Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji: an Oral Biography

Sean Vaughn Owen

PhD Thesis, University of Southampton (February 2006)

Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji (1892—1988) was one of the twentieth century’s most prolific composers, a major contributor to the piano repertoire, a fiercely witty writer of essays and musical criticism, and an unarguably fascinating personality.

Although he composed over 11,000 pages of music his legacy has been largely neglected, the causation for which is three-fold: one, his self-imposed ban on all public performances of his music; two, the majority of his compositions were never published, existing only in manuscript form, the calligraphy of which is not legible for performance purposes and is even difficult to decipher for casual analysis; and three, in the absence of a thorough biography, enquirers of Sorabji’s life have been fed more myth than reality, resulting in a general perception that is somewhat akin to the mad scientist.

Fortunately, the constraints of these barriers are being transcended: Sorabji took the impetus to relax his ban in the 1970s and after his death numerous musicians of exceptional talent have arisen who exist as a kind of new vanguard for the proliferation of his compositions; the titanic task of editing his manuscripts into functional performance editions has been carried out at a surprisingly rapid rate by various contributors around the world; and finally, the present work lays the foundation for the writing of a more complete and accurate biography of Sorabji the man, not the myth.

This latter task was accomplished using a combination of archival research and, more predominantly, the interviewing techniques of oral history. More specifically, after briefly outlining the biography of Sorabji that has, until now, generally been accepted, an immediate argument is posed questioning the authenticity of basic assertions that have previously been stated as fact. In particular, the identification of his mother’s birth certificate initiated a series of new formulations; she was not Sicilian-Spanish and by extension, neither was Sorabji; rather she was English. Further genealogical research demonstrated a pattern of deception on the part of his mother, a habit that was passed to her son who in turn developed throughout his life a complex sense of otherness — that is to say he represented himself to others in a manner that was not in keeping with reality.

The technique of oral history, which in the case of the current dissertation focused on those who knew Sorabji during the last 40 years of his life while he was living in Corfe Castle, provides further examples of Sorabji’s contradictory posturing of otherness; and finally, most importantly, the interviews, correlated with archival research, demonstrate that there were often hidden circumstances that necessitated both his intense reclusive behaviour and his fabrications. The various interviews provide perspective on this much misunderstood composer and show that when one dispels the myths, the realities that we are left with are often just as fascinating.

Sean Owen has generously allowed his thesis to be downloaded from this site.