A short biography

By Alistair Hinton

“Dates and places of birth relating to myself given in various works of reference are invariably false.”
“… Certain lexographical canaille, one egregious and notorious specimen particularly, enraged at my complete success in defeating and frustrating their impudent impertinent and presumptuous nosings and pryings into what doesn’t concern them, and actuated, no doubt, by the mean malice of the base-born for their betters, have thought, as they would say, to take it out of me by suggesting that my name isn’t really my name.”
“Insects that are merely noisome like to think that they can also sting.”

—Kaikhosru Sorabji

“A great composer, a great critic, and a prince among men, I know nothing about Sorabji (none of the particulars men usually know of each other, family affairs, education, hobbies, etc.) — nothing, but I think everything that matters, everything, as Jeeves would say, that is ‘of the essence.’”

—Hugh MacDiarmid, in The Company I’ve Kept, 1966.

For those interested in such matters, Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji was born in Chingford, Essex, England on 14 August 1892; his father was a Zoroastrian Parsi civil engineer and his mother English (for a long time, until the work of Sean Vaughan Owen, she was reputed to be part Sicilian, part Spanish). He spent most of his life in England. From his early ’teens he developed an insatiable appetite for the latest developments in contemporary European and Russian music and went to great lengths to obtain the latest scores of such composers as Mahler, Debussy, Schönberg, Skryabin, Rakhmaninov and others at a time and in a country where almost all such music was largely unknown and unrecognized. Of an independent and uniquely curious nature, it is perhaps unsurprising given the pre-War English environment that his education, both general and musical, was mostly private.

For a composer as prolific as he was soon to become, he was an unusually late developer and his voracity in absorbing all the most recent trends in other people’s music seems to have excluded from his mind the idea of making his own until he reached his twenties.

A close friend and confidant of the English composer Philip Heseltine from 1913, Sorabji wrote to him that he was considering a career as a music critic. Once he had begun to compose, however, the floodgates of his imagination burst and a tremendous river of musical creativity flowed forth almost uninterrupted until the early 1980s.

An intensely private person who loathed to participate in public gatherings of any sort, he performed some of his own piano works on rare occasions and with considerable success, most notably in the 1930s in Erik Chisholm’s historic Glasgow-based Active Society for the Propagation of Contemporary Music concert series. Sorabji’s final concert appearance (1936) may have coincided with a decision to withdraw his work from the concert platform by vetoing public performances without his express consent, an unusual and courageous step that led to virtual silence for almost 40 years, declaring that he considered them unsuited to conventional concert performance and that “no performance at all is vastly preferable to an obscene travesty”. While he never actually imposed an unequivocal “ban” on public performances of his works, as used to be claimed, the result was that concert-goers around the world heard almost none of his music for nearly four decades. In view of the colossal difficulties involved in performing much of his music, it was not unexpected that this regrettable situation would continue almost unchallenged for so long.

In the intervening years, Sorabji worked as a critic for The New Age and The New English Weekly until his retirement in 1945; he also continued composing richly expressive and extraordinarily elaborate music at a furious pace, mostly for the piano, without the slightest care as to whether or not it might ever reach the ears of the public.

He resented the intrusion of casual inquirers about himself and his work, as a result of which many entries on him in major music lexica were more notable for their conflict than for the reliability of their information about him. As a result, some of those who remembered his continued existence but knew little or nothing of what he was doing and why, chose — almost inevitably, one supposes — to spin webs of myth and legend about him. These tell more about their creators than they do about Sorabji. It has taken some years to wipe away the fatuous “Howard Hughes of Music” image of him which had been fostered by some who had little better to do.

He lived quietly and modestly in London and then in South Dorset in self-chosen isolation, undisturbed by the mêlée of professional public music-making. He had the good fortune of a small private income which allowed him this existence and permitted him to get on with his work uninhibited and undisturbed.

From 1976, the pioneering efforts of South African pianist Yonty Solomon began to turn the history of Sorabji’s reputation. In a monumental series of London recitals, he presented a number of Sorabji’s piano works for the first time and the interest which these generated has grown and developed ever since. This inevitably led to increasing international interest in his music; following Solomon’s pioneering, more performers presented authorised performances, broadcasts and commercial recordings, laying to rest at last the long-held myth of its unplayability. In suitable conditions, Sorabji permitted — even encouraged — this, once he recognised the existence of musicians capable of doing it justice. Cognoscenti of the major keyboard works do not predict such compendia of fearsome difficulties becoming “standard repertoire”, but whilst the music hurls uniquely forbidding challenges at performers, it exerts an immediate intellectual and emotional grip on listeners.

The 1980s witnessed, among other performances, an astonishingly accurate and powerful première of Sorabji’s two-hour Organ Symphony No. 1 (1923–24) and an absolutely stunning account of all four-and-three-quarter hours of his piano work Opus clavicembalisticum (1929–30), which proved to be the crowning glory of John Ogdon’s career. Further major premières have followed since.

Following Sorabji’s death at the age of 96, a series of CD recordings began to appear, including the two works mentioned above. The Sorabji Archive has encouraged major performers and scholars to create fine new editions of the composer’s works from his manuscripts.

International artists of distinction who have performed, broadcast and recorded Sorabji’s music include pianists Yonty Solomon, John Ogdon, Marc-André Hamelin, Michael Habermann, Donna Amato, Ronald Stevenson, Geoffrey Douglas Madge, Carlo Grante, Charles Hopkins and Jonathan Powell, organist Kevin Bowyer and sopranos Jane Manning, Jo Ann Pickens and Sarah Leonard.

His centenary was marked not only by performers and broadcasters but also by Scolar Press’s publication of Sorabji: A Critical Celebration, a multi-author symposium edited by Prof. Paul Rapoport. This first full-length survey of Sorabji was reprinted in 1994. One of its contributors, Prof. Marc-André Roberge, has since prepared a substantial Sorabji biographical study; entitled Opus Sorabjianum and first published online in 2013; it is updated from time to time to reflect newly discovered information.