Dr. Justin Henry Rubin: Thematic Metamorphosis and Perception in the Symphony [No. 1] for Organ of Kaikhosru Sorabji (2/7)

The third movement of the Symphony is structured as a fantasia, culminating in a stretto (which here has a meaning distinctly different than its fugal connotations — Sorabji uses the term to indicate any juxtaposition of many different elements). The arrangement of placing rigorous structures, such as the first two movements, adjacent to free forms, such as the third movement, would become a prime format that Sorabji would use for the remainder of his compositional career. This composition, therefore, justifiably stands at the crux of his development for many reasons. The ambiguous polytonal vocabulary that he had already established in his previous output, but which lacked organic unity in regards to its relationship with formal designs, finds a functional context within the framework of this newly forged style wherein the musical materials evolve rather than develop. Although Sorabji is thorough in his treatment of this method within the Organ Symphony, it would only come to fruition and exposure to the public in later, more expansive works, such as the Opus Clavicembalisticum (1929–30) (4). In this cyclical piano composition, which has a duration that exceeds the Organ Symphony by over two and a half hours, Sorabji contributes a valuable addendum: a brief analysis of the work with a catalogue of the numerous themes and their prolific metamorphoses found throughout the twelve constituent movements. This provides insight as to the manner in which he extrapolated the motive-developing concepts drawn from his experience with the Organ Symphony, and a glimpse into a possible method for preparing themes from a pre-compositional perspective.

In order to understand Sorabji’s motivation for taking the most basic elements within the Western musical canon and reorganizing their inherent principles, one must look to the Parsi side of his heritage. Indian poets, such as Jami, who were writing during what is the equivalent of the Medieval era in the West, were among his inspirations during the formative years leading to his mature stylistic approach (5). Although disavowing any connection to the classical Indian music tradition, Sorabji speaks of his overall artistic approach derived from the craftsmanship of India abounding in Epicurean ornamentation and visceral complexity. (6)

Specific works can be examined in assessing the technical contributions that Sorabji assimilated from other composers he held in high regard. The Grand Sonate of Charles-Valentin Alkan (1813–88), a composition Sorabji adorned with the highest praises, presents a variety of themes that are transformed throughout its four movements in a fashion not dissimilar from that of his own. Particular thematic fragments are buried within the texture as ornaments as well as being incorporated into subsidiary themes. The Romantic notion of a single musical gesture being transformed to illuminate a multitude of emotional states is indeed an ideal embraced by Sorabji. However, when applying rigorous musical forms, he turns to other composers as models. Fugal sections in Karol Szymanowski’s (1882–1937) Second and Third Sonatas are described by Sorabji as having subjects and free counterpoint so interwoven that they were as “water flowing.” (7)
It is not surprising, then, when we read that Sorabji himself wished to compose music resembling “natural phenomena … like running water or wind in trees.” (8) As well, Sorabji venerates the Introduction, Passacaglia, and Fugue of Max Reger (1873–1916) above all his other organ works, as embodying a “volcanic nature,” (9) a trait he subsequently reserved for descriptions of the climaxes of his own works. Indeed, Reger exhibits many of Sorabji’s musical qualities, including hyper-extended tonalities, exuberant embellishment (albeit without the copious strata of polyrhythms), and opaque textures wherein the volume of activity can sometimes overwhelm individual details and becomes the expressive means in and of itself. The expanding duration of Reger’s most penetrating organ works appears to be a model for Sorabji in more than one way. However, Reger clearly maintains a distinction between main material and passing figuration while Sorabji’s process revolves around the dissolution of such differentiation.

The listener’s ability to assimilate the sheer quantity of material found in the Organ Symphony is a study of cognizance itself. This may also be true for the composer, who, over the extended period of time during the composition of the work, may have sublimated the gestural and intervallic content of its themes into the musical discourse. The approach to the handling of the materials is derived from Sorabji’s will “to create … inherently cohesive [music] without traditional motivic and formal procedures” (10) which transforms the sonic fabric into a subconscious echoing (11) of suggestive melodic configurations. Psychologically, the listener begins to ‘hear into’ the piece, to the point of even imagining the integration and development of main material when it may not in fact be present at all. Sorabji apparently takes the bold step to allow the listener to create unifying structures outside what is supplied by the music through the introduction into the narrative of a transformational grammar that requires active participation. (12) This type of indirect dialogue, through the conduit of a singular musical vocabulary and an equally unique technique, between composer and audience is in essence Sorabji’s goal, and only through the passage of time — Sorabji’s protracted temporal structures — can the listener become fluent enough to become conversant.

(4) The Organ Symphony would not receive a complete performance until shortly before the composer’s death, while Opus Clavicembalisticum was performed by Sorabji himself shortly after the completion of the work.

(5) Michael Haberman, brochure notes for Sorabji: The Legendary Works for Piano, Élan CD 82264, 1995.

(6) Alistair Hinton, brochure notes for Opus Clavicembalisticum, Altarus AIR-CD-9075 (1-4), 1988.

(7) Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji, Around Music (London: The Unicorn Press, 1932), 63.

(8) Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji, Mi Contra Fa: The Immoralisings of a Machiavellian Musician (London: The Unicorn Press, 1947; New York: Da Capo Press, 1986, reprint), 23.

(9) Sorabji, Around Music, 88.

(10) Michael Habermann, “Piano Music of Kaikhosru Sorabji,” Piano Quarterly 122 (1983): 36.

(11) Hinton, Organ Symphony #1, brochure notes.

(12) This explains Sorabji’s restriction that his music only be performed for the most sophisticated listeners.