And who exactly is Sorabji?

By Alistair Hinton

And who exactly is Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji? The question may well have been asked in polite musical circles (whatever they are) some 30 years ago. In those days, this remarkable 20th-century composer had no commercial recordings to his name, almost no public performances or score publications for almost 40 years (and even those few printed works that did exist were hard to obtain and soon to go out of print), and Sorabji had put a seemingly unbridgeable distance between himself and the milieu of his profession.

The fact that during this long period of near-silence his name never quite evaporated from the consciousness of musicians may in part be due to the stuff of myth and legend in which certain people with nothing better to do chose to clothe the unwitting Sorabji. Some of this he occasionally rebutted, some of it he quite enjoyed, and for all of it he really cared not a fig. For the record, these largely absurd fantasies may be summarized thus: Sorabji was a thoroughly eccentric composer of mixed race who lived under an assumed name, wrote music all of which was very long, complex and unperformable, disregarded the opinions of everyone, loathed all musicians, forbade all public performances of his music forever and threatened legal action against anyone infringing on his wishes, was misanthropic, misogynistic, curmudgeonly, extremely wealthy and lived in a castle he owned in Scotland. Most of this may sound pretty repellent, so it is well worth bearing in mind that it comprises some 5% misunderstanding and 95% terminological inexactitude.

Given that many of these myths originated in England, the eccentricity visited upon Sorabji might seem odd to some who assume it to be a characteristic which the English might have appreciated rather than deprecated. How did it arise? Sorabji was raised in the backward-looking, complacent artistic climate of Edwardian England when no recordings existed and performances of the latest central European music were rare even in London where he lived. The years leading to World War I were exciting times in history in general and in music history in particular. The young Sorabji, undeterred by the blinkered attitudes around him, absorbed new music voraciously by acquiring scores and reading through them at the piano, thus acquainting himself with Debussy, Ravel, Rachmaninov, Scriabin, Medtner, Busoni, Strauss, Mahler, even Schönberg. No wonder he also acquired a reputation as an outsider, for it was one thing to be a multiracial foreigner in alt-Empire England but quite another to be a young firebrand lauding the extremes of modern non-English music to everyone around him regardless of whether they would listen to him or the music. Undeterred, his efforts to convince others of the importance of this repertoire included trying to persuade conductors to mount performances. For example, he seems to have been the first to introduce Henry Wood to Schönberg’s Five Orchestral Pieces, which Wood went on to première in England.

It is indeed true that Sorabji, aware that his music did make extreme demands on would-be performers, wished to exercise some control over who might perform it before whom, yet the performance difficulties inherent in much of the work were in themselves sufficient to ensure that most performers steered clear of it for many years. No composer wants to invite misrepresentation. The extent of Sorabji’s measures to discourage this in his own case are somewhat unusual. It is also true that he was a very private individual, but one whose principal motive for maintaining his privacy was to allow himself as much uninterrupted time as possible to continue to compose. That he did so for almost 70 years despite absence of public reception, approbation and criticism is ample evidence of his immense and unflagging creative courage, although he was not unique in this either, as a casual consideration of Alkan, Ives, Brian and, above all, Skalkottas will demonstrate.

It is true that, of just over 100 works which Sorabji composed, about a quarter are of unusually great duration; that means that almost 80 of them would fit comfortably into conventional-length concert programs. It is also true that Sorabji’s thoughts were sometimes texturally and rhythmically complex for their time and that his music, embracing great intellectual rigour, wild fantasy and transcendental virtuosity, requires considerable concentration and stamina from performers and listeners; Sorabji is hardly alone in these matters, either — consider the demands made, for example, by Alkan, Mahler, Busoni and Godowsky before him and Carter, Ferneyhough and Finnissy after him.