About this Recording
8.571363-65 - SORABJI, K.S.: Piano Music (Habermann)

Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji (1892–1988)
Piano Music


Preface (1995)

A turning point in my musical life occurred in 1969 when Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji gave me the original manuscript of his thorny pastiche on Chopin’s Minute Waltz and rights to publish it. Then in the following year I assembled a 3-hour radio programme that introduced this out-of-the-mainstream composer. Kindling became flame, and Sorabji Soup has been simmering ever since!

As I began supplementing my score collection of the comparatively small number of Sorabji’s published works with copies of his manuscripts, it became evident that, while this is music of great originality and inspiration, its inconceivable technical demands could hardly be met by any mere 10-fingered mortal. But I was, surprisingly, wrong; in the early 1970s another turning point occurred: I became acquainted with pianist Michael Habermann.

The 1970s and ’80s were filled with an exchange of fascinating, warm correspondence with Sorabji, and I soon became aware that Habermann’s playing of his music was something totally undreamed of, not thought possible. Indeed, history has shown that Sorabji and Habermann were made for each other—composer with his ideal interpreter. I convinced Sorabji of this and obtained his permission in 1975 for Habermann to perform and record his music, music which Sorabji had previously withheld from the world.

Sorabji’s music is very “expensive” in terms of devotional time; an astonishing example of Habermann’s uncompromising commitment is that he once practised a single measure of one of the pieces for a solid week until all the elements of that measure were perfectly in place. Unlike others, Habermann faithfully honours details of Sorabji’s scores to a “T,” doesn’t simplify any passages for digital convenience, and amazes by always performing entirely from memory. But equally important is his conceptual grasp and interpretive imagination which impart musical and emotional continuity to his performances.

Donald Garvelmann (1927–2001)

Note: Spellings of titles are taken directly from Sorabji’s original manuscripts. All other spellings are from Sorabji: A Critical Celebration, edited by Paul Rapoport (Scolar Press, 1992/94).


While browsing through the photography section of an English bookstore in Mexico City back in 1967, I came upon a faded copy of what looked like unplayable piano music. The work, entitled Fantaisie Espagnole, bore a strange name: Kaikhosru Sorabji. The size and shape of the score, as well as the name of its publisher were also completely out of the ordinary. After some hesitation (how could I play something unplayable?) I purchased it for the grand sum of twelve pesos (one dollar). But within months, I had already ordered all of Sorabji’s music that was available in print. These scores were tenfold more complex than Fantaisie Espagnole (Sorabji, I later found out, called that his “insipid baby piece”!); and now the challenge of learning some of the world’s most complicated piano music obsessed me. I launched into the project enthusiastically. As I struggled to understand the unique musical structures Sorabji had created, I became attuned to his musical language: I was astonished by its depth, substance, and absolute beauty. It became increasingly difficult to understand why his music had been so neglected (actually he had received some attention for having “banned” public performance of his music, beginning in the early 1930s). Something had to be done to change this situation—I wrote to Sorabji himself and later sent him tapes of my performances of his music. To my delight he gave me permission to perform and record his music.

I met Sorabji for the first and only time in 1980. A striking man with intense eyes, bold features, long white hair (I was reminded of Albert Einstein’s) and large, powerful hands, he spoke rapidly—sometimes borrowing from several languages to put a sentence together. It became apparent to me why he had the reputation of being a genius. Equally, his living environment was a sight to behold—such beautiful furniture, rare books, and other treasures I had never seen all in one location. He drew my attention to a cupboard containing manuscripts. The luxurious bindings alone had me spellbound. And the paper they were written on was the finest and thickest I have ever seen. The tiny handwriting was beautifully balanced, but to the untrained eye the pages would probably appear as mere fastidious scribble. After some conversation, tea, cake, and wine, I played for him. Our meeting was necessarily limited in length, but totally unforgettable. I was blessed with several more years of written correspondence with him until shortly before his passing in 1988. Fortunately, for the world at large, he has left a body of musical work that is increasingly being appreciated as a rare treasure of the twentieth century.

The Man and his Music

Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji (1892–1988), the English-Parsee composer, will probably always be remembered for his pursuit of extremes: dazzling difficulties of execution in works of mammoth dimensions. Most of his piano works are written on three or more staves employing textures and rhythmic combinations that have to be seen to be believed.

His Opus Clavicembalisticum (1930) was listed for years in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s longest non-repetitive piano work. Many of his compositions are intended to be the sole work on a programme. Such a work is the Djami Symphony (1942–51), which spans nearly a thousand pages and employs performing forces of hundreds.

His longtime, and unique ban imposed upon public performance of his works, too, will not be forgotten. Despite enthusiastic praise from well-known musicians such as Ferruccio Busoni, Alfred Cortot, Frederick Delius, Karol Szymanowski, and Sir Donald Francis Tovey, his creative work remained largely unknown until the late 1970s, also due to the fact that only his earliest compositions were published. But these are only external characteristics, secondary to the music. Most important is the fact that his compositions stand out in the world of music for their unique and satisfying beauty.

Biographical information has been scarce and often inaccurate, hence the publication of his biography by scholar Marc-Andre Roberge is eagerly awaited.1 Sorabji’s mother was an English singer and his father a Parsi from Bombay. He was born in Chingford, England, on August 14, 1892 and spent most of his life in England. His musical education was private and, after appearing in the 1920s as a pianist in his own works, he subsequently attracted much more attention as a music critic for several English publications. He also wrote two books, Around Music (London: Unicorn Press, 1932) and Mi Contra Fa: The Immoralizings Of A Machiavellian Musician (London: Porcupine Press, 1947) which also reveal his incisive personality and intellect.

Sorabji’s essays, like his music, are generally stimulating, entertaining, witty, and informative. He freely expressed his opinions about everything; in praise and in condemnation, he was equally aggressive. Often he contradicted himself, sometimes completely reversing his viewpoint. Primarily he championed neglected works and composers, though he also complained endlessly about the corruption of audiences, performers, critics, composers, managers, and musical life in general. “His volumes of criticism blare with outrage over everything,” wrote New York critic Robert Jones.

It is Sorabji’s music, however, that most fascinates the adventuresome performer. His piano output is large—he also wrote much orchestral and chamber music (a complete list appears in Sorabji: A Critical Celebration, edited by Paul Rapoport; Scolar Press, 1992/94).

The interaction of imaginative rhythms, melodies, harmonies, and textures in his music is fascinating—perhaps even awe-inspiring. Moods are varied. The nocturnal pieces explore mystical trance states. His transcriptions often bring grandeur and dignity to their themes; at other times parody is the intent. The energetic pieces grab the listener by their sheer obstinacy and determination, and massive climaxes encompass the entire arsenal of the piano (and pianist).

“Not often is one so baffled by the printed page,” wrote one observer in a 1921 review of Sorabji’s Sonata No. 1. “Mr. Sorabji would have done better to publish it straight away as a player-piano roll.” The extreme difficulties of sight-reading and deciphering his ideas provoked most critics to immediately dismiss them as the incoherent scrawling of a musical madman. Opinions seem to be changing. David Hall commented in the December 1981 issue of Stereo Review magazine: “What I hear … is by turns absorbing and vastly entertaining. A flippant way to convey an impression of it might be: take some Liszt, Busoni, Scriabin, Satie, and Ives. Shake well before using.”

What he borrowed from the romantic composers in their largest works was a sense of structural/textural complexity, contrapuntal massiveness, and expansiveness. Attuned to the Lisztian tradition of virtuoso piano playing, Sorabji wrote music that makes the utmost technical and musical demands. Likewise, echoes of the Impressionist composers Debussy, Ravel, and Delius make themselves felt in his fluid, sensuous textures, and in the imaginative, improvisatory, and deceptively effortless quality of his works. But while Sorabji’s music reflects the influence of many of the composers he admired and emulated, it is more than an amalgam of styles. Rather, it synthesizes in a unique way the tendencies of all these styles combined, and forges ahead into hitherto unexplored territories.

Sparseness of texture, economy of means, and brief statement are not characteristic of his work. His goal seems to have been to pack more detail into each composition than the average listener can possibly absorb. Extensive use of counterpoint coupled with abundant decorative figurations, fluctuations between free atonality and tonality, extreme textural density, asymmetrical prose-like phrase structure, and complicated rhythmic combinations are all present in Sorabji’s music. Surprisingly, these intricate details successfully complement the imposing length of the pieces into which they are typically set.

Although dissonance abounds in these works, they contain little of the tension usually associated with highly discordant music. Essentially conservative, Sorabji did not identify with most 20th-century developments. In Mi Contra Fa, he saw himself as a romantic, a composer pitted against society, isolated not in an ivory tower, but in a “Tower of Granite, with plentiful supplies of boiling oil and molten lead handy to tip over the battlements onto the heads of unwanted and uninvited intruders.”

The result of all this turgid imagery and complex thought is a piano music that, at first glance, looks impossible to learn. Much of his early work is notated on three or more staves in order to facilitate reading. As the years progressed, his writing grew even more complicated. Several of the later piano symphonies are four to five hours in duration, yet they attempt to maintain interest through successive great peaks of intensity, with huge climactic statements in the concluding sections.

Sorabji’s piano work falls into several categories: those of a strictly contrapuntal nature, works in variation form, works which emphasize motoric activity, works such as free fantasies, paraphrases, and shorter items, and nocturnes.

In his contrapuntal music, Sorabji pushes every aspect of counterpoint to its ultimate extreme. Most of the fugues have five different subjects. In the final massive sections, called the coda-stretta, all five are played simultaneously. Markings such as quasi mixtures suggest that Sorabji might be thinking in terms of the powerful sound of the organ. One wonders whether such grandiosity is possible on the piano, and whether the polyphony can be heard at all when six or seven staves, one above the other, are overloaded with notes, all intended to be played with only two hands and pedaled with two feet. The first complete movement in this style is the Fugue from the Prelude, Interlude and Fugue (1920–22). His most well-known work, Opus Clavicembalisticum contains four gigantic fugues, and many subsequent works contain even larger fugal sections.

The variation sets fascinate in their diversity of patterns, rhythms, textures, and harmonies. Though lengthy, they are effective, presenting an enormous range of expression in a structured manner, with each idea clearly separated from the next. Preludio Corale denotes a freer set of variations, written in the style of a piano transcription of an organ work. Passacaglias and basso ostinatos also fall in this category.

The motoric pieces, including toccatas, preludes, “perpetual motions,” fantasias, and cadenzas, generate excitement through their relentless determination and impulsiveness. Most often, they consist of an enormous number of sixteenth notes pitted against pedal points and declamatory phrases. As in the fugues, the predominant mood is one of obsessive perseverance.

Sorabji’s three early sonatas are long, formless, experimental, written-out improvisations; they are sonatas only in name. Two programmatic works of a sinister nature, both based on ghost stories, are Quare Reliqua Hujus Materiei Inter Secretiora (1940), and St. Bertrand de Comminges: “He was laughing in the tower” (1941). Prototypes for the 100 Transcendental Studies (1944–49) may be Busoni’s Klavierubung and Godowsky’s 53 Studies On Chopin’s Etudes. The Frammenti Aforistici (Sutras) of 1962 and 1977 are a collection of 103 short pieces, comprising almost a dictionary of the composer’s musical vocabulary. Revised several times, Fragment for Harold Rutland (1926, rev. 1928 and 1937) was one of the few of his pieces that Sorabji heard played by someone other than himself. A much later composition, Fantasiettina sul nome illustre H. MacDiarmid ossia C.M. Grieve (1961), resembles it in both length (two pages) and bipartite structure. It is regrettable that Sorabji did not compose many works of such short duration.

The most accessible of his compositions are the parodies, transcriptions, and paraphrases upon well-known themes. Many pianist/composers throughout history have delighted in commenting on and transforming popular melodies into brilliant and entertaining keyboard pieces. Sorabji emulated them by writing several virtuoso arrangements of works by Bach, Ravel, and Strauss. His Pastiches (1922), based on Chopin’s “Minute Waltz,” Bizet’s “Habanera” from Carmen, and Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Song of India” from Sadko, transform the familiar into the bizarre. The Viennese waltz is used as a springboard for his exuberant decoration of dance melodies in Valse-Fantaisie: Hommage a Johann Strauss (1925) and elsewhere. The Spanish dance rhythms in Quasi habanera (1917), Fantaisie Espagnole (1919) and Fantasia Ispanica (1933) show Sorabji’s love of Spain.

Amongst Sorabji’s most beautiful works are the nocturnes (not all of these bear the term “nocturne” in their title). They are extended, impressionistic pieces—soft, dreamy, and flowing pieces. Intended to be performed throughout at the lowest dynamic levels, the harmonies are luscious, the textures varied, and the phrases asymmetrical. But above all, the melodic content is truly inspired. Surrounding these sinuous, chant like melodies are imaginative figurations, pedal points, and haunting repetitive patterns that create hypnotic moods. Rhythms, melodies, and textures each provide interest in their turns. Only the dynamic level is fixed. Le jardin parfume (1923), Djami – Nocturne (1928), and Gulistān – Nocturne (1940) are among the most beautiful of his pieces in this genre.

Sorabji’s way of achieving both variety and unity in his work was to base each piece on a number of musical “gestures.” Constantly varied, developed, combined, and juxtaposed, these basic ideas are heard over and over again. Gestures differ from themes in that they are defined chiefly by their general outline. Matching pitch sequences or characteristic rhythmic patterns are of less consequence than the overall contour. Their development is governed by the composer’s sense of timing and his ideal of constant variation.

Rhythmic flexibility is achieved by changes in the unit of beat itself (from a quarter to a dotted eighth, for instance), frequent division of the beat or half-beat into five or seven parts, and an abundance of tied notes. The variety in rhythm, and not the formal structure of the composition, is probably what accounts for the improvisatory, floating feeling of many of Sorabji’s works.

Though the length and the technical difficulties are interesting in themselves, I would not play this repertoire unless it was musically valuable. Bypassing his insurmountably challenging Piano Symphonies, Toccatas, Variations, and the famous four-hour-long Opus Clavicembalisticum, I find the “shorter” works (those not exceeding a half hour in length) to be of greater interest. Sorabji’s works have an enticing, mystical, sometimes even an ominous quality. As people become more exposed to him, I’m sure that it is for his gifts as a composer, rather than for the prodigious dimensions of his work, that he will be remembered.


[1][2] Two Piano Pieces: In the Hothouse • Toccata

In the Hothouse (1918) and Toccata (1920), appearing in 1922 as Two Piano Pieces, were Sorabji’s first published works for piano. The first with its ostinati, the added-note harmonies, and asymmetrical melodic designs suggests the sensuous nocturne-style of later works such as Le Jardin Parfume. Toccata contrast vividly with its jagged rhythms and biting dissonances.

[3] Fantaisie Espagnole

Fantaisie Espagnole, composed in 1919 and published in 1922, updates the style of Albeniz with intensified harmonies, denser textures, and intoxicating melodic adornment. The structure has vitality too. Three charming sections, each quicker than the previous, and punctuated by cadenzas, build to a glittering apotheosis of the jota. In the latter, the entire range of the piano vibrates joyfully.

[4] Valse Fantaisie: Hommage a Johann Strauss

Similar in concept to Ravel’s La Valse, Sorabji’s fantasy opens in a casual, but elegant fashion: in a nebulous introduction we catch glimpses of glamorous melodies—the door is opened and we are dazzled by the glitter of the ballroom and its intoxicating melodies. However, as the dance, and the evening, progresses we become increasingly drawn into the unruly nature of the participants and the ball ends in pandemonium and catastrophe.

I gave the world premiere performance of this work on September 28, 1982 in Baltimore, Maryland.

[5] Pastiche: Hindu Merchant’s Song from Rimsky-Korsakov’s ‘Sadko’

The Hindu Merchant’s Song from Sadko is popularly known as the Song of India. Apart from the tasteful deployment of intertwining themes and augmentations to the harmony, Sorabji’s transformation adheres to its model rather closely. It is one of Sorabji’s most serenely beautiful dream vistas.

I gave the world premiere concert performance of this work on November 19, 1984 in Rocky River, Ohio.

[6] Pastiche: Habanera from Bizet’s ‘Carmen’

It has been suggested by one listener that Carmen’s tobacco factory has moved to the marijuana field, for the famous melody is subjected to pitch distortion, fantastic embellishment, and to an array of contrapuntal devices. Reaction is divided: some find the piece hilarious; others feel it is an insistent attempt to massacre the theme.

I gave the world premiere performance of this work on May 11, 1975 in Oyster Bay, New York.

[7] Pastiche: Chopin’s Valse, Op. 64, No. 1

Intrigued by Chopin’s Waltz, op. 64, no. 1, the famous Minute Waltz, Sorabji wrote two arrangements of it: the 1922 Pastiche and the 1933 Pasticcio capriccioso sopra Op. 64 No. 1 dello Chopin. Both are contrapuntal reworkings with added melodic lines. Of special interest are the introductory pages with their refracted arpeggios and the crescendo and amplification of the trill on A flat which is impressive: it starts with a single note, it doubles, quadruples, and then blooms into huge chordal tremolos. These two arrangements have been described as “the ultimate in keyboard transformations of Chopin’s waltz”.

[8] Michael Habermann: A la maniere de Sorabji: ‘Au clair de la lune’

Sorabji’s pianistic output largely consists of mammoth works lasting up to several hours each, although there are several collections of “Aphoristic Fragments” (dating from 1964 through 1977), each containing a series of extremely short pieces, some lasting only a few seconds. Having played most of his other pieces in between these two extremes, I had hoped to persuade the composer to write a few more short or medium-size works by sending him one of my own compositions. Sorabji’s reaction to my piece was pleasing:

‘Forty eleven thanks [for your] charming note of September 5 [1972] awaiting me on my return to my country peace and quiet from the alleged “delights” of the capital together with the charming A la maniere de.’

Instead of responding with a moderately sized work, he dedicated to me, in 1979, a 93-page manuscript entitled “The Golden Cockerel” by Rimsky-Korsakov: Frivolous Variations with an Anarchic, Heretical, and Perverse Fugue. Written in imitation of Sorabji’s late style and based on a well-known French nursery tune which functions as a cantus firmus, my own A la maniere de Sorabji is a salute to this master, albeit in a very lighthearted vein. Below, around, and above the endearing tune are to be found chords and decorative material which threaten to camouflage the thread which binds it all together. This homage forms a part of a series of tributes to various composers.


[1] Le jardin parfume – Poem for Piano

The title, “The Perfumed [or Scented] Garden,” alludes to a famous erotic book written by the Arabian poet and writer, Sheik Nefzawi, sometime between 1394 and 1433. Sorabji prescribes a narrow dynamic range (“Jamais plus fort que pianissimo du commencement jusqu’a la fin”) which removes any direct connection to the overt sexual content of the book. The prismatic harmonic shades, premonitory of the work of Olivier Messiaen, the French modernist, create a mystical and trancelike atmosphere.

Seemingly improvisatory in nature, the work is actually intricately structured. Several basic musical gestures pervade the fabric of almost every page. Frederick Delius wrote, “It interested me very much. There is real sensuous beauty in it”, after he heard Sorabji’s performance over the radio in 1930.

Le jardin perfume is the topic of my doctoral dissertation completed in 1985. I gave the first USA performance in Richmond, Virginia, on March 28, 1980.

[2] Djami – Nocturne for Piano

Given that Sorabji was Parsi (a follower of the ancient Persian religion known as Zoroastrianism) it is no surprise that this unique, deeply mystical composition pays homage to Persian poet Nūru’d-Din ‘Abdu’r-Rahmān Jāmī (1414–1492). The French spelling, Djami, appears on the title page. The manuscript opens with prefatory poetry from Jāmī’s Yūsuf and Zuleykhū:

‘Be thou the thrall of love; make this thine object; For this one thing seemeth to wise men worthy. Be thou love’s thrall, that thou mayst win thy freedom, Bear on thy breast its brand, that thou mayst blithe be. Love’s wine will warm thee and will steal thy senses; All else is soulless stupor and self-seeking.’

A further quotation orients us to Sorabji’s object of admiration:

‘Jāmī—at once a great poet, a great scholar, and a great mystic … One of the most remarkable geniuses Persia ever produced.’ (paraphrased from E. G. Browne’s A Literary History of Persia, Vol. 3, published in 1902 and 1928)

The piece is dedicated to Sorabji’s companion, Reginald Norman Best.

Djami – Nocturne received few public performances. Sorabji introduced it in London (Westminster Congregational Church) on January 16, 1930; a year later he performed it in Glasgow. In 1965, Sorabji made a home recording of it for his friend Frank Holliday. The first American performance was given by me in 1980 (Baltimore, Maryland), followed two years later by a studio recording for the Musical Heritage/Music Masters label.

As in most of his other pieces in nocturne style, Djami – Nocturne is intentionally restricted in its dynamic range. The opening marking, Lento: languido e dolcissimo, and the “ppp” and “pp” which also appear at the head, are followed only by a few “piano” directives; this nullifies attempts to impose unnatural dramatic effects.

Djami – Nocturne succeeds Le jardin parfume by several years, yet stands in vivid contrast to it in several ways. The earlier piece is bright, the later one is dark. In this piece Sorabji reveals a complexity of texture and polyrhythm which is at the heart of his musical manner. The lavish textural layering produces an amazingly beautiful and singular tone achieved by no other composer of music for the piano.

Djami – Nocturne is one of the most ethereal, otherworldly compositions ever written, moving music critic and pianophile Robert J. Gula to exclaim:

‘As far as I am concerned, while Opus Clavicembalisticum may be a wholly monumental work, Djami eclipses it. Djami moves my soul as few other works for piano ever have. It will surely be the state ceremonial music of Heaven once things settle down up there after the last judgment …’ (Journal of the American Liszt Society Vol. XV, June 1984, page 158)

I performed Djami – Nocturne for Sorabji during my meeting with him in August, 1980. While I played, feeling overwhelmed by his presence and his incredible music, he listened carefully. As I entered the taxicab which would take me back to the train station, I heard his last words to the driver: “I have just heard my music played more marvellously than I ever imagined possible.” While this was quite flattering, the generosity of his words has strengthened my dedication to his music ever since.

Djami – Nocturne is built upon a number of gestures such as (1) the opening descending octaves, above which a solemn melody emerges from the floating polytonal chords, and (2) the single-note pedal points which appear later, reminding one of Ravel’s Le gibet from Gaspard de la nuit. Passages with bell-like alternations of harmonies create an atmosphere of mysterious ritual. As opposed to Gulistān, phrases regularly cadence into thinner textures, simplifying the listener’s task of capturing the structure. Several densely polyphonic passages contrast marvellously with episodes of monophonic and two-part writing. The latter is expanded into a section marked Quasi canto lontano (page 25) preceding the final textural and fervent buildup and is reminiscent of similar heartbreaking dialogues that occur toward the end of Gulistān, St. Bertrand de Comminges, and others. The closing phrase, marked Lento e languido, I find crushing in its density of emotional charge—it is an unbearable final farewell.

[3] Gulistān (The Rose Garden) – Nocturne for Piano

The title Gulistān refers to the verse and prose The Rose Garden (1258) by the Sufi Persian poet Sa’dī (1213–1291). This literary work reflects the “detached and kindly attitude of an old man reconciled to the unpredictable vagaries of fate”—but the musical composition is even more fascinating. It is built upon a series of musical gestures which recur throughout; an analysis would fill an entire book. One encounters a multitude of textures, rhythms, and melodies showing Sorabji’s inexhaustible imagination and intellectual mastery.

Gulistān is surely one of the most sumptuous and imposing of the nocturnes. In its twenty-eight pages of manuscript it creates a magical world hitherto unexplored by any of his predecessors and remains a unique masterwork, even to this day.

The initial marking, Languido e dolcissimo, il tutto in un ambiente di calore tropicale e profumato, piuttosto nostalgico (Languid and gentle, all enveloped in an atmosphere of tropical warmth and perfume, somewhat nostalgic) sets the mood. The general atmosphere is best expressed in his description of a work by Delius: it reveals Sorabji’s love of rich, lavish, mysterious music:

‘Arabesk is not only unique among Delius’ work. It is surely one of the most astonishing evocations in sound of poisonous, perverse, tuberose-like beauty that exists. It is indescribably insinuating and haunting, and the mood of the subtly beautiful poem, with its deadly perfume, “the poisonous lily’s blinding chalice;” is expressed with miraculous insight and power.’ (“Delius,” The New Age. 46 [1929], pp. 8–9)

A comment by Sorabji on Richard Strauss’ opera, Salome, provides further insight into what he expresses musically:

‘Supple, serpentine, and insinuating, full of subtle suggestion, the music writhes and twists like a coil of smoke rising from an incense burner.’ (Around Music, page 150)

A first-hand impression of the beauty of Gulistān was penned by Sorabji’s longtime friend, Frank Holliday, the original dedicatee of the work:

‘In Gulistān (The Rose Garden) … played softly by the composer, it is as if in a flowing panorama of dreamlike 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 Shīraz. 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 Hāfiz.’ (Splendour upon Splendour: On Hearing Sorabji Play, a pamphlet privately published in 1960, reprinted in Sorabji: A Critical Celebration)

Fortunately, Sorabji’s performance of Gulistān was tape recorded by Frank Holliday at the composer’s home on March 26, 1965. His playing shows enormous deviations from the score in every respect (pitch, rhythm, dynamics, articulation), yet one admires the remarkable tonal beauty. Nevertheless, I wrote Sorabji about his liberties, and he replied:

‘You say in your kind letter … that you perceived marked liberties and deviations in performance (by self ) … I don’t doubt it for ONE MOMENT! I am not … repeat NOT a pianist and make no pretensions to being one. I get over the ground in my own music, and within my limitations EMPHATIC AND DECIDED as they are claim to do no more than to give a bird’s eye view of the music. Such liberties as I take—and who has better right to do so than myself in my own music?—are dictated by the condition of my fingers at any particular time when I was recording: then I modify and alter AS SUITS ME. That’s all there is to it. The music as printed embodies my INTENTIONS.’

I have honoured the composer’s wishes by preparing this performance from a close study of the manuscript.

The piece is formidably difficult to play for a number of reasons. Chief among these is the hallucinatory rhythmic complexity (a facsimile of a page from the manuscript is published in Sorabji: A Critical Celebration). Textural density is also extreme: a melody in the right hand, in duet with a melodic strand in the tenor range, accompanied by large chords in both hands in four different registers is not an unusual event. Indeed, one might surmise that Gulistān sounds like Le jardin perfume and Djami Nocturne played simultaneously. But if the former was light and the latter was dark, Gulistān is kaleidoscopic, ecstatic, at a constant peak of intensity. As in other works of equal dimensions, there is an interlude of respite preceding the closing section. The interlude in longer-valued notes is touching in its intimacy, delicacy and expression. Gulistān is brought to a close with a reference to its opening configuration, but the last note we hear, the lowest note on the piano, rings ominously, suggesting that Gulistān is merely an introductory glimpse into the awe-inspiring regions of the infinite.


[1] Introito and Preludio-Corale from Opus Clavicembalisticum

Everything in the literature of the piano seems small in comparison to Sorabji’s most famous work. Yet, Sorabji subsequently composed even larger works that still remain unpublished.

The Introito is the shortest section of this mammoth work. The defiant motto theme is followed by fiery polychord passages surrounding a grandiose statement of a chorale.

Preludio-Corale is essentially a set of majestic variations on the themes exposed in the Introito.

[2][4] Prelude, Interlude and Fugue

This is a cyclic work, as all three parts are based on the same ascending melodic figure. Following the fleeting Prelude (throughout in two parts), the Interlude (a nocturne) provides eerie contrast with its long melodic lines and its austere harmonies. In contrast to his later work, this Fugue has but one subject, yet the final page presents it in a typically grand chorale-like setting.

I gave the world premiere performance of this work on September 28, 1982 in Baltimore, Maryland.

[5] Fragment for Harold Rutland

Fragment (1926, revised 1928 and 1937), written for, and publicly performed by British pianist Harold Rutland (1900–1977), is one of the composer’s shortest pieces. The Shorter Oxford Dictionary (1957) defines the word “fragment” as “a (comparatively) small portion of anything.” It is this definition that must have been in the composer’s mind when he titled this work. Although it occupies only two pages of manuscript it is a complete and satisfying composition, not the remains of a lost manuscript.

The dedicatee, Harold Rutland, was an English critic, pianist, organist, composer, adjudicator, and author. He was employed at the BBC (1940–1956) and was the editor of The Musical Times from 1957 to 1960. An admirer of the music of Sorabji, he first performed Fragment at the Aeolian Hall, London, on October 12, 1927. He played it from memory twice that evening inspiring Eric Blom (1888–1959; editor of Grove’s Dictionary, 5th edition) to comment:

‘The composer is simply a seeker after an idiom of his own, and one knows from rare hearings of one or two of his works before that he is passionately sincere in his quest. It is due to this absolute earnestness that at second hearing the Fragment already seemed much clearer than at first. Even those who intensely dislike this music should thus in the end come at least to respect its fearless attitude.’ (An excerpt from Blom’s review in The Manchester Guardian appeared below a reproduction of the opening page of Fragment in the article Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji by Clinton Gray-Fisk (The Musical Times, April 1960, pp. 230–31).

Sorabji seldom revised his compositions, but responding to Rutland’s performance, he undoubtedly was stimulated to engage in some modification. Fragment exists in three versions. The original conception and the final version are similar in length, structure, and texture. The second version suffers from the addition of much superfluous material.

What alterations would he have made had he heard performances of his larger works?

Fragment is a free fantasy on the two musical gestures that appear at the beginning: a set of three accented, ascending chords and a descending melodic line. These appear in too many guises to analyze or even list here. Two large contrasting sections complement each other. The first is declamatory, and culminates in an aggressive climax. The second expresses languid exhaustion and dominates the closing.

[6] Fantasiettina sul nome illustre dell’egregio poeta Christopher Grieve ossia Hugh M’Diarmid

Composed in honour of the seventieth birthday of Hugh MacDiarmid (1892–1978), the venerated Scottish poet and close friend of Sorabji, this piece belongs to a rare category of works in Sorabji’s oeuvre—those which are short in length. Yet, within its modest dimensions it contains the essence of Sorabji’s musical personality. The piece, in two parts, shows alternately his powerfully brooding and defiant character, then his poetic and mystical bent. The “little fantasy” concludes with a surprise “volcanic eruption,” to use Sorabji’s own words. The letters from the poet’s name are translated into a musical motto that is utilized throughout. The composer, incidentally, had made prior use of the motto at the climax of the fourth section, Fantasia, of Opus Clavicembalisticum (pp. 38–39). Unlike that mammoth epic, Fantasiettina uses little traditional counterpoint, instead favouring complex textural and rhythmic polyphony of gestures. Despite the fearsome visual aspect of the manuscript (a printed excerpt appears in Sorabji: A Critical Celebration), patient study reveals that the music “fits” the two hands quite comfortably.

The original manuscript of this short piece seems to have been lost. Ronald Stevenson, the Scottish composer and pianist, graciously presented his penciled replica of the original to me following his performance of his own Passacaglia on D.S.C.H. some years ago. Although the piece was later published in a revised version edited by Mr Stevenson, I base my performance on the penciled copy which received Sorabji’s endorsement in 1979.

[7] Quare reliqua hujus materiei inter secretiora

Like its companion piece St. Bertrand de Comminges: ‘He was laughing in the tower’ (1941), this work is based on a ghost story by Montague Rhodes James (1862–1936), the English scholar and writer. Sorabji kindly sent me a hardback edition of the collected short stories of James as a Christmas gift, for he knew of my great interest in his two illustrative musical pieces and their literary source. The title of Sorabji’s work derives from an inscription that the main character encounters in an alchemical tract while prying into some of the deceased count’s books. The story, Count Magnus, tells of bleak events culminating in a horrific climax. Perhaps one of the most difficult pieces in Sorabji’s pianistic output, as an interpretive challenge, it owes its intriguing character to the juxtaposition of the most unlikely musical elements and a sinister, unrelenting mood of anxiety and tension. One senses programmatic content, although there is no direct correlation between story and music—except, perhaps, in the telltale tolling of bells which makes its appearance several times.

Although contemporaneous with Gulistān, this work forms a striking contrast to it. In place of flowing harmoniousness one encounters a different kind of musical discourse. Jagged textures and disjointed phrases are highlighted by their separation from each other, and the declamatory character is heightened by the presence of numerous accents and dotted rhythms. Astringent chordal formations seem to prevail until the penultimate page preceding the terrifying climax. Here the texture becomes truly sensuous and the music turns nocturne-like (yet still maintains the same tempo), as if recalling former pleasures of life. The recurrence of the motto theme, in ever-changing guises, is not the only unifying element of the work. Three-note scalar and triadic motives, to name only two of the many gestures presented at the outset, are incorporated in passages throughout the work.

[8] St. Bertrand de Comminges: ‘He was laughing in the tower’

Sorabji’s second programmatic piano work is a musical depiction of M.R. James’ ghost story, Canon Alberic’s Scrap-book. Musical materials are used for their symbolic power. A pentatonic motive portrays the solemnity of the church of St. Bertrand in the town of Comminges in southern France where the story takes place. The evil spirit’s “thin metallic voice laughing high up in the tower” is heard as a barrage of rapid-fire chords following the opening diatonic harmonies marked Legatissimo quasi organo lontano. The often-quoted Dies irae melody from the Gregorian Mass for the Dead represents death and decay. Musical restlessness parallels the anxiety of the story’s main character. In the middle of the work, the hymn-like, modal episode intensifies, rather than minimizes the sinister aspect. The profusion of sudden contrasts between serenity and strife, between consonance and dissonance, between tonality and atonality vividly convey the conflict between good and evil.

Michael Habermann, 2003

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