartok, Strauss, Medtner, and Schönberg, conveying with almost unremitting enthusiasm to all and sundry the results of his many and varied discoveries and making sterling efforts to persuade various powers-that-were of the urgent need for such music to be heard by English audiences. There was even a story that, when barely 14, the intrepid Sorabji made a solo pilgrimage to Essen to hear the world première of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony conducted by the composer; when I questioned him on this in the 1970s, he broke into a broad grin, obviously enjoyed the tantalising effect of his deliberate refusal to confirm or deny this rumour and gave away nothing beyond the remark “Good story, isn’t it!”.

A gifted pianist but pathologically reluctant performer, Sorabji was unsure quite what to do with this new found knowledge; for a time he contemplated a career as a critic and indeed managed to pursue one parallel to his life as a composer until his mid-fifties, contributing regular articles and reviews to The New Age and The New English Weekly from 1924–45 and publishing two books of essays in 1932 and 1947 respectively. Around 1915, while planning a book on Ravel, he seemed almost to stumble accidentally on the idea of composing his own music, a fact all the more remarkable when one considers the sheer prolixity of his output over the following seven decades. As a composer, then, Sorabji was a very late starter; although his first music was composed when he was about the same age as Beethoven when he published his Op.1 piano trios, whereas Beethoven had already completed many works before his first publication, it seems that Sorabji wrote nothing at all before reaching the age of 22.