And Who Exactly Is Sorabji?

Alistair Hinton

[June 2003.]

And who exactly is Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji? The question may well have been asked in polite musical circles (whatever they are) some 30 years ago. In those days, this remarkable 20th-century composer had no commercial recordings to his name, almost no public performances or score publications for almost 40 years (and even those few printed works that did exist were hard to obtain and soon to go out of print), and Sorabji had put a seemingly unbridgeable distance between himself and the milieu of his profession.

The fact that during this long period of near-silence his name never quite evaporated from the consciousness of musicians may in part be due to the stuff of myth and legend in which certain people with nothing better to do chose to clothe the unwitting Sorabji. Some of this he occasionally rebutted, some of it he quite enjoyed, and for all of it he really cared not a fig. For the record, these largely absurd fantasies may be summarized thus: Sorabji was a thoroughly eccentric composer of mixed race who lived under an assumed name, wrote music all of which was very long, complex and unperformable, disregarded the opinions of everyone, loathed all musicians, forbade all public performances of his music forever and threatened legal action against anyone infringing on his wishes, was misanthropic, misogynistic, curmudgeonly, extremely wealthy and lived in a castle he owned in Scotland. Most of this may sound pretty repellent, so it is well worth bearing in mind that it comprises some 5% misunderstanding and 95% terminological inexactitude.

Given that many of these myths originated in England, the eccentricity visited upon Sorabji might seem odd to some who assume it to be a characteristic which the English might have appreciated rather than deprecated. How did it arise? Sorabji was raised in the backward-looking, complacent artistic climate of Edwardian England when no recordings existed and performances of the latest central European music were rare even in London where he lived. The years leading to World War I were exciting times in history in general and in music history in particular. The young Sorabji, undeterred by the blinkered attitudes around him, absorbed new music voraciously by acquiring scores and reading through them at the piano, thus acquainting himself with Debussy, Ravel, Rachmaninov, Scriabin, Medtner, Busoni, Strauss, Mahler, even Schönberg. No wonder he also acquired a reputation as an outsider, for it was one thing to be a multiracial foreigner in alt-Empire England but quite another to be a young firebrand lauding the extremes of modern non-English music to everyone around him regardless of whether they would listen to him or the music. Undeterred, his efforts to convince others of the importance of this repertoire included trying to persuade conductors to mount performances. For example, he seems to have been the first to introduce Henry Wood to Schönberg’s Five Orchestral Pieces, which Wood went on to première in England.

It is indeed true that Sorabji, aware that his music did make extreme demands on would-be performers, wished to exercise some control over who might perform it before whom, yet the performance difficulties inherent in much of the work were in themselves sufficient to ensure that most performers steered clear of it for many years. No composer wants to invite misrepresentation. The extent of Sorabji’s measures to discourage this in his own case are somewhat unusual. It is also true that he was a very private individual, but one whose principal motive for maintaining his privacy was to allow himself as much uninterrupted time as possible to continue to compose. That he did so for almost 70 years despite absence of public reception, approbation and criticism is ample evidence of his immense and unflagging creative courage, although he was not unique in this either, as a casual consideration of Alkan, Ives, Brian and, above all, Skalkottas will demonstrate.

It is true that, of just over 100 works which Sorabji composed, about a quarter are of unusually great duration; that means that almost 80 of them would fit comfortably into conventional-length concert programs. It is also true that Sorabji’s thoughts were sometimes texturally and rhythmically complex for their time and that his music, embracing great intellectual rigor, wild fantasy and transcendental virtuosity, requires considerable concentration and stamina from performers and listeners; Sorabji is hardly alone in these matters, either — consider the demands made, for example, by Alkan, Mahler, Busoni and Godowsky before him and Carter, Ferneyhough and Finnissy after him.

Sorabji lived the first 60 of his 96 years in London and the remainder in south Dorset. He was not at all wealthy but did at least have a small private income from a family trust which afforded him the freedom to work without needing to derive a living from his labors. Indeed, one of his most longstanding friends, the distinguished English author Sacheverell Sitwell, once remarked that “all we artists should have a private income — and it should be a small one, otherwise we’d do no work, would we?” Though Sorabji’s profile as a composer remained relatively low for much of his life, he retained a certain public persona through his writings as music critic and essayist; brilliantly witty, eminently readable, provocative, controversial, pensive and trenchant by turns, their style ornate, elaborate and coruscating, the best of his reviews and articles are worthy of his inter-war peers whose main profession actually was literature.

Much has changed in the past three decades. Sorabji’s music has attracted the attention of a number of remarkable performers and been heard live in public on some 300 occasions in at least 20 countries. A substantial number of broadcasts have been given. More than 30 commercial recordings have been made by several companies in four countries, the lion’s share of existing and forthcoming ones being on the enterprising American Altarus label. New editions of about half of his works have been created. From the present standpoint, then, even the music’s legendary unplayability has been exposed as just that — legendary.

So, what brought about this sea-change?

Sorabji has always had his champions, but the principal obstructions to more widespread acceptance of his music in the mid-20th century were not the composer’s reluctance but the lack of courage of performers and the sheer difficulty of obtaining reliable source material from which to prepare performances. While Sorabji looked after most of his manuscripts carefully, his scores were not generally distributed; even if they had been, it is self-evident that, while they are fairly legible for study purposes, they are not the kinds of document from which performances of authority can realistically be prepared. The mold was finally broken by South African pianist Yonty Solomon, whose pioneering ventures into Sorabji’s repertoire first came before the London public in 1976 and the rest, as the cliché almost goes, is ongoing history.

Since first meeting Sorabji in 1972, I had been trying to persuade him to sanction performances by artists of his choice, but as he had allowed himself to become too long accustomed to the silence, this proved to be a protracted and uphill struggle. Once he had relented in favor of Solomon, however, his pleasure in his decision opened the way for his giving due consideration to other artists who could also do his work the justice it so well deserved but which had for so long been so elusive.

Welcome as this was, it raised another problematic specter; interest generated by the emergence of this performance tradition caused all the published scores to run out of print and, in any case, most of his work remained in manuscript only and thus inaccessible to interested performers and scholars. So, just as Sorabji’s works were becoming available to the ear, they were disappearing from the eye. I concluded that the only solution was to create an archive with a view to making the entire œuvre available, although, having seen quite a few of Sorabji’s manuscripts, I was well aware at the outset that this would be a monumental task. My initial proposition to the composer, first met with blank and unadorned refusal, was later ornamented by his view that there seemed little point in reissuing copies of out-of-print publications which contained numerous errors. I wondered how he would react to the notion that someone make a brand new corrected edition of one of those defunct publications and offer it for publication; this is where a chink of light appeared. He said he would be delighted, as long as he was not expected to finance it (which he could not afford to do) or check it over (which his 90-plus-year-old eyesight was not best equipped to do). I then discovered that his only rooted objection to the idea arose from the sheer expense involved even in making master-copies of everything (11,000-plus pages of manuscript, no less). I countered that, while I could not disagree, there seemed to be no alternative. Well, there was no alternative. Having secured his agreement in principle, it was a matter of “let the battle commence.”

Sorabji had given some of his manuscripts away over the years but kept reasonably clear documentation identifying where most such material had gone. Detective work had to be done to establish the location of a few other manuscripts; some simply remained off limits or “missing presumed dead” and a few more that had not been seen for many years came unexpectedly to light. Finally, the bulk of this material was to hand, ready to copy. One of the results of Sorabji’s friendship with Dutch composer Bernard van Dieren (1887-1936) was a developing interest in the bookbinder’s art. Although he never explored its practice as thoroughly as did his elder colleague, it did encourage him to have many of his manuscripts leather-bound to a high standard. Consequently, all these bound manuscripts had to be professionally dismantled by a specialist bookbinder, photocopied and then re-bound in their original covers by the same bookbinder. Furthermore, all Sorabji’s large orchestral scores were of non-standard size and, just to make matters even more irksome, he had long since developed the bizarre habit of writing the percussion section material in separate scores and even having these bound separately from the remainder. Much fun was therefore had in trying to force all this disparate and incompatibly-sized material intelligibly onto A3 paper. An A2 copier had to be hired in to accommodate Sorabji’s wonderfully recalcitrant orchestral material. Eventually, all was completed. It had taken quite some time.

The next part of the project was assembling, collating and master-copying all his published literary writings; this was much assisted by the sterling labors of Prof. Paul Rapoport and Kenneth Derus’ existing indexed collection of that part of this material which appeared in the five journals to which Sorabji contributed most frequently, but it still involved a considerable amount of traveling to trawl through archives of other journals seeking Sorabjian needles in dusty literary haystacks.

Once all this was completed, a comprehensive name-and-place index for Sorabji’s entire published literary writings was prepared as a labor of love by a now-deceased enthusiast, and the creation of new editions of scores could be encouraged. The purpose of the Sorabji Archive has from the outset been to caretake all the composer’s works, musical and literary, to develop its collection and encourage scholarly research. The existence of the master copies has helped to facilitate the most significant progress; that is to say, the preparation of new, authentic performing editions of the composer’s scores. This is the one vital activity which Sorabji unfortunately did not live long enough to witness, as it began in earnest only just after he died. It continues today. The more recent ongoing development of music-processing software has facilitated editions in printed form. Accurate performances of Sorabji’s music can arise only as a result of such work. The Sorabji Archive is immeasurably grateful to each member of its expanding corpus of score editors who expend unstinting patience and hard work voluntarily, without expectation of financial gain, for the benefit of the Sorabji cause.

It is as well to get that credit in before returning briefly to Sorabji’s unarguable fears about the expense of making all this possible. The setting up of the Sorabji Archive and its material was indeed a very costly process. From its inception, it has enjoyed no public, corporate or individual private subsidy and has always relied for its financial survival upon the net proceeds of sales of scores, literature and recordings and royalties from performances, broadcasts and CDs.

Inevitably, these have been wholly disproportionate to the amounts expended upon enabling them. After a while, the discrepancy between the expenditure and the consequent income became strained to a point where Mr. Micawber would have long since expired from apoplexy, with the result that the premises housing the Sorabji Archive were about to be sold from over its head. This was a particularly galling sword of Damocles, since the archive is run from the building where I myself live. The only escape from that Damoclean auctioneer’s hammer seemed at the time to be through the possible sale of our collection of Sorabji manuscripts and this is what eventually had to occur. Anxious that they would not therefore be forced to go to the four winds, I entertained the fond hope that they could all go to one library where they would be properly caretaken and made part of a collection available to researchers. Fortunately, this was the exact outcome, all but one of those manuscripts once in our possession finding their eventual way to the Paul Sacher Stiftung in Basel, where they remain to this day.

Another problem we encountered was that of communication. It was all very well having this material available to copy and distribute, but how might we access and advise those performers, private scholars, conservatories and universities, etc., of its existence, location and availability? In the early days, this was down to expensive speculative mailshots which, while useful, cost far more than resultant orders could fund. And then came the Internet. Whatever time-wasting this facility has encouraged, it has to be said that the mere existence of a website which announces “here we are, this is what we are called, this is what we have and supply and this is what we do” was sufficient to sweep away at a stroke all the time- and fund-consuming snail-mailings. I confess, shamefully, to having not the slightest idea how to create and maintain a website so, once again, we are immensely thankful that someone was prepared to step in to prepare one and arrange its maintenance at their own expense. It has not been updated for a while but still serves that vital purpose of pointing enquirers at a means of obtaining scores, literature, recordings and all manner of other information about Sorabji. So, we survive!

Sorabji’s centenary was marked not only by performers and broadcasters but also by publication of Sorabji: A Critical Celebration (Scolar Press, UK), 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, is preparing a substantial Sorabji biography. Now nearing completion, it is anticipated for publication in 2004.

Cognoscenti of the major keyboard works of Sorabji would still wisely refrain from predicting that such compendia of fearsome difficulties might become “standard repertoire,” yet while the music hurls uniquely forbidding challenges at performers, almost 30 years of listening experience has demonstrated beyond question that it exerts an immediate intellectual and emotional grip on listeners.

Composer Alistair Hinton was born in Scotland. His early work attracted the interest of Benjamin Britten, with whose advice and help he attended Royal College of Music London for lessons with Humphrey Searle and Stephen Savage. His music dates from 1962 but he destroyed much of his pre-1985 output. He has published articles and reviews in journals including Tempo, The Organ, International Piano Quarterly, The Godowsky Society Newsletter and The Ronald Stevenson Society Newsletter, acted as executive producer of various recordings and contributed to radio and television productions in several countries including USA, Scotland, Netherlands and England. Numerous distinguished artists have performed, broadcast and recorded his music, which includes chamber, orchestral and organ works, songs and an extensive contribution to piano repertoire.

His friendship and professional association with the Parsi composer Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji (1892-1988) began in 1972 and led eventually to public performances of Sorabji’s works later in the 1970s and his foundation of The Sorabji Archive in the 1980s. The archive has assembled extensive collections of literature by and about Sorabji, issues copies of his remarkable scores and writings to the public worldwide and welcomes visits by appointment from performers and scholars. With the archive’s encouragement, a number of musicians have prepared definitive editions of Sorabji’s works; more are in progress. Their existence is vital in ensuring accurate and authoritative representations of Sorabji’s music in performance.

The Sorabji Archive (http://www.music.mcgill.ca/~jwapnick/sorabji/sor_arch.html) does not enjoy charitable status. Its foundation was wholly self-funding and its operation has always remained so. Its existence is dependent entirely on proceeds of sales of scores, literature and recordings and on royalties from performances, broadcasts and CDs.

The archive issues a brochure (available by e-mail) including a catalog of music and literature with supply prices, details of first editions, a discography with reviews and information on the book Sorabji: A Critical Celebration, the first full-length volume about the composer. All information in this brochure is regularly updated.

The archive website, created voluntarily by Erica Schulman, is located and maintained at McGill University, Montréal, Canada.

All rights in all of Sorabji’s musical and literary works are vested exclusively within The Sorabji Archive.

[Many readers have no doubt encountered Sorabji, but Alistair Hinton is likely to be another matter. Altarus currently offers three of his works, with more promised. Pansophiæ for John Ogdon (1990) is a 44-minute organ piece included on an Ogdon tribute, and the hour-long Variations and Fugue on a theme of Grieg (1970-78) perhaps echoes Sorabji (the dedicatee) in its scope. His String Quintet (string quartet + double bass, 1969-77) has its admirers. The final movement adds a soprano and lasts two hours. One description, “a vast edifice of epic intimacy,” sounds apt. W.M.]