A Series of Essays by Erik's Daughters

I Meet Sorabji ~ by Fiona Chisholm

During the final few weeks of my visit to the UK in 1957 a momentous thing happened. I met Sorabji, the famous/infamous composer of Opus Clavicembalisticum.

Now Sorabji was a name and what a name – Kaikoshru Shapurgji Sorabji – that caused major vibrations in the Chisholm household. You could almost measure their strength on the Richter scale.

To Dad Sorabji, or K as he called him, was one of the most colourful, contentious and combustible characters he ever encountered. He was a personality of extremes, a genius who wrote long, complex and unplayable piano works which could last five hours, yet he also composed a piece of music one bar in length.

My father considered him the ultimate example of a composer who wrote music of such complexity in texture and rhythm, so difficult to perform and on such a gargantuan scale that it virtually amounted to him creating music for himself alone. And in this he was for most of his life, entirely satisfied.

To most of the English-speaking musical world Sorabji was a mysterious and eccentric composer, but to Dad he was a very deep and long-standing friend. To my mother he was a threat.

Sorabji was a recluse. He lived most of his life in London with his opera singing mother, whom he adored, or in the Dorset Village of Corfe Castle in a house called "The Eye". Dad had been there a couple of times down the years when on holiday in the UK and this is where he took me that spring day but made it clear I was allowed to go no further than Sorabji's front gate with its notice "Visitors Unwelcome".

"Sorabji doesn't like women", Dad said as he handed me a £1note (riches indeed – usually the only "money" he handed out was the round end of the long key to his college office which looked like a silver coin) and told to "amuse myself for the day in the village". Not difficult with a craft market in the town that day.

Long before this meeting I knew a great deal about Sorabji from his letters. As the youngest of three daughters who did not want to be left alone at night, I spent many an evening doing my homework in Dad's big office at the College of Music while he was rehearsing the University Orchestra for either concerts or an upcoming opera season. Mum, as his driver, would be in the rehearsal room too.

Homework done and nothing to amuse me till the orchestra's tea break, I'd sit cross legged on the floor in front of a long cupboard which ran the length of one side of his office. The top half with its glass doors contained orchestral scores. The shelves of the lower half bulged open with reading material – programmes of old concerts and opera productions in Cape Town as well as Glasgow, letters from celebrities whom Dad had met, old photos of Mum and Dad when they were young and Mum was beautiful and Dad was most definitely not! With his buck teeth and glasses, he was hardly a boy beautiful.

I quickly learnt to pick out a Sorabji letters among the pile. He wrote by hand in hard to decipher handwriting, but after he had "grown a typewriter" as he put, he typed them himself.

They were a glorious mix of capital letters, expunges, under-linings and exclamation marks to emphasis some pungent point of view. A real mess but the contents were usually brilliant. Sorabji expressed his opinions fearlessly with biting wit, permitting the existence of no other point of view but his own with the result they were hugely entertaining. And crushing.

The word "homosexual" wasn't in my vocabulary when I first read those letters written in the 1950s and I do not recall having any worries about my father's queer "behaviour". I just considered he had a rather wild, slightly mad friend, whom my mother did not like. Frankly I couldn't understand what all the fuss was about because the letters I read which he wrote in the '50s were mostly about contemporary musical issues – in particular his hatred for the BBC – his views on apartheid and what interesting events were going on in London.

Years later when I read Sorabji's passionate love letters written in the 1930s, I did indeed wonder what had gone on between my father and Sorabji. I could understand why my mother was so perturbed about this relationship and did not want those early letters to be published in the lifetime of her three daughters. Many of them were written almost daily while Sorabji was waiting for the ink to dry on the manuscript of his Opus C.

According to Sorabji's biographer, with whom I corresponded to find out if any of Dad's letters existed, Sorabji probably toned down his extravagant terms of endearment at my father's request around the time of his marriage to our mother. This would explain why the letters that I read were of a general nature between two old musical friends with a great deal in common.

Anyway on that famous day when I returned at the appointed time to "The Eye" to collect my father, he bounced out the gate in his usual energetic, followed to my surprise, by a short nuggety little man with bushy grey hair and spectacles with a light coloured raincoat over his arms. I nearly flipped. It was the one and only Sorabji.

Picture of Fiona, Sorabji and Erik
Fiona, Sorabji and Erik

For a man famous for disliking women (he revealed his misogynistic views in Mia Contra Fa), he was extremely courteous as he greeted this 18-year-old old teenager with a moon face from a winter in London and too many Jacob's orange chocolate biscuits.

Together all three of us walked to the coach stop, Dad with one arm tucked into Sorabji's left elbow in a friendly fashion, the other hand holding a score. K even agreed to pose for a photo of all three of us together, and someone else – possible a neighbour – captured the picture on my old Brownie. That photograph is today in the UCT Manuscripts and Archives Library. I'm very proud of it. Not many women get to be photographed with Sorabji!

After all the years of hearing about the famous K and secretly reading his letters, I was startled to find him such a polite man even on that short walk. Altogether quite different from the rather forbidding portrait of him in Dad's office at the College, taken when he was about 30, gazing steadfastly at the camera with his left hand against his face up to his specs.

***

Somebody else who was pleasantly surprised to meet Sorabji was the Cape Town pianist Neil Solomon, who was a lecturer in piano at the College. For years he had done more than gaze at the portrait. He had looked at the leather-bound manuscript of Sorabji's Opus. Clavicembalisticum in a glassed top cabinet in the entrance foyer of the college and asked if he could look at this score which was a gift to Dad from the composer.

He had been puzzled by the extraordinary dedication: "To my friends (e duobus unum) Hugh M'Diarmid and CM Grieve likewise to the everlasting glory of those few men blessed and sanctified in the curses and execrations of those many whose praise is eternal damnation. June MCM XXX"

From this he had drawn the conclusion that Sorabji was "a fearsome, unapproachable physical and mental supergiant".

Events proved otherwise.

In 1962 when Neil was on Sabbatical from UCT and in London with his wife Clare and two children, he received an anxious phone call from Dad asking for help. The unthinkable had happened. Sorabji, after years of refusing permission to record any of his music, had finally succumbed to persuasion. "Would Neil agree to host the session in his flat and lend his tape recorder for this momentous occasion?"

Before ringing off Dad said: "Get the women out of the house. We can't have anything that might put him off."

After bundling Clare, his two year old daughter and 10-month-old son out of the flat into temporary exile, Neil awaited the arrival of Sorabji who, though about 70, bounded up the 84 steps "without complaint or hint of strain".

Neil was surprised to find him so small 5ft 7" or 8" against his 6ft 1in.

"Expecting to encounter a formidable, potentially provocative misanthrope, the apprehensions I had in advance were immediately dispelled by Sorabji's perfectly natural, spontaneous cordial greeting with a genial glimmer in the intelligent eyes".

Greetings over, the trio headed for the lounge which contained a good Bluthner in excellent condition and an informal atmosphere was at once established with the camaraderie between Dad and K. Sorabji extemporised a few passages to get the feel and sound of the instrument, tossing in a brilliant flash of piano writing that ended with a flourish and every one collapsing with laughter.

Picture of Grundig TKS tape recorder
A Grundig TKS tape recorder

Then it was on to the more serious business and a bulky manuscript was put on the music stand with Dad as the page turner and Neil manning the start-record knob of his Grundig TKS and Sorabji playing his Symphony No 3 for piano solo and making history.

When the trio paused to turn the reel over Sorabji made for his coat pocket and produced three miniature liqueur bottles of different flavours. After a brief alcoholic intermezzo the recording continued.

At the end of the second track to change the reel, Sorabji produced three more bottles.

"Another meeting was set up to complete the job that February. As before, when they stopped to give Sorabji a breather three more liqueur were produced from that capacious coat, after which he finished the symphony."

It had been arranged that Neil’s wife would return from exile to produce tea and scones which Neil would bring into the lounge. But as it happened Clare walked into the room with the tea tray coming face to face with Sorabji. No expected catastrophe. They were soon both chatting happily.

When the taxi arrived for Sorabji, Neil sat opposite Sorabji on one of those pull out seats and noticed that Sorabji's hat was a cross between a bishop's mitre and a mortarboard.

"In those days I used to wear a beautiful Persian lamb's wool hat. Sorabji's hat, a cross between a bishop's mitres a mortarboard fascinated me.

"I admire your hat," Neil said to Sorabji. "I admire yours too," he replied…"but I bet you didn't design yours yourself."

A few days later a hand delivered package arrived at the Solomon apartment addressed to Neil and his wife.

Inside was a printed card with Sorabji's name and address. On the back of the card in ink he wrote in his characteristic hand "With the compliments of Kaikhosru Sorabji:"

The package contained a box of 20 miniature liqueur bottles, 10 assorted flavours in duplicate.

***

Nobody knows what happened to the two historic reels recorded between sips from heady liqueur bottles on February 22 – 27 1962 on the Grundig tape recorder – a present from Neil's mother who bought it at Lowe Brothers electronic shop in Greenmarket Square in central Cape Town in 1955 or early 1956. They disappeared.

Apparently Dad asked to borrow them from Solomon for his Men and Music lectures at the UCT Summer School in early 1964 and played them to his audience. Maybe like so many books he borrowed from libraries he never got around to returning them.

The significance of the tapes was that they were the first time in years that Sorabji had consented to a recording session. However, having finally broken the ice, he agreed in May 1962 to the first of Frank Holliday' nine recording sessions at his home which continued until 1968. The machine used was a Ferrograph which had been bought for this specific project.

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