C O M M E N T A R Y :    C O M P O S E R S

Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji: Alistair Hinton

The legacy of Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji (1892-1988) is vast. Composer, pianist and critic, Sorabji was born in 1892 in England His father was a Parsi engineer from Bombay, his mother apparently a Sicilian-Spanish soprano. His published literary oeuvre embraces a wide variety of articles, reviews and "letters-to-the-editor" in English journals and two volumes of collected essays, Around Music (1932) and Mi Contra Fa: The Immoralisings of a Machiavellian Musician (1947). Brilliantly witty, eminently readable, provocative, controversial, pensive and trenchant by turns, their style ornate, elaborate and coruscating, the best are worthy of his inter-War peers whose main profession was literature.

It is, however, as an enormously prolific composer that Sorabji is best known. He completed over 100 pieces between 1915 and 1984, many for piano solo, some of enormous dimensions. Some were published between 1919 and 1931; these publications came under Oxford University Press' sole selling agency in 1938 and finally sold out five days before Sorabji died in 1988. No reprints were proposed. Much of his work remains for the time being in manuscript only.

Sorabji was an auto-didact who lived his life in self-chosen and self-made isolation and independence from the profession of music making. A reluctant performer who loathed public gatherings of any kind, Sorabji premièred a few of his pieces, most notably in Erik Chisholm's remarkable Active Society for the Propagation of Contemporary Music concert series in Glasgow in the 1930s. Sorabji's final concert appearance (December 1936) may have coincided with his 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. Sorabji continued composing at a furious pace, blissfully undaunted by lack of public performances, approbation and criticism of what he was writing.

In 1969, the composer Alistair Hinton chanced across a publication of Sorabji's early masterpiece, Opus Clavicembalisticum, a monumental solo piano work some 4 1/2 hours long, in Westminster Central Library, London. Its score created a profound impression. Like most musicians, however, he knew nothing of its composer and his efforts at discovery were thwarted at every turn; information was hard to obtain, conflicting and unreliable. However, Humphrey Searle, with whom he was studying, proved encouraging and helpful. He had attended a 1936 performance of part of Opus Clavicembalisticum so knew a little about Sorabji and his work; he lent his student his copy of the long out-of-print Mi Contra Fa, a collection of essays culled from Sorabji's days as a professional critic.

Alistair Hinton corresponded with Sorabji from 1972 and first met him later that year at his home in Corfe Castle, Dorset a week after his 80th birthday. This first of many visits began a priceless friendship and professional association.. Concerned about the fate of Sorabji's music, he made what the redoubtable Nicolas Slonimsky might have called "manifold endeavors" to focus the composer's attention on that problem and persuade him to consider sanctioning musicians of his choice to perform his works in public. Sorabji's resolve had by then become so deeply entrenched that it proved a daunting task. Having no interest in the concert-going public acquiring opportunities to assimilate his music, Sorabji had already refused several pianists' requests for his blessing on proposed performances. Sorabji was by no means difficult and obstructive for the fun of it; his personal warmth and spiritual generosity were as unfailing as they were legendary. His wish to protect his work from inadequate presentation was hardly unreasonable, though its scope was arguably unique.

In 1976, Sorabji finally relented in favour of the pianist Yonty Solomon, who gave several of his early pieces at a momentous London recital in December that year. This inevitably led to increasing international interest in his music. Following Solomon's pioneering work, more performers presented authorised performances, broadcasts and commercial recordings which finally laid to rest the long-standing myth of its unplayability. In suitable circumstances, Sorabji would permit - even encourage - his work to be heard, once he recognised that musicians exist who are capable of doing justice to it. Cognoscenti of his major keyboard works would hardly anticipate such compendia of fearsome difficulties becoming the "standard repertoire" of future piano and organ virtuosi, but it is clear that, whilst the music hurls uniquely forbidding challenges at performers, it exerts an immediate intellectual and emotional grip on listeners.

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

Sorabji's centenary was marked not only by performers and broadcasters but also by Scolar Press' 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-Andre Roberge, is preparing a substantial biography of the composer which is now nearing completion and anticipated for publication in 2001; decades of Sorabji's personal privacy and distancing of himself from the milieu of professional music making will undoubtedly have conspired to make this task an unusually onerous one, but Marc-Andre Roberge is an especially tenacious, patient and thorough musicologist well up to the all the challenges it has thrown at him.

Sorabji's output remained almost inaccessible to the public for decades. An ironical consequence of the newly burgeoning Sorabji performing tradition was that, as his music became more accessible to the ear, so it became less so to the eye. Increases in sales of his published scores caused them to run out-of-print from 1977. Protracted discussions with Sorabji led Alistair Hinton to found The Sorabji Music Archive to caretake his entire works; the Archive has actively continued to develop its collection, encourage research and assist in the preparation of performing editions ever since.

Established in 1988 and renamed in 1993, The Sorabji Archive's collection of literature by and about Sorabji includes articles, essays, reviews and previews of publications, performances and recordings, personal correspondence, "letters-to-the-editor", performance and broadcast history, discography and much else. It issue copies of his remarkable scores and writings to the public worldwide and welcome visits by appointment from performers and scholars. , have already prepared a number of definitive editions of Sorabji's works and more of these are in progress; in particular, Kevin Bowyer's exquisitely calligraphed edition of Organ Symphony No. 2, a staggering 396 A3 landscape pages, has to be seen to be disbelieved. Only with the benefit of such work may accurate representations in performance of most of Sorabji's music be possible. The Sorabji Archive is immeasurably grateful to each member of its expanding corpus of score editors who have expended unstinting patience and hard work voluntarily and without expectation of financial benefit.

At the time of Sorabji's death, only one edited score was available and the few recordings which had appeared in USA had become increasingly difficult to locate. In the twelve years since, definitive editions of more than 30 of his scores have been completed (more are in preparation) by a number of distinguished musicians including Marc-Andre Roberge, Chris Rice and several outstanding Sorabji performers and at least fifteen more recordings have been released devoted to or including his music, the majority of these on the Altarus label.

© Alistair Hinton 2000


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