Note: This article was originally commissioned by the Journal of the Indian Musicological Society in 1996. As of December 2000 it had yet to appear in that journal. The author thus decided to make it available on his own. The text is reproduced here with very minor modifications.

A Few Notes on the State of Research on the Life and Music of Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji

One of the most fascinating composers of the twentieth century, Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji (1892-1988), who was born in England of a Parsee father and an English mother, is finally beginning to obtain the recognition he deserves. Sorabji, who was largely self-taught as a composer, derived his knowledge of musical technique mainly from his personal study of the works of composers he was to champion in his writings throughout his life, such as Liszt, Alkan, Mahler, Delius, Busoni, Reger, Godowsky, Scriabin, Rachmaninov, Medtner, and Szymanowski. The most potent influence, however, has been that of Busoni, whom he met in 1919, and whose cause he pleaded in an unflagging way all his life. Thanks to a modest trust fund set up by his father around 1915, Sorabji did not have to work to earn a living. He was nevertheless active as a music critic for two London periodicals, The New Age (from 1924 to 1934) and The New English Weekly (from 1932 to 1945), both associated with the doctrine of guild socialism. His 600-odd concert and record reviews contain acidic comments about the composers whose music he disliked (such as Stravinsky, Hindemith, and the serial Schoenberg) and effusive praises of his models.

Sorabji has always been a highly original composer, one to whom the traditional standards of musical activity cannot be applied. This has played against recognition of his significance as a musical personality and led critics to dismiss him as a crackpot. A proper assessment of his music has long been difficult since scores could hardly be obtained and performances were extremely rare and limited geographically. The composer had specified in his published scores that no performance could be given without his consent and few people asked for permission as a result of the unusual demands in virtuosity and stamina. The twelve-part Opus clavicembalisticum (1929-30; 253 pp.), for instance, lasts four and a half hours and features a forty-minute passacaglia with eighty-one variations and a forty-minute quadruple fugue, all of which is written in a very complex pianistic and compositional idiom.

Sorabji's compositional output comprises one hundred and eleven works totalling more than eleven thousand manuscript pages, mostly unmetered. Some works are as short as a single page (like the four Frammenti aforistici of 1977) and as long as one thousand and one pages (the Messa grande sinfonica of 1955-61). Thirty works range from one hundred to five hundred pages; at the lower end, another thirty works are shorter than ten pages. A significant part of his output is for piano alone and many works for chamber ensemble or orchestra feature important piano parts.

Throughout his life Sorabji was interested in topics having a link with the Orient, such as Tantrik symbolism and yoga. His works often fuse the decorative features of romantic and postromantic piano writing with the ornamental luxuriance of Oriental art, as in Le jardin parfumé: Poem for Piano Solo (1923; 16 pp.), Nocturne: Jami (1928; 28 pp.) and Gulistan: Nocturne for Piano (1940; 28 pp.), which derive their inspiration from Persian poetry. These pieces, which are among his most beautiful works, sound like extended improvisations.

Sorabji had fourteen of his works published in the twenties, and he played some of them in public on rare occasions. In 1932 he improvised on two occasions on the radio in Bombay, where he was spending some time to settle matters related to his father's estate. Sorabji's father had abandoned his wife and son some time after the latter's birth to return to Bombay where he played an important part in the development of the engineering and cotton machinery industries.

A few unauthorized performances of Sorabji's music were given in the sixties and early seventies. It is only from 1976 onwards, however, that a few enterprising pianists (Michael Habermann and Yonty Solomon, and later Geoffrey Douglas Madge and John Ogdon) began receiving the composer's permission to perform and record his music. Others (like Donna Amato, Kevin Bowyer, and Marc-André Hamelin) followed in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Several recordings have been produced by Chris Rice and released on his Altarus label (formerly based in England but now relocated in the United States). In 1988 the Scottish composer Alistair Hinton, who had been instrumental in convincing Sorabji to allow his music to be performed (he is also his sole heir), established the Sorabji Archive (Easton Dene, Bailbrook Lane, Bath, BA1 7AA, England) as a means of disseminating information on the composer.

Many of Sorabji's music manuscripts are now housed in the Paul Sacher Stiftung (Basel, Switzerland) while others are in private hands. The Sorabji Archive, however, owns master copies of all of Sorabji's works and makes available to interested persons large-size photocopies and revised editions of his works as well as various documentary materials. Another repository of important documents is the Frank Holliday Collection of Material Relating to Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji, which is located in the William Ready Division of Archives and Research Collections at McMaster University (Hamilton, Ontario, Canada). This extensive collection consists mainly of correspondence between Sorabji and his long-time friend Holliday and between Holliday and other friends of Sorabji.

Clean copies of the music, free of the numerous notation problems posed by the composer's often less than carefully written manuscripts, are essential in order to prepare the works for performance. This had led several pianists, like Donna Amato, Carlo Grante, Marc-André Hamelin, Charles Hopkins, Gordon Rumson, and Ronald Stevenson, as well as the organist Kevin Bowyer, to produce performing editions, so far mostly of short and medium-size works. Other musicians and scholars, including the present writer, have prepared or are preparing other calligraphed or computer-produced editions. To date about twenty-five works are available through the Sorabji Archive in legible copies, in some cases with a full critical apparatus. The present writer's edition of the Pastiche on the Hindu Merchant's Song from "Sadko" by Rimsky-Korsakov (1922; 4 pp.) contains close to eight pages of comments describing editorial decisions for a work of seventy-two bars in triple time. One can easily imagine the difficulties that the editor of a work spread over several hundred pages must face. So far there is only one edition of such a major work, Kevin Bowyer's manuscript copy of the Second Symphony for Organ (1929-32; 350 pp.).

In the literary field, George A. Ross has prepared an extensive index of names mentioned in Sorabji's published writings. The present writer, an associate professor of musicology at the Faculty of Music at Laval University (Québec, Canada), has prepared annotated indexes to the composer's two books of essays as well as an annotated bibliography (with index) of a large segment of his published writings. He is also nearing the completion of a critical biography, tentatively entitled Opus sorabjianum; writing this book has been an arduous task as a result of the scarcity of sources; indeed, the composer refused to lead a public life and eventually left London to live as a recluse in a small village in the south of England.

A few theses and dissertations have also been written during the last fifteen years. These have been prepared on the basis of published materials. It is now possible to cast the net much wider as a result of the availability of research materials. We must be grateful to Dr. Paul Rapoport of McMaster University who, in the 1970s, was the first scholar to take an active interest in Sorabji, for having assembled a fine collection of essays under the title Sorabji: A Critical Celebration. This book, whose most significant contribution is undoubtedly the detailed catalogue of works prepared by Rapoport himself, is likely to pave the way to a better understanding of the music of one of the most unique composers in the history of twentieth-century music and thus to foster stimulating research projects.

Summarized List of Works

Fifty-four works for piano, including five toccatas, six sonatas, six symphonies, ten multisectional piano works comprising themes and variations, passacaglias, and fugues, twenty-two works with programmatic titles, and a set of one hundred Études transcendantes

Eight works for piano consisting of transcriptions or arrangements of other composers' works (Bach, Bizet, Chopin, Ravel, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Richard Strauss)

Three symphonies for organ

Eleven works for piano and orchestra

Eight works for orchestra, with or without voices

Seven works for chamber ensemble, including two quintets for piano and strings and two works with voices

Twenty-one songs or sets of songs, including several on texts by Baudelaire and Verlaine and one with organ accompaniment

One work for carillon and one work (not extant) for unknown forces

Selected Bibliography

An Index of Proper Names to Be Found in the Complete Published Writings of Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji, compiled by George Alexander Ross, including additional material compiled by Marc-André Roberge. Bath: The Sorabji Archive, 1994.

Habermann, Michael. "A Style Analysis of the Nocturnes for Solo Piano by Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji, with Special Emphasis on Le jardin parfumé". D.M.A. diss., Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University, Peabody Conservatory of Music, 1985.

Rapoport, Paul, ed. Sorabji: A Critical Celebration. Aldershot, Hampshire: Scolar Press; Brookfield, Vermont: Ashgate Publishing Company, 1992, 1994 (2nd printing).

Roberge, Marc-André. An Annotated Bibliography of Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji's Collected Published Writings. Bath: The Sorabji Archive, 1993.

Roberge, Marc-André. Annotated Indexes to "Around Music" (1932) and "Mi contra fa: The Immoralisings of a Machiavellian Musician" (1947) by Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji. Bath: The Sorabji Music Archive, 1992.

Roberge, Marc-André. "The Busoni Network and the Art of Creative Transcription". Canadian University Music Review, no. 11/1 (1991): 68-88.

Roberge, Marc-André. "Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji's Quintet for Piano and Four Stringed Instruments and Its Intended Performance by Norah Drewett and the Hart House String Quartet". In Music in Canada/La musique au Canada: A Collection of Essays, Volume I, ed. Guido Bimberg, 91-108. Kanada-Studien, im Auftrag des Instituts für Kanada-Studien der Universität Augsburg, vol. 25. Bochum: Universitätsverlag Dr. N. Brockmeyer, 1997.

Roberge, Marc-André. "Producing Evidence for the Beatification of a Composer: Sorabji's Deification of Busoni". The Music Review 54, no. 2 (May 1993): 123-36 [publ. May 1996].

Sorabji, Kaikhosru Shapurji. Around Music. London: The Unicorn Press, 1932. Reprint. Westport, Conn.: Hyperion Press, 1979.

Sorabji, Kaikhosru Shapurji. Mi contra fa: The Immoralisings of a Machiavellian Musician. London: Porcupine Press, 1947. Reprint. New York: Da Capo Press, 1986.

Last revised: 7 June 2004
© Marc-André Roberge 2000