Alistair Hinton: And who exactly is Sorabji? (2/4)

Sorabji lived the first 60 of his 96 years in London and the remainder in south Dorset. He was not at all wealthy but did at least have a small private income from a family trust which afforded him the freedom to work without needing to derive a living from his labours. Indeed, one of his most longstanding friends, the distinguished English author Sacheverell Sitwell, once remarked that “all we artists should have a private income — and it should be a small one, otherwise we’d do no work, would we?” Though Sorabji’s profile as a composer remained relatively low for much of his life, he retained a certain public persona through his writings as music critic and essayist; brilliantly witty, eminently readable, provocative, controversial, pensive and trenchant by turns, their style ornate, elaborate and coruscating, the best of his reviews and articles are worthy of his inter-war peers whose main profession actually was literature.

Much has changed in the past three decades. Sorabji’s music has attracted the attention of a number of remarkable performers and been heard live in public on some 300 occasions in at least 20 countries. A substantial number of broadcasts have been given. More than 30 commercial recordings have been made by several companies in four countries, the lion’s share of existing and forthcoming ones being on the enterprising American Altarus label. New editions of about half of his works have been created. From the present standpoint, then, even the music’s legendary unplayability has been exposed as just that — legendary.

So, what brought about this sea-change?

Sorabji has always had his champions, but the principal obstructions to more widespread acceptance of his music in the mid-20th century were not the composer’s reluctance but the lack of courage of performers and the sheer difficulty of obtaining reliable source material from which to prepare performances. While Sorabji looked after most of his manuscripts carefully, his scores were not generally distributed; even if they had been, it is self-evident that, while they are fairly legible for study purposes, they are not the kinds of document from which performances of authority can realistically be prepared. The mould was finally broken by South African pianist Yonty Solomon, whose pioneering ventures into Sorabji’s repertoire first came before the London public in 1976 and the rest, as the cliché almost goes, is ongoing history.

Since first meeting Sorabji in 1972, I had been trying to persuade him to sanction performances by artists of his choice, but as he had allowed himself to become too long accustomed to the silence, this proved to be a protracted and uphill struggle. Once he had relented in favour of Solomon, however, his pleasure in his decision opened the way for his giving due consideration to other artists who could also do his work the justice it so well deserved but which had for so long been so elusive.

Welcome as this was, it raised another problematic spectre; interest generated by the emergence of this performance tradition caused all the published scores to run out of print and, in any case, most of his work remained in manuscript only and thus inaccessible to interested performers and scholars. So, just as Sorabji’s works were becoming available to the ear, they were disappearing from the eye. I concluded that the only solution was to create an archive with a view to making the entire œuvre available, although, having seen quite a few of Sorabji’s manuscripts, I was well aware at the outset that this would be a monumental task. My initial proposition to the composer, first met with blank and unadorned refusal, was later ornamented by his view that there seemed little point in reissuing copies of out-of-print publications which contained numerous errors. I wondered how he would react to the notion that someone make a brand new corrected edition of one of those defunct publications and offer it for publication; this is where a chink of light appeared. He said he would be delighted, as long as he was not expected to finance it (which he could not afford to do) or check it over (which his 90-plus-year-old eyesight was not best equipped to do). I then discovered that his only rooted objection to the idea arose from the sheer expense involved even in making master-copies of everything (11,000-plus pages of manuscript, no less). I countered that, while I could not disagree, there seemed to be no alternative. Well, there was no alternative. Having secured his agreement in principle, it was a matter of “let the battle commence.”