Musical Letters

This page lists, in chronological order of composition, the instances of Sorabji’s use of musical letters (soggetti cavati) in his works, where they usually serve to make a reference to a dedicatee. The names in the second column are given in inverted order for sorting purposes and in brackets to cause them to appear as a group.

In German notation, the letter H corresponds to the note B, and that E♭ is pronounced Es and thus serves to represent the letter S.

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Title Letters or Name Comments
Title Letters or Name Comments
Symphony [no. 1] for Organ (1924; 81 pp.) B-A-C-H Seven powerful statements of the theme referring to Johann Sebastian Bach, with a new harmonization on each repetition (p. 100)
Fragment: Prelude and Fugue on FxAxx DAxEx (1926; 3 pp.) F-A-D-A-E Used at the beginning of the fugue subject based on the name of the dedicatee, Frank Davey
Toccatinetta sopra C.G.F. (1929; 8 pp.) C-G-F Used in the three sections as a reference to the dedicatee, Clinton Gray-Fisk
Opus clavicembalisticum (1929-30; 253 pp.) C-G-H-D Two references to the dedicatee (Christopher Grieve, i.e., Hugh MacDiarmid) in the “Fantasia” (pp. 38, 39)
Sonata V (Opus archimagicum) (1934-35; 336 pp.) [Bromage, Bernard],
G-A-B-E,
B-A-C-H
The eight notes of the first movement’s opening theme use the name of the dedicatee, Bernard Bromage. Pars tertia et ultima uses what is probably a reordering of “BromAGE” as well as the motive referring to Johann Sebastian Bach. The work is further unified by the note B, again a reference to the dedicatee.
Symphonic Variations for Piano (1935-37; 484 pp.), Symphonic Variations for Piano and Orchestra (1935-37, 1953-56; 540 pp.) E-C-A The work, in its two versions, is written on an original theme based on a motive that matches the initials of the dedicatee, Edward Ashworth Clarke.
Un nido di scatole sopra il nome del grande e buon amico Harold Rutland (1954; 26 pp.) B-A-D-D-A-D The work opens with a statement as a reference to the dedicatee, Harold Rutland: B (= H), A, D (= R)[ol]D [Rutl]A[n]D. The title “A rivederci” for the sixteenth box could be a pun on the dedicatee: (H)arry (= Harold).
Second Symphony for Piano (1954; 248 pp.) F-H The work is dominated by a motto referring to the original dedicatee, Frank Holliday.
Toccata terza (1955; 91 p.) C-G-F The work uses in all its movements, strictly or modified, the musical letters of the dedicatee, Clinton Gray-Fisk.
Rosario d’arabeschi (1956; 45 pp.) S-A-C-H-E-E The work uses a theme that refers to the dedicatee, Sir Sacheverell Sitwell: (S = E♭, A, C, H = B, E[v], E[rell]). Furthermore, the “Punta d’organo” is based on the note E♭, which stands for Sitwell (S = Es = E♭).
Opus clavisymphonicum — Concerto for Piano and Large Orchestra (1957-59; 333 pp.) D-E-F-A-C-E-G-A Sorabji writes a series of musical letters above the last notes of eight groups of four semiquavers in the “Toccata” (pp. 165-66); these could be a reference to a work by the dedicatee, John Ireland.
Third Symphony for Piano Solo (1959-60; 144 pp.) G-E[o]-R-G-E; R[i]-C-H (= B)-A-R-D-S (= E♭) The theme of the passacaglia consists of the musical letters of the name of the dedicatee, George Richards.
Fantasiettina sul nome illustre dell’egregio poeta Christopher Grieve ossia Hugh M’Diarmid (1961; 10 pp.) C-B-E-E♭-B♭-E-D / G-D-E-E In his edition, Ronald Stevenson printed a theme that is represented in the work by its opening four notes: CH[r](m)I (e)ST(i)[oph]ER / GR[i]E[v]E. The lowercase or superscript letters suggest the notes (mi = E, es = E♭, ti = B) or complete the dedicatee’s name.
Messa grande sinfonica (1955-61; 1,001 pp.) B The work begins on a low B and concludes with a long crescendo on a B pedal that leads to a radiant B major chord, which could be references to the dedicatee, Reginald Norman Best. The note B is also the key of Bach’s Mass in B Minor.
Fourth Symphony for Piano Alone (1962-64; 240 pp.) [Rutland, Harold] The second subject of the fugue that forms the final section of the second part incorporates the dedicatee’s name. The letters in parentheses correspond to the essential letters of the dedicatee’s name: B (= H)-B♭-A (= A)-G-D (= Ré)-D (= D) / D (= Ré)-E-C (= ut)-B-A (= A)-F♯-D (= D)-E♭.
Toccata quarta (1964-67; 149 pp.) F-H The work is a “tema fiorito sul nome del carissimo amico F.H.” (i.e., Frank Holliday). The opening theme F-D-A-E-C-B-A-A-D-A contains the name FR(é)ANK / H (= B)OLLIDAY.
Concertino non grosso for String Sextet with Piano obbligato quasi continuo (1968; 48 pp.) [Vicars family] On a separate sheet Sorabji associated the names of the members of the Vicars family (Mervyn, Denise, Adrian, Kevin) with musical motives. We cannot really speak of soggetti cavati in this case.
Symphonia brevis for Piano (1973; 120 pp.) A-H The musical letters of the name of the dedicatee, Alistair Hinton, are used as the first two notes in the upper part. The motive is used elsewhere in the work, including in the opening notes of the two fugue subjects of the “Quasi fuga”.
Variazione maliziosa e perversa sopra “La morte d’Åse” da Grieg (1974; 2 pp.) F♯-B-C♯ Though not properly a soggetto cavato, the theme is the opening motive of “ses Død” in Edvard Grieg’s music to Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt.
Sixth Symphony for Piano (Symphonia claviensis) (1975-76; 270 pp.) A-B♭-B♮ The opening motive gives prominence to the notes that comprise the initials of the dedicatee, Alistair Hinton.
Frammenti aforistici (4) (1977; 1 p.) A-H,
B-A-C-H
The letters that correspond to the initials of the dedicatee, Alistair Hinton, are used in various places. These letters are part of the motive associated to Johann Sebastian Bach used in the first fragment.
“Il gallo d’oro” da Rimsky-Korsakov: variazioni frivole con una fuga anarchica, eretica e perversa (1978-79; 93 pp.) [Hinton, Alistair] Var. 44 contains an “eco del nome del’amico [recte dell’amico] diletto” in the form of a long line above a trill on a low A, beginning with A-A-E♭-A-D-C-C-G, which can be read as AL(a)IS (= E♭) TAIR (= D).
Il tessuto d’arabeschi (1979; 32 pp.) [Delius, Frederick] The final notes read D-E-A-D♯ (= E♭), where the A (la) stands for “liu” and the E♭ for S (= Es in German notation).
Opus secretum atque necromanticum (1980-81; 48 pp.) C-S-B The opening motive begins with the notes C-E♭-B, which correspond to the initials of Clive Spencer-Bentley, the dedicatee of Passeggiata variata sul nome del caro e gentile giovane amico Clive Spencer-Bentley (1981; 3 pp.).
Passeggiata variata sul nome del caro e gentile giovane amico Clive Spencer-Bentley (1981; 3 pp.) [Spencer-Bentley, Clive] The work is written “sul nome del caro e gentile giovane Amico Clive Spencer Bentley dello Zio (quasi!)”. Sorabji gives prominence to five pitches (B-C-D-E♭-E) that can be derived from the dedicatee’s name: CL(m)IVE / S(= E♭)PENCE (= ré)-BENTLEY, i.e., C-E-E, E♭-E-C-E-D, B-E-E.
Due sutras sul nome dell’amico Alexis (1981, 1984; 2 pp.) [Procter, Robert William] The pieces state the notes A-A-E (also varied to A-A♭-A), which are the musical notes of the dedicatee’s nickname, Alexis: A, L(a), E.
Last modified: 2019-10-01
© Marc-André Roberge 2019
Sorabji Resource Site (SRS)
Faculté de musique, Université Laval, Québec

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