Thematic Metamorphosis and Perception in the Symphony [No. 1] for Organ of Kaikhosru Sorabji

By Dr. Justin Henry Rubin

Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji (1892–1988) recognized his Symphony [No. 1] for Organ, from 1924, to be the seminal work in the development of his mature style. (1) His sizeable keyboard works predating the Symphony have a tendency to be freely rhapsodic and lack thematic development. The narrative in these pieces is based on loosely connected motives compelling the listener to forage for recurring musical material, only to be confronted with a seemingly endless stream of new ideas. Although through-composed works are not unusual during the first quarter of the 20th-century, the early works of Sorabji are remarkable due to their long duration. (2) The question of providing unity to extended forms, while maintaining a quasiimprovisational style, is the key problem that Sorabji confronts in his first multi-movement work for solo keyboard, the Symphony for Organ.

At the time of its composition, and even today, the magnitude of the Organ Symphony is unparalleled in its scale within the literature for the instrument, and indeed unprecedented in Sorabji’s previous output; his only earlier composition containing organ relegated the instrument to a marginal role in an orchestral piece. (3) The fact that Sorabji had only a few organ lessons from his mother and sometime later from another unidentified organist may suggest the reason he chose the instrument as to implement a method of thematic metamorphosis not encountered before in the history of Western music: it is an objective laboratory, one in which a contrapuntal instrument akin to the piano remains at his disposal, with the tonal capacity of a large orchestra, yet one that remains somewhat distant from the kind of invested involvement that he committed to the piano.

Although Sorabji casts the first two movements of the symphony in the conventional forms of a passacaglia and fugue, these a priori factors alone do not establish the type of perceptive path towards unity that the composer is seeking, nor the variety that would sustain cohesiveness in a piece that has a performance time of no less than two hours. Even in these forms, which are ordinarily associated with a paring down of materials, Sorabji does not refrain from presenting an abundance of motivic ideas, or the unrelenting ornamental figuration which is part and parcel of his dense, intricate style, in this effort to gain congruity. What he does create is a new approach to the interdependence between contrasting materials through a process of perception that can only be accomplished through a broad expanse of time — in effect, a gradual comprehension. As the work progresses, themes become intertwined and critically altered as they are restated. Some material is not reintroduced into the musical texture for over an hour, and even then in completely different contexts. This allows Sorabji to distil from each of the themes a proto-melodic profile, and make use of them as memory triggers to activate the perception of the listener, while metamorphosing, or even obscuring, the original function and character of the material. This is intensified when themes are carried forward from one movement to the next, but in which only the fundamental contours of the melodies are retained. In these cases, Sorabji drastically transforms the material through modifications to their intervallic content as well as their scope.

Due to the increasing length of his major compositions beginning with the Organ Symphony, the audible properties that formerly separated motivic elements as they were originally perceived by the listener become, in effect, indistinct. The limitation of the ear’s ability to retain and recall individual musical components within the expansive narrative developed by Sorabji is in fact utilized by the composer as the melodic contours alone become the connective tissues for recognition. In so doing, the importance of the specific intervallic content of any single musical line diminishes to the point where it becomes utterly unidentifiable when compared to its original statement.

(1) Alistair Hinton, brochure notes for Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji: Organ Symphony #1, Continuum CCD 1001/2, 1995.

(2) Schönberg’s strictly through-composed Drei Klavierstücke Op. 11, No. 3 is under two and one-half minutes in length, while a comparable work of Sorabji, such as the Sonata [No. 1] for Piano (1919), is over thirty.

(3) The Symphony [No. 1] for Piano, Large Orchestra, Chorus, and Organ was composed between 1921 and 1922, followed by the Black Mass which was intended to include organ, although work on the composition was abandoned.