Sorabji’s Orchard: The Path to Opus Clavicembalisticum and Beyond

By Simon J. Abrahams

Opus clavicembalisticum was written during a particularly fertile phase of a lengthy period of stylistic evolution that began with Organ Symphony No. 1 (1923–24) and led to the consolidation of what may be regarded as the composer’s mature style in the mid-1930s, as exemplified by the Symphonic Variations (1935–37) and Piano Symphony No. 1 “Tantrik” (1938–39) — the latter once described by Sorabji as “one of his most representative and mature” works. While the composer did not reach his creative zenith until the middle of the 1930s, the latter part of the 1920s was to be a period of tremendous importance in the development of Sorabji’s compositional language; one that was crowned at the turn of the decade by four “supergiant” works — Opus clavicembalisticum (1929–30), Symphony No. 2 for Large Orchestra (1930–31) (1), Organ Symphony No. 2 (1929–32), and Piano Quintet No. 2 (1932–33) — that were to that set the pattern for his treatment of large-scale form throughout the remainder of his career.

During this time Sorabji was preoccupied with solving certain crucial compositional problems present in some earlier works (above all, the Second and Third Piano Sonatas, dating from 1920 and 1922 respectively): in particular, maintaining structural coherence over increasingly long musical spans. This can most clearly be seen in the adoption of older forms such as the fugue and passacaglia, a newly-found reliance on explicit thematic working, and more sophisticated control of harmony, melody, rhythm, and texture in general.

The works written during this period therefore reveal an increasing confidence in handling different formal designs. Variation form is explored in Organ Symphony No. 1, the Variations and Fugue on “Dies Iræ” (1923-26), and Toccata No. 1 (1928), while the languid melodies and delicate filigree that are characteristic of the slow movement are elaborated upon in Djami (1928) and the second movement (“Count Tasca’s Garden”) of Piano Sonata No. 4 (1928–29), as well as individual numbers from the variation sets. A fugue is also to be found in all of these pieces, apart from Djami, usually acting as a conclusion to the work.

Most significant, however, is the increasingly pervasive use of thematic material — a seeming U-turn on the aesthetic stance of the Second and Third Piano Sonatas, in which he attempted to present a “ceaseless musical fabric” that maintained a logical and coherent thread without the support of “themes” or “subjects”. Sorabji’s experimentation with cyclical thematicism also manifested itself in what he called the “dominant theme” of the Fourth Piano Sonata, the “radix motive” of Piano Concerto No. 8 (1927–28), and the “motto” of Opus clavicembalisticum: one theme to rule them all. This was to become crucial in maintaining order, as the scale of his works, and the number of themes employed therein, increased. (2)

Opus clavicembalisticum brought together in a single piece virtually all of the forms and styles explored in the previous half-decade, and was the largest and most complex work written thus far, but it was to be immediately surpassed in this respect by its three contemporaneous cousins, Symphony No. 2 for Large Orchestra, Organ Symphony No. 2, and Piano Quintet No. 2. These three works all develop to a formidable degree the one type of movement that Opus clavicembalisticum doesn’t contain: the “tapestry of motives” that makes its first appearance as the first movement of Piano Sonata No. 4. This has its origins in the single-movement “organic” fantasy of the Second and Third Piano Sonatas and the final movement of Organ Symphony No. 1. To counter the tendency of the original form to become disorganised and incoherent when extended-mainly due to harmonic inconsistency and the lack of motivic support-starting with the Fourth Sonata themes are introduced, and the whole is given a backbone by a structure that is superficially based on the conventions of fugal form (exposition; combination; stretto; final section), creating a complex and frequently dramatic musical fabric. This fundamental design is developed and expanded in Opus clavicembalisticum’s three companion works, with the individual sections being given titles, leading to first “movements” that consist of Introito-Fantasia-Cadenza-Coda-Stretta (Symphony No. 2 for Large Orchestra) or Introito-Fantasia-Coda-Finale (Piano Quintet No. 2). This rather unwieldy arrangement was to be further refined in the six piano symphonies of later years.

Opus clavicembalisticum is therefore undoubtedly the odd one out of this small group of works: the trinity of sequels between them served to crystallise the unique style of symphonic form and texture that was to be used for all the subsequent piano and organ symphonies, leaving the Opus as seemingly a dead-end in the path of Sorabji’s compositional evolution.

(1) Although this work was planned and begun as a symphony for large orchestra, piano, choir, and solo voices, only a solo piano score was completed. This, however, forms a complete work in its own right that deserves to be considered alongside the composer’s numbered piano symphonies.

(2) Sorabji lists 4 themes as appearing throughout the course of Toccata No. 1, 18 in Piano Sonata No. 4, and 24 in Opus clavicembalisticum. This figure rises dramatically in later works: Organ Symphony No. 2 introduces 16 themes in its first movement alone, while Piano Symphony No. 1 employs 55 in its first movement, 27 in the second, and 25 in the third, many of which are further subdivided into smaller “sub-themes” — 107 themes in total, not counting those in the four remaining movements of the work. Under such circumstances the promotion of one theme, usually the very first, to primus inter pares helps maintain some kind of recognisable order amidst this embarrassment of thematic riches.