Kaikhosru Sorabji

Picture of Kaikhosru Sorabji

This morning I am going to talk to you about a very strange person, whether you regard him as a man or as a musician. His name, on his birth certificate, is Dudley Sorabji, but he changed it to Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji, and under that name has published 15 compositions and two books of musical essays, has written musical criticisms for the English Weekly and the New Age, and has sent, I don't know how many, hundreds of letters-to-the-editors to newspapers like the London Times, Catholic Herald, Radio Times, etc. on every subject under the sun.

His manuscript works far outnumber the published ones: he has written long and complex works which would occupy an entire evening's programme, if they were ever performed, that is of two to three hours duration and when I saw him last in 1962, he showed me his latest manuscript - pieces one bar in length: ipso facto - Sorabji is a creature of extremes. Since 1917, Sorabji has never ceased to compose, yet has steadfastly refused to allow any one to play his music and even turned down a recent request from a pianist of the order of John Ogdon, who had worked for several years on a major Sorabji work - his Opus Clavicembalisticum - and wished to perform it. Sorabji is himself a pianist with a formidable technique who perhaps only eight times in his life (he is now in his early 70's) has given performances of his own music and three of these were at our Active Society concerts.

He was born in London, 1892, and has lived there or at Corfé Castle, Dorset all his life. His father (a Parsi) was a wealthy engineer in Bombay; his mother Spanish and a one time opera-singer - a most unusual marriage resulting in the birth of a most unusual son.

Probably the quickest way to give you an insight into the character of Sorabji is to read you a few of his recent letters to editors. They reveal him as a person holding the strongest possible opinions on every conceivable subject, expressing these opinions pungently, fearlessly, with biting wit, in a series of knock-out, sledge-hammer blows which admit the existence or no other point of view: no contradiction, no compromise, no possible argument can be held against his. Everyone is a fool, except himself, and a few - a very few - of the elite, naturally enough his friends. Sorabji believes that he is right - always right - absolutely right - that the huge majority of people are hopelessly wrong - or altenatively fools, or down-right crooks. History has tossed up more than a few geniuses with similar omnipotent beliefs - Richard Wagner, for one, George Bernard Shaw for another, and quite often these strong-headed characters have been right!

On the moral character of Henry VIII

(Women's Hour, Broadcasting House, B.B.C. London)

"What a refreshing and welcome change from the sentimental slop and slush of the BLUFF KING HAL sort, to hear Commander Ibbett's denunciation in Women's Hour recently, of that fornicating, incestuous monster henry VIII. See the distinguished historian Mr. George Riley Scott for the convincing evidence of the unspeakable creature's REAL relationship with his trollop Anne Boleyn, and the odious hypocrisy of his "doubts" as to the rightness of his marriage with the unfortunate and deeply wronged Catherine AFTER he had set his lecterous pig's eyes on the slut Anne Boleyn."

Yours etc K.S.S.

On cruelty to animals

(The Editor, Catholic Herald, 76 Fleet St., London)

"Sir,

How refreshing is Mr. James Donelly's letter. The cornucopia of Anglo-Saxon cant and humbug overflows even its own too generous self when it is a question of cruelty to animals by others than the Anglo-Saxons, of course. It is all part of that incurable national mania for minding everybody's business but their own.

How many fashionable fur-coated females here ever bother their heads over the unspeakable cruelty whereby the fur of their lovely fur coats is often obtained, torn off the half-dead animal because it is either easier to get off that way or because this is supposed to improve the appearance of the fur? And more cruelty (utterly unnecessary) is inflicted in one hour in the slaughter-houses of this country than in perhaps a whole year in the bullrings, however morally unedifying this "sport" may be. And how many people here give a thought to the atrocious cruelty of the deep-litter and battery system of the unnaturally and artificially forced egg laying of fowls or that of the broiler-houses to mention two instances only? As usual, the eyes of the fool (who is also a humbug) are on the ends of the earth."

Yours etc K.S.S.

On Italian Songs and Lieder

(The writer of the Obituary, Notice of GIGLI in "The Times"

"Sir,

You remark that Italy is poor in what you call "true" songs by comparison with Germany and England. If you choose to deny that the huge Parisotti collection are songs, of course you are at liberty to do so. They are not, maybe, Lieder ... and thank God for it ...They imperatively need great singing as well as musicianly artistry.

It is possible without either voice or technique to croak your way "intelligently and artistically" through the most devastating broadside of "Leider", indeed it is constantly being done by the practitioners thereof, and be acclaimed by Fleet Ditch as what it calls "a great interpreter", which means of course that the noise made by the "interpretation" is so great that it prevents your hearing this music."

Yours etc K.S.S.

I think you will agree that the writer of these letters is a person of quite exceptional strength of character, of overpowering dynamic personality, a man who is vitally interested in all aspects of modern life and thought, who has weighed the evidence, arrived at a verdict, and expresses his Pontifical point or view in rich, opulent, forceful and rhetorical language, guaranteed to infuriate anyone who holds a different point of view, and to irritate anyone who does. You will note that none of these letters indicate that the writer is a composer or even a musician. The reader of his two books of music essays will find that Sorabji holds equally uncompromising views on matters musical. This is revealed often in the mere titles of some of the essays:

When is a concerto not a concerto?
Music and Muddleheadedness.
The Amateurs, or thick skins and thicker heads.
Portmanteau words: or those 'British' composers.
Cant and the Classics.
Beer and British music.
Open letter to a Conductor.
The Physiognomy of Musicians: or, composers out of countenance.

I would like to read you excerpts from his essay on the Scottish song writer - Francis George Scott: firstly, Francis George Scott is a composer I have to deal with at a later session, and you are unlikely to know much about him and secondly, because the article reveals more about its author than its subject. He calls Francis George Scott one of the major song writers of Europe today, and continues:
"Francis George Scott, or "F.G " as he is known to his friends, has in abounding measure that dynamism, that personal brio and gusto, that vitality, qualities that in those parts (meaning England) go - as they rarely do down here - with the close-fibred sinewy Scottish intelligence, a thing that makes it so far more satisfying to play to a Scottish audience, even though they may care actually less for music than those posturing capons, the music lovers of London. As a sheer musical scholar F.G. is of immense power and distinction; but in spite of the fact that he is connected in a teaching capacity with an educational institution (Scott was lecturer in music at a Glasgow Teachers Training college) and for all the deadening intellectually paralysing and demoralising effect any association direct or indirect with the stultifying process called "education” (that is to say, as the poet Gray well said, "The drawing of fools from their obscurity") can have upon a fine mind and creative artist - influences that would have utterly corrupted and ruined any lesser man - Francis George Scott has preserved his artistic and spiritual integrity inviolate, and is blessedly free from the enlightened(!) pedagogical pedantry of a Donald Francis Tovey, or the stilted, donnish professorially of an Edward J Dent.

Specimens of the ineptitudes into which Tovey' s pedantry could lead him are his comment upon the Second Liszt piano concerto as “the world's worst piano concerto", and the pompous pretention of his observation upon Busoni's "Fantasia Contrapuntistica". What volumes it speaks for contemporary standards that, "this great sponge swollen with the ideas of others" should have the standing in the minds of musicians in these islands that he has:-

"The bookful blockhead ignorantly read,
with loads of learned lumber in his head,
and Francis George Scott be more or less unknown."

Thus, having sabre-slashed the music loving public of England (which, recently, he denies as existing at all) bull-dozed the entire machinery of everything educational, reduced to ashes the acknowledged two greatest musical scholars that England has produced in a century, Sorabji now proceeds to trounce the I.S.C.M., the B.B.C., boost up another of his bosom friends (Professor Saurat) and tick off such insignificant song-writers as Schubert and Schumann.

"Although it had been my privilege to know Scott the composer for years, and to have had the pleasure of reviewing various volumes of his songs as they appeared, I had not, until comparatively recently, the opportunity of hearing his work in anything like the bulk of a one-man show. And to whom was the opportunity to do so in London due? To those centrally-European controlled organisations for the promotion of the more fatuous of "new" music, consisting principally of hoary clichés dressed in the ”height" of fashion” (and looking like a dress-maker’s trotter in a Chanel model); to the B.B..C. with its infallible instinct for the third rate? To none of these but to the artistic perception and enthusiasm of the great French litterateur, critic and man of letters, supreme ornament of the Institut Francais of which he is the head, Professor Denis Saurat.

A one-man show is a gruelling test, more especially when the programme is confined to songs. It is a test which few composers can stand, not even many of those great masters of the "Lied", of whom it is the custom to inflict upon audiences wads of the insipid amorous sentiment of that glucose and tacky texture to which Schubert and Schumann have accustomed - but by no means inured - all of us.

I have on more than one occasion given it as my considered opinion that in no country in Europe - least of all in England, at the present time - are songs being written remotely comparable in quality with those of Francis George Scott. The only other living composer whose work has the concentrated "meatiness" and sinewousness of Scott's work- namely Sibelius - is very far indeed - being the outstanding figure as a song-writer that he is as a symphonist.

And how different, how blessedly, thrice blessedly different is Scott's treatment of the "love" lyric, or rather how different are his points-de-depar from those "Frauenliebe und Leben”, "Schone Mullerin", and all the rest of the stock-in-trade and clap-trap of Germanic musical sentimentality. Scott is either mockingly Rabelaisian as in a Burns' `My Wife is a wanton wee thing" or his expression of the "tender" passion is white hot, like molten steel, in the concentrated almost vitriolic intensity of Hugh MacDiarmid's "Milk-wort and Bog-cotton." All of Scott's poetical texts are chosen from Scottish poets, from Dunbar to Hugh MacDiarmid, that extraordinary genius whom Professor Saurat has called the greatest living poet. The prodigious audacity and technical virtuosity of Hugh MacDiarmid's versification makes any convincing setting of his lines an achievement almost as great as that of the lines themselves. This Scott accomplishes with such mastery, such complete fusion of melodic line with poetic line, that the whole seems to have sprung from one mind rather than two."

"In this connection it was significant that in the recital of Scott's songs organised at the Institut Francais in the summer of 1943 he had to bring with him two singers from Scotland adequately to present his magnificent songs before a London audience Here where the very air breathed by singers (and if there are still any left, which I am sometimes tempted to doubt, they are all middle-aged or more) is poisoned by the B.B.C. bleat, wobble and whoop, and where such a thing as a homogeneously and consistently sung phrase is almost become a solecism, it would have proved wholly impossible to find singers able or willing, or both, to cope satisfactorily and effectively with Scott's songs."

"I do not want to sound discouraging indeed if I know anything of "F.G." I don't think he will find this discouraging - but I see no future at all for work as fine, bold, and powerful as his in the etiolated, debilitated, chlorotic musical atmosphere of England, which in matters of music is now the paradise on earth, the happy hunting ground of spiritual jelly-fish." We look at the people whom they dishonour with their suffrages - if such people could be dishonoured by anything - and indeed we have reason to render thanks to all our Gods that we are not such as they'. But Scotland, in spite of the fact that her people have intelligence that begins a few light years beyond that of the English (remember what Shaw says about the English vis-a'-vis the Welsh, Irish and Scots by whom they have the good fortune to be `surrounded') is, I fear, sufficiently doped and corrupted by contemporary mis-education to demand of her prophets that they be recognised "over the hills and far away", before the Scots themselves will accord them their yea-saying."

Sorabji lived with his mother in London, seeing his father only on the latter's periodic visits from Bombay. Sorabji says he was privately educated, although Sam Rutland of Cape Town says he remembers Sorabji as a fellow-student at the London College of Music (not to be confused with the Royal College of Music.). Sorabji Sr. appears to have been a very wealthy man, and Sorabji Jr. has never earned a penny in his life. This freedom from economic problems has provided him with the necessary leisure for composition; at the same time it has cut him off from practical musical life, from mixing with performing musicians, from any necessity to consider public demand. Sorabji is an extreme case of an anti-social composer; in his affluence, entrenched in his ivory tower, he writes just what he wants to write, he writes for himself alone, utterly indifferent to performers, public appreciation or publishers: his creative work is his own private affair. Here now is Sorabji's own credo: for the year 1962.

"I am not a "modern" composer, in the inverted commas sense of the word. I utterly and indignantly repudiate that epithet as being in THAT sort of way applicable to me. I write very long, very elaborate works that are entirely alien to and anti-pathetic to the fashionable tendencies promoted, published and plugged by the various "establishments" revolving round this or that modish composer. Why do I neither seek nor encourage public performances of my work? Because they are neither intended for nor suitable for it under present, or indeed any foreseeable conditions." This is Sorabji's attitude now and has been for the past 25 years; but it was not this when I first knew him; otherwise, of course, he would never have published 15 works or performed some of them publicly. Nor do I believe, in spite of what he ways, that he is entirely indifferent to the opinion others hold about his music; if so, why would he reprint at his own expense praiseful articles about his compositions and his playing by Clinton Gray-Fisk and Frank Holliday?

Now that I come to think of it, it seems odd that the very first composer I should invite to perform at the Active Society concerts, should be the most remote, the most un-get-at-able of all my contemporaries. I like to think that this choice was determined by my audacious courage, unheard-of enterprise; the fact is, however, that Sorabji was "news" around 1927. He had sent some of his manuscripts to the great English critic, Ernest Newman, who had returned them with a printed card which stated that `Mr. Newman does not review musical manuscripts.” Sorabji argued that music was music, whether published or not, starting a controversy which roped in many noted musicians resulting in heated arguments on both sides. I seem to remember that Philip Heseltine (better known as Peter Warlock) came out strongly in Sorabji’s favour in Curwen’s monthly, "The Sackbut". In the same musical journal Sorabji wrote on modern piano writing in the works of Rachmaninoff and Busoni and in the Godovsky transcriptions. I had followed the Newman Sorabji controversy with interest and read the articles with the result that I wrote a letter to Sorabji, via "The Sackbut" asking if he would consider coming to Glasgow and play one of his works. Contrary to my expectations I received a reply - a very courteous and charming letter saying he would be delighted to do so and suggested playing his new Fourth piano sonata. This was in 1928. He came again in 1930 to play his famous or notorious (whichever word you like to use) "Opus Clavicembalisticum" - and in 1936 performed the nine movements of his second Toccata. We became good friends, and I visited him at his London flat and spent some holidays with him, in Bournemouth and at Corfé Castle. By this time I had became extremely interested in his music, and wrote a brochure on him published by the Oxford University Press.

The first example of Sorabji's music you are going to hear is called "Gulistan"; it belongs to a class of Sorabji compositions which have their roots in French Impressionism; others are "In the Hothouse" and "The Perfumed Garden" - the latter, performed by the composer in Sorabji’s one and only broadcast, drew high praise from no less a person than Delius who heard it and wrote to him from France..........

"Gulistan - The Rose Garden" is an exotic impressionistic nocturne. Frank Holliday describes it thus: "It is as if in a flowing panorama of dream-like beauty, we behold and are thoroughly immersed in all the exotic magic of Iran: the Shah Mosque of Isfahan, the poetry, the incredibly lovely works in porcelain silver and gold, its exquisitely carved works of ivory and wood, and, of course, the scented loveliness of the roses of Shiraz. This work evokes in a masterly fashion, delicious and at times almost overpowering whiffs of Iran’s "sweet rose-haunted walks" to use a phrase of Hafiz."

PLAY TAPE OF "Gulistan" Editors Note: This tape is being located amongst Erik's effects in South Africa, the Trust hopes to include this piece when it is found.

At a first impression, without access to a score, this music may seem to be formless, to have no memorable themes, to be without direction, dreamily vague; an unending stream of beautiful sounds. Following the music with a score will correct this mis-impression for then one can see the composer's intentions; I am afraid, too, one is forced to conclude that for all his finger dexterity and considered in to-to, these intentions are beyond the performer's ability to convey convincingly to his listeners.

When Sorabji played his works in Glasgow, he spent many months practising them; even then, his performance fell far short of his own interpretative demands on paper - I know, because I turned the pages for him. On this point he used to say; "I am not a pianist and all I can hope to do is to give you a general impression of my work." In the interval of 26 years between his last public appearance and the making of this record you have just heard, Sorabji had all but given up piano practising and piano playing. "Why should I spend months practising one of my pieces" he explained, "when I can spend the time more profitably by writing other works? I know how my music should sound, so beg your pardon - why should I worry if other people don't?"

"Gulistan" the piece of which you have just heard was written in 1940. Nearly 20 years earlier Sorabji had formed his individual contra-puntal style which became crystallised in his "Opus Clavicembalisticum": a style - formally at least - based on Busoni's "Fantasia Contrappuntistica".

Perhaps you would like to hear Sorabji play some more - say, a bit from his chamber concerto for piano: here is a light-hearted account of the first and only public performance of "Opus Clavicembalisticum" -

On the night of the concert Sorabji came dressed in a typical Parsi suit of deep purple silk (it may have been satin). The unusual oriental style made him look somewhat like a Chinese Mandarin, to those as ignorant of Eastern modes of dress as were myself and the majority of the audience. Writing later, in the Glasgow University Student Magazine an irrepressible critic said he thought Sorabji had come out in his pyjamas.

But don't misunderstand me! This amazing little man had all the majesty, dignity and presence of his proud and honoured race and if some of us found his style of dress rather peculiar for a concert platform, no one would have dreamt of saying that he was other than outstanding in character and manner, with a powerful (indeed over-powerful) and dynamic personality.

Our President, Dr. Chisholm, as usual at these concerts, was turning the pages. I knew he was rather anxious about the turning this time because of the terrific speed with which Sorabji skipped over the key-board, and the almost illegible MSS. he had to follow. Sorabji had arranged with him to give a nod of his head when he was nearly ready to have the pages turned, in case of accidents. The first ten minutes of that recital was a nerve-racking experience for our President (he told me after) before he realised that Sorabji was entirely oblivious of the fact that he was nodding his head practically all the time, sometimes with such ferocity that I thought he would crack his skull on the piano keyboard. Chisholm was jumping up and down in his seat like a Jack-in-the-box, Yes, he was to turn, No: he shouldn't but somehow or other always managing to get the page over at the psychological moment.

The music, so unlike anything I had ever heard before was literally terrifying. Busoni's Fantasia Contrapuntistica - played at an earlier concert by the great Dutch pianist Egon Petri - in Busoni idiom was the nearest approach I could think of to this fantastic Opus, though believe me the Busoni piece would have been as sweet in my ears as Mendelssohn's "Spring Song if I had heard it that night. Floods of notes, cascades of arpeggios, fugal subjects a mile long, yet all conjuring up the most fantastic pictures in my mind, but there was nothing I could understand.

After about ten minutes of this, I found myself sitting twisting my fingers in sheer misery, hoping against hope that each crescendo was the final one so that I could get out of the hall for a breath of air. But it went on and on. The whole audience was spell-bound. Never have I known such absorbed listening. I really believe that, if the work had continued for 15 hours no one would have dared to leave the hall before the end. Sorabji had his audience mesmerised. At last the first part came to an end, but if some of the audience, myself included, were showing signs of strain it appeared that the composer was just beginning to get into his stride. I, along with other members of the audience, who still had sufficient strength to walk, had just reached the door, when an announcement was made that the composer did not wish an interval at this point, as it would upset the continuity of the work. Little did we know that a similar announcement was to be made at the end of the second part and there was to be no interval at all. With a dejected air I retraced my steps back to my seat.

The second part seemed to be a complete repetition of the first! My musical friends however assured me afterwards that I was quite wrong. "well" I said, exasperated "I bet there were a lot of other people in the hall who couldn't tell the difference either." By the time the performance had been in progress for two hours and five minutes (never have I looked at my watch so assiduously) even Sorabji was beginning to show signs of wear and tear, By now, I was beyond showing any re-action, whatever, except an occasional wistful look at the door, and praying that I would soon be at the other side of it: The old proverb “It is always darkest before the dawn" was definitely proved to me on that memorable evening. The last ten minutes were almost unbearable; the perspiration was pouring down Sorabji's face. It was pouring down mine too if he had but known it, only in some mysterious way I seemed to be crying at the same time, filled with a strange sense of fear and frustration; in some ways I think it must have been the same sensation you would expect to feel if a snake had you hypnotised and you were completely unable to break the spell. Up and down with tremendous crescendos, down and up with beautiful diminuendos (I did like the diminuendos) each crescendo raising my hopes, each following diminuendo flattening them till at last with one mighty cataclysmic sweep Sorabji finished playing his first and only performance of "Opus Clavicernbalisticum", which by the way, in simple language means 'a piece for the piano'.

There was an utter stillness in the hall and then a tremendous applause broke out. Whatever one thought of the music one could not fail to admire the virtuosity of the performance.

Slowly, so very slowly, Sorabji took out his pocket handkerchief and wiped his face. Slowly inch by inch he lifted himself out of the piano stool and holding on to the piano lid supported himself to give an enfeebled bow and left the platform to return many times.

Slowly, so very, very slowly I managed (without the aid of anything) to get out of my chair - I stood up, and at my feet fell a veritable bag of confetti! Unconsciously during the performance I had been tearing my programme into little bits!

Finally here is Sorabji himself reading one of his explosive tirades against all and sundry:

Editors note: Again this tape is being sought in South Africa, the Trust hopes to include it soon.

Sorabji as a young man - in his thirties
Sorabji, age 70: Corfé Castle in the background
Sorabji, age 70: Corfé Castle in the background
My daughter Fiona with Sorabji in the middle - myself at right: also at Corfé Castle, 1959, near to Sorabji’s house which he calls THE EYE
My daughter Fiona with Sorabji in the middle - myself at right: also at Corfé Castle, 1959, near to Sorabji’s house which he calls THE EYE
The first page of the second piano concerto
The first page of the second piano concerto - and scored for an average symphony orchestra: this was the page that Hindemith and Tovey pondered over in Edinburgh (I spoke about the incident yesterday morning) trying to figure out how the opening bar should be conducted. They couldn’t find a solution: perhaps you will be more successful!
Transposing is dispensed with for wind and brass: the piano has elaborate figuration against a unison figure in all but the full orchestra
While this music for organ is exceedingly difficult it is not unplayable, and shows a full knowledge of the resources of the instrument, even if chord tremolos are not fashionable on the manuals, and few (if any) organ pedals go up to top G! It is intended to be the sole work of any programme. Some Reger organ works are just about as difficult: Pat Shannon and I rehearsed it as an organ duo but never performed it
This is now the opening MSS page of Sorabji's most famous composition - the "Opus Clavicembalisticum". The work is published at 5 guineas on hand made paper and at 2 guineas on less swanky paper. Although it opens with a tone-row of 10 notes, Sorabji disclaims any admiration for serial music
Two hundred and fifty-one pages later you come up against this: note that Sorabji spreads himself over 5 crammed staves. Can you read the inscription in the right-hand corner? "In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, 1.50 p.m. this fifth month of June A.D.N.S. l930. K.S. finished this work"
Dedication of the work - Can you read it?
One of the three songs to words from the "Gulistan" of Saadi", in French translations of Franz Toussaint for baritone and piano: he dedicated the cycle to me. Here it is - if you can read it