Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji

From Indpaedia
Jump to: navigation, search

Hindi English French German Italian Portuguese Russian Spanish

Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji
Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji
Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji
Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji

This is a collection of articles archived for the excellence of their content.
You can help by converting these articles into an encyclopaedia-style entry,
deleting portions of the kind normally not used in encyclopaedia entries.
Please also fill in missing details; put categories, headings and sub-headings;
and combine this with other articles on exactly the same subject.

Readers will be able to edit existing articles and post new articles directly
on their online archival encyclopædia only after its formal launch.

See examples and a tutorial.


Mr Miseryguts

Sorabji wrote the world's longest piano piece, launched vicious attacks on his colleagues, then forbade performances of his work. Steven Poole on the life of a reclusive genius

The Guardian, Friday 12 September 2003

Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji

Mania for privacy: Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji


He was notorious as the Howard Hughes of music. Cut off from the world and supported by a private income, he composed dauntingly huge pieces which were regarded as all but unplayable. He forbade the performance of his music lest inferior musicians ruin it. He remained alone, despising the trivial productions of others, in his artistic castle of ideal, Platonic complexity, a lone voice in the wilderness until his death.

Such, at least, is the legend that surrounds one of the most intriguingly strange of English composers, Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji. The facts, as usual, are more nuanced. In 2003 pianist Jonathan Powell undertook the Herculean labour of performing what many regard as Sorabji's masterpiece, the four-hour piano work Opus Clavicembalisticum (1930), by some distance the longest piece in the piano literature.

Early life

The composer was born Leon Dudley Sorabji in Chingford on August 14 1892. His father was an Indian Zoroastrian, his mother Spanish-Sicilian. He showed exceptional gifts as a pianist at a young age, and as a composer was largely self-taught. He changed his name to Kaikhosru Shapurji to reflect his Parsee heritage, and always resisted being identified as a British composer, though he lived in this country throughout his life, in London and later in Dorset.

The corpus of Sorabji’s work

Sorabji's 111 extant compositions, dating from between 1914 and 1984, include piano solos, orchestral works, songs, string trios, quartets, quintets and much else. His artistic idols were Bach, Liszt, Szymanowski and especially Busoni. He was fond of maximalist structures: his Messa Grande Sinfonica (1961) is 1,001 pages long. The core of his repertoire, however, is usually thought to be the piano music.

Works such as the Toccata No 1 (1928) demonstrate an almost fractal interplay between microscopic and macroscopic: Baroque structures such as the fugue and passacaglia are reworked and interwoven with dizzyingly complex virtuosity, while the inexorable large-scale structure (the work lasts 75 minutes), with its immensely long, unwinding melodic lines, persuades the listener of an almost religious necessity to every note.

Sorabji's sound-worlds, with their highly idiosyncratic mixture of solemnity and exoticism, do not fit into any general idea of "English music", either; critic Marc-André Roberge has written that his work "often fuse[s] the decorative features of romantic and postromantic piano writing with the ornamental luxuriance of oriental art".

A music critic

From the 1920s to the 1940s, Sorabji also worked as a critic for music journals. He championed the work of composers little-known in England at the time, such as Scriabin, Busoni and Mahler (the latter in an especially prophetic way, given the later flowering of the Mahler cult). But as a writer he was most famous for his marvellously acidic attacks on composers and works he hated (Stravinsky, Ravel's G major Piano Concerto) and more or less everything else about English musical culture.

A vitriolic pen

Here is one characteristic gush of finely targeted critical vitriol, in Sorabji's hugely enjoyable style: "The astonishing production of Cyril Scott... underneath its trumpery finery of ninths, elevenths, added sixths, joss-sticks, papier-Asie orientalism and pinchbeck Brummagem-Benares nick-nackery, oozes with glutinous commonplace. Works like this always remind one of those spurious 'liqueur' chocolates grandly labelled 'Grand Marnier', 'Maraschino', 'Benedictine', leading one to expect the delicious gastronomic sensations the incomparable marquis knows so well how to excite, but which are found actually to yield a horrid sickly sugary concoction - insipid and nauseating."

It is perhaps hardly surprising, given the vim with which he wielded his critical flail, that Sorabji was not the most popular or gregarious figure in mid-century musical England, and perhaps hence derives his reputation for crotchety isolation. It is true that he described himself as having a "mania for privacy", and he wrote, doubtless with no little ironic self-awareness, that he lived 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". One legend even relates that he posted a sign on his front door which read: "Certain nuns welcome; all others not."

”Not anti-social”

But none of this quite makes Sorabji the mad misanthrope of myth. "He was very private and pretty reclusive," says Powell, "but he was not anti-social. He had quite a number of close friends over many decades - he knew Sacheverell Sitwell for 70 years. The problem is that this reputation can infect one's opinion of his music: if he was this cold, inhuman figure, one could think that the work is also inhuman, which it isn't."

Opus Clavicembalisticum and the ban by its composer

Inhuman it certainly is not, but one might call it superhuman, in the extraordinary demands it makes. In 1936, pianist John Tobin played part one of Opus Clavicembalisticum, in a performance that was by all accounts inadequate. Sorabji was not present, but what he heard about the occasion distressed him. He thus imposed his notorious performance ban, forbidding public playing of his works without his express consent. "No performance at all is vastly preferable to an obscene travesty," he wrote.

According to Powell: "Sorabji thought performance was a celebration - a rite rather than an act, which is probably what put him off having his music played in concert halls, especially given the circus-like atmosphere of British concert halls in the 1940s and 1950s." Eventually, in the late 1970s, Sorabji gave his blessing to pianists Yonty Solomon and Michael Habermann, who began to perform some of his pieces, and thus began the eventual slow journey into the light of Sorabji's secret oeuvre.

Of the Opus Clavicembalisticum itself, Sorabji wrote sternly: "The work is only intended for pianist-musicians of the highest order. Indeed, its intellectual and technical difficulties place it beyond the reach of any others - it is a weighty and serious contribution to the literature of the piano, for serious musicians and serious listeners only."

On its completion on June 26 1930, Sorabji wrote to his friend Erik Chisholm: "With a wracking head and literally my whole body shaking as with ague I write this and tell you I have just this afternoon early finished Clavicembalisticum... The closing 4 pages are so cataclysmic and catastrophic as anything I've ever done - the harmony bites like nitric acid - the counterpoint grinds like the mills of God..."


Powell's acquaintance with this Everest of piano music extends over half his life, and he prepared "seriously" for the September 2003 performance since February. The Guardian critic asked him how he would describe the piece, and he laughed. "That's like saying, 'How would you describe the world?'"

Since the mid-1980s, when Sorabji was alive, there has been something of a growing cult around Sorabji, who died in 1988. More and more recordings are being made for the first time, and there is even an internet blog by an American music student detailing his year-long efforts to correct and transcribe the manuscript of the Sonata Opus VII for piano. Sorabji may have ended up writing mainly for himself and an imagined posterity, but the sun is gradually rising over the extraordinarily rich and complex worlds he created.

Jonathan Powell performed Opus Clavicembalisticum in September 2003 at the Purcell Room, London SE1.

Kaikhosru Sorabji: Adventures in Extreme Piano

By Steve Taylor

Michael Habermann ________________________________________

Michael Habermann: the man who introduced Sorabji's music to the world

In May 2003, Michael Habermann, Peabody professor of music and classical piano recording artist, released his fifth and possibly final installment of music by composer Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji (1892-1988). Habermann dedicated three decades of his life to the study and performance of Sorabji's works for piano, and his five recordings, more than any other musician living, has put Sorabji on the map and in music stores for all to taste. Excluding a few recitals in England during 1975, prior to the mid 1970s Sorabji's music was neither heard nor available anywhere. From a journey that began in 1969, a descriptive survey of Habermann's historic recordings follows, and concludes with a review of his very latest piano disc for the Swedish BIS label. Sorabji was a prolific, and, it could be easily argued - extreme, composer of works, focused most on piano and particularly piano solo.

Sorabji: early life

He was born Leon Dudley Sorabji, the son of a Parsi father (a Zoroastrian from India) and European mother, and raised in England. An exceptional privately schooled pianist, he was largely self-taught as a composer and regarded himself a conservative romantic. Yet his repertoire, significantly out of step with more atonal explorers of his time, has no obvious predecessor or heir. Somewhat like the music of contemporaneous composer Olivier Messiaen, with which it shares a distinctive organic complexity, Sorabji's was the product of a seemingly bottomless occidental muse, infused with oriental colors and rhythms, including those of India and ancient Arabia. His music was radically elaborate but consistently rhythmic and even melodious, if melodies are not required to be repetitious nor limited to certain lengths.

Judging by the available anecdotes, Sorabji kept very busy in a private world sealed off well, by design, from unwanted outsiders. He held calling strangers at bay with signs sometimes posted on his domicile, expressing sentiments equivalent to, `certain nuns welcome, all others not'. Armed with just pen, paper, piano and privacy, Sorabji would leave a bewilderingly deep legacy of writings, critical essays, and sheaf after sheaf of musical scores -over 100 works in all, some written in a nearly illegible hand, in uncorrected premier-coups drafts.

Sorabji's music

Piano scores typically utilize two staffs, one staff of notes for each hand to play. Sorabji rarely used less than three and employed as many as seven staffs in constructing works that would prove extravagantly difficult to execute, torturous to memorize and all but opposed to the possibility of attainable musical ends. As he was nearing the age of 40, Sorabji became disenchanted altogether with the imperfect presentations he heard of his performed music, and supposedly withdrew it from the public. And yet, despite the fact that his extant music was not being played or heard, he continued composing, writing music even more formidable than what was already considered unperformable, such as piano symphonies lasting up to 5 hours. He was provided the luxury of such boundless creativity partially through an inheritance that allowed for financial independence.

Though just over a dozen other gifted Sorabji solo recording artists have emerged worldwide, Baltimore-based Michael Habermann has lead with an unrivaled devotion to and musical vision of Kaikhosru Sorabji.

By the total recordings issued so far (less than two dozen in all), "K" Sorabji is slowly emerging from his archive lair an artistic machine, a ponderous figure of Johann Sebastian Bach or Frank Lloyd Wright proportions, who designed but also decorated entire castles of art. Writing about Sorabji's music proves challenging, as it is hard to condense and generalize so large, lush and divergent a body of work. Therefore, having violated the rule of brevity in reviewing, tedium may be avoided by skipping the next 4000 words and reading the final paragraphs. But for those who have time for the details, here are some impressions of the first four Sorabji/Habermann recordings followed by a review of the new Transcriptions album.

[Note: The first three titles were reviewed from new digital LP originals, which remained, up until very recently, available as CDs, for which the catalog data only is cited. Though the three premiere MusicMasters/Musical Heritage Society recordings are temporarily out of print at the time of this writing, I have recently learned that reissue is already under way. British Music Society is planning to release a 3-CD boxed set by the end of 2003 including them all. All of the review recordings are digital masters with serviceable sound for the format.]

The Sorabji/Habermann recordings

Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji: A Legend In His Own Time

Michael Habermann, piano

MusicMasters MM 60015 T


The first commercial recording ever made of the piano works of English-Parsi recluse K.S. Sorabji, was initiated by a Paris-born citizen of Mexico and the US, Michael Habermann, in 1976, after he secured exclusive permission from the then 84-year old composer to do so. The moment was significant because 36 years prior the piano-score creator had informally prohibited further public performance of his own work. With this recording, Habermann simultaneously opened the door, for other curious pianists and a global listening audience, to the private universe of a little known but excessively gifted person. In view of Habermann's faithful, sensitive, and loving treatment, for author Sorabji, the recitalist's appearance must have seemed a miraculous blessing, a delight and grace arriving from beyond his earlier proclaimed `granite tower' of seclusion.

The 1980 album presents six world premiere recordings and 45 minutes out of Sorabji's vast warehouse of scores numbering in the tens of thousands of pages and hundreds of hours, that had been accruing since 1914. The six catalog selections are well-fitted together here as an attempt to offer a sweeping glimpse of Sorabji's early range of passions. If a thread can be detected amidst this spectrum, it is that of fantasia, that is, compositions of no fixed form, of structures based arbitrarily upon the composer's fancy.

Habermann begins, of all places, with the infamous "Opus Clavicembalisticum" (1929-1930), a work cited at one time during the 20th century as the world's longest ever written for piano. But instead of all four hours, Habermann mercifully provides a smart hologram of the first thirteen minutes, and a sufficient sample it would seem to be. When unabridged, OC is an orgy of such magnitude that no experience metaphor exists to hint its dimensions (though it does foretell the duration and pitch of a typical mushroom dream. Amazingly, not one but two complete recordings by others are available in the year 2003.) The immediate sense of OC is graveness. Within the first minute, after slipping through the vortex into a mundus invisitatus, we have had the idea of climax or resolution already obliterated. OC sometimes features hammered chords, relating a sense of cosmic commotion or superhuman feats of ardor, a repeated bubbling up to a plateau of unceasing wave-like cataclysms. Though the first 5% here does have lulls and segue ways of reduced density, it struck me as something not interested in causing the pianist or a listener, to be relaxed. Yet, as precisely argued and intense as the music is, it also contains an expansive openness, free of horizons and is generous in this regard.

A comparably long work, the "Fantaisie Espagnole", follows, which is far more melodic, swinging and romantic than `the opus'. It has an unmistakable Spanish character, with many vivacious yet also tender processions, like witnessing an evening of ballroom dances among the gentry of Madrid.

Four much shorter pieces are added to the presentation including the new rhythms and piquant colors of the "Toccata" (1920) and the abstract "Fragment" (1925, rev 1937). There is also the "Pastiche: Habanera" (1922), a grotesque ornamental hybrid of Bizet's memorable tune from the opera "Carmen". In the case of the latter, a sort of remix is witnessed that seems darkly humorous even at the same time it is unthinkably spectacular. All three offer a vision of a not quite alien, but liquid aesthetic, as though the idea of madness could be intricately worshipped.

It is in the floating, lyrical "In the Hothouse" (1918) where treasure turns up and which would roughly locate to some extent the future of what in Sorabji's outlandish output might have wider and general appeal. Here, there is still plenty of decoration but things have been slowed to a more contemplative pace. This area is night-colored. If Sorabji may be offering glimpses of languorous beauty, a portrait of a room jungled in orchids, "In The Hothouse" might just as likely resemble stunning slow motion-picture studies of icebergs emerging from fog. Only here does Sorabji's pen seem humble, as if made gentle by divine auspice. Although this "nocturne" has the most allure and import for the casual listener, it is not entirely free of a hovering uncertainty.

It should be noted that the years that span the selected album pieces coincide with those when his music was in publication (before `the ban', around 1930), when Sorabji was still in his thirties. If wizened eldership had meaning for the composer, these exercises in maximum texture might prove those of an incessant mind still youthful and untempered by economy of means and other discernment of what is considered `enough' in composing. Given such, the early works of the first record temptingly begin the case toward a complete unveiled repertoire.

Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji: Le Jardin Parfumé

Michael Habermann, piano

MusicMasters MMD 60019 Y


Two years later (1982) Habermann and his producer, the pivotal Sorabji advocate Donald Garvelmann, delivered a second recording of four more world premieres to MusicMasters. Focusing exclusively (with one exception) on the iridescent yet still highly ornate calm of the nocturne style, two long works of approximately 20 minutes apiece are presented, each inspired by a figure of the 15th century. The "Nocturne: (DjŸmO)" (1928) - after Persian scholar, mystic and poet Abd ur-Rahman Jami, and "Le Jardin Parfumé, Poem for Piano", - after "The Perfumed Garden" (1923), a famous erotic book by the Arabian poet Sheik Nefzawi.

In slower tempi, Sorabji can be more readily observed as a composer concerned with non-repetitive events, somewhat like the unfolding quality of some ballet music. In the nocturnes, Sorabji marks himself a supreme weaver of timeless suspensions. Gestures and unresolving melodies, no two alike, are lined up in series to produce composition. Floated amidst gesture-clusters thick with curving surface is a background of familiar, "normal" two-hand moments of relative hush. During the active phases it is not unusual to think one is listening to three or four hands playing the keyboard at once. With multiple voices speaking, it is difficult to penetrate all rhythm parts and identify which is principally coordinating the flow of interaction. This language refuses to resolve, issuing like serpentine smoke, endlessly, as if one is lost in an unknown paradise, with its constant reports of new information. It is a world that sounds like brilliant improvisation, has no top, no bottom, without a sense of beginning or end, nor a source or a destiny. It is a plausible parallel to the mystic state of dissolved opposites but yet as active a spell as one might imagine of such.

"Djami" pays tribute to the genius for which it is named with what sounds like a humbling telescope pan of the heavens. Throughout the piece Sorabji revisits an austere descending figure, which acts as a baseline, like the black fact of the night sky. But in between these sober tetrads are a series of steeping swells, accreting notes, dramatic tumbling chords and runs, which might easily suggest exploding and condensing star systems, nebulae, vast fields of gas and spiraling dust. It seems to ponder events so far away and unknowable that the music can't help but become a similar thing of mystery. Heard in a darkened room, even time seems to dilate.

"Le Jardin Parfumé" feels by contrast more terrestrial, or reflects perhaps the opposite tremendum, of interiority. Like "Jami", the black keys of the piano predominate and again without any ready emotional fixations. The music does not seem driven but lumbers hypnotically forward by some inevitable force. It is a place suffused with wonder but that does not open out into something larger. If chemical dreams from inhaled plant smoke gave rise to ancient Near East carpet designs, it is also not far to Sorabji's here sprawling flatland of entangled surface. A convenient image comes to mind, described by the late hashish connoisseur Terence McKenna: several gem-encrusted turtles crawling over a large Persian rug in the dark. Though it may strike some impatient ears as inane, it is a near half-hour of fabulous and inscrutable elegance. The short pastiche which separates these two long intoxications, a transcription of Rimsky-Korsakoff's Hindu Merchant Song "Sadko" (1922), has the same night air but is fitted with a melody on top and rich supporting chord harmonies. The latter suggest something like new shades of dark emerald. The second pastiche, one of two transcriptions of Chopin's Minute Waltz (1922), sounds like the popular melody seen through a spider-web of broken glass and exclamatized with volcanic eruptions. It seems intended to be comedic, as Frank Zappa or Peter Schickele might contrive, but with a disconcerting (and unwitting?) affection for insanity too. It's a non sequitur to an otherwise meditative affair. With it, Garvelmann & Habermann seemed intent to wake the listener from any stupor of en-tranced oblivion, or, perhaps prime them for the even more challenging catalog ahead.

Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji: Piano Music {Vol. 3}

Michael Habermann, piano

MusicMasters MMD 60118W


MusicMasters (now defunct) was originally a sister company of Musical Heritage Society, for which the third recording of compositions (1987) would complete its Sorabji catalog. But though it contains the most abstract exercises yet explored, this live concert recording is the best sounding and the most compelling as a musical event of the three. Habermann's deepening grasp of Sorabji's method and the presence of an audience, lift his playing to heights of poetry and make the most persuasive and musical case for acknowledgement of Sorabji's contribution to history's league of composers.

The concert set begins with the "Prelude, Interlude and Fugue (1920-1922)", an exercise of vivid contrasts. The Prelude is two and a half minutes of continuous notes running in a sine wave, like some helter-skelter djinn desperate for some kind of relief. Which comes in the Interlude's nocturne-like pall, whose foreground and background effects, created by differing the volume from each hand, sound like a soul realizing he is no longer alive and having left his body, wonders what is happening, where he is and what now he shall do. This adagio space is spare, gray and indeterminate. The work concludes more actively with a fugue, offering circular forms that waltz up and down the keys, becoming louder, grander, more halting and declamatory toward pieces end. Some kind of release is ultimately achieved though it's difficult ascertaining to what.

In "Valse Fantaisie: Homage to Johann Strauss" (1925) it becomes apparent how important the performer is to any music score. What might resemble lunacy on paper, a forest of notes, becomes when cogently played, intelligible expressed content. In this fantasy waltz, multiple overlapping and sequential events are witnessed. As the piece plays out, a popular debutante seems forced to complete her entire evenings dance card without reprieve, leaving her exhausted and mad from her many suitors guile and stamina by works end. Though perhaps not a healthy thing to listen to repeatedly, there is no denying Sorabji's gift for the conveyance of what seems like dance soundtrack, story, and setting, all at the same time.

The album is culminated in the 20 minute long St. Bertrand de Comminges: "He Was Laughing in the Tower" (1941), converging on what might be called an aesthetic of pure piano. Purportedly based on a ghost story, there is a clear avoidance of consonance and pure major key language, and a full admitting to a medley of dark-textured otherness. Around every corner lie new figures, new phrases, one more intricate and unexpected than the next. Jointly they suggest a complete universe unto itself, on its own clock, the credible realm of a disincarnate being? In dramatic sections, Habermann taps out great splashing firmly struck chords, only to dissipate again in patterns of dissolution. It is very entertaining and elusive, a pageant of baffling drama.

Yet through it all, Habermann makes this inconceivably difficult to execute, ultra sophisticated music, more fluid and alive somehow than on either of the first two records. If you were a music buyer on a budget, this Sorabji recording alone would last one years trying to absorb the prodigious quantity of notes and internal logic of what is going on. And yet, the true victual of this more abstract and ominous side of Sorabji's music remains difficult to isolate. Though there are payoffs of exhilaration, texture and technical amazement, one does not come away uplifted or cleansed, but more like having survived unseen danger - granted, a danger surreal and oddly enchanting. The music here might be best approached as a celebration of piano, the favored instrument, which Sorabji must have envisioned an orchestra unto itself. The piano is, for Sorabji, a device that does not necessarily require compromise, morals or tonics to help its possible heterophonies go down agreeably.

The audio quality of this particular recording is notable, as the recital space is finally given a role in the presentation. The piano has full dimension and shadow, which are missing from the earlier two productions. More importantly, the live audience gives these pieces that electric tension of right here right now, of filling time in an immediate and necessary way, the essence of music.

Michael Habermann Plays Sorabji: The Legendary Works for Piano

Élan CD 82264


A small independent label of international talents called Élan Recordings would make a new case for Sorabji in 1995. And they would hit pay dirt when a national radio broadcast subsequently exposed millions to Habermann's conservatory labors and Sorabji's cottage dreams, in an interview aired with the pianist in 1996. The hour of widest recognition yet, long in coming for Sorabji, would prove late however, as he passed away in 1988 at the age of 96. But in the interview, Habermann, a communicator of talent to match his playing ability, offered a tantalizing glimpse of what it was like to meet the composer and to dwell in this heady world of vivifying once forbidden fruit. [Check out www.michaelhabermann.com for this and many other articles].

After years of exploring Sorabji's available scores and manuscripts, Habermann and Elan would determine that it was the nocturnes that best exemplified `legendary' status. By 1993 Michael Habermann had completed preparations for the world recording premiere of the penultimate, half-hour nocturne "Gulistan" (The Rose Garden, 1940). To this they would add a reprise of "Djami" discussed earlier, first released in 1982. Plus two shorter pieces, though not discernible from the titles, "Quare reliqua hujus materiei inter secretiora" (1940, also based on a ghost story) and "Fantasiettina sul nome illustre dell'egregio poeta Christopher Grieve ossia Hugh M'Diarmid" (1961).

The re-creation of Sorabji's "Rose Garden" here marks a peak experience among the nocturnes. Habermann is commandingly fluent, like an actor thoroughly disappeared into his role, just as Sorabji, closing in on 50 years of age when he completed it, has moved more confidently toward the white keys. There is still this pervasive feeling of darkness but the long, often luxuriant phrases are gently, soothingly delivered with great ceremony. Sorabji achieves a new kind of musical moment, a unique and fully realized rite, while Habermann's live concert reading makes a landmark statement of breathtaking splendor. Shown at last, amidst the many thick scores so far, is the energy and reward of nourishing repose that only beauty of such order can claim for its own.

"Quare reliqua hujus materiei inter secretiora", also from the same watershed year of 1940, is half as long as "Gulistan", but is slightly more otherworldly. It shares the tenor of earlier, comparably difficult Sorabji pieces, replete with the familiar suspensions of time and unpierced murk but with a greater sense of formal organization. There is less dash, more erudition, like that of literary short story or novelette.

The recording is rounded out by two complimenting short pieces, both only a few minutes. Here, in the miniatures of "Fantasiettina" and Habermann's own original "In the manner of Sorabji", something salient appears. Abstract intricacy becomes more meaningful when there is also brevity. As a thoughtfully constructed whole, the recording menu offers some of Sorabji's most exquisite creations and sets them flatteringly next to work perhaps less amiable but of crucially digestible, miniature length. Unlike the studio takes of the first two MusicMaster discs, all of Habermann's new attempts here are unmistakably lively and sure, without trace of overly crisp study.

Sorabji: Piano Music and Transcriptions

Michael Habermann, piano

BIS CD-1306


The latest medley of premiere piano pieces, all save one played from original manuscripts, collects up creative Sorabji interpretations of works by other composers. The six-piece set, balanced as three short and three long, issue from four different decades and together paint a bracing picture of Sorabji's broad vocabulary of styles. Seen from this hilltop of variety, Sorabji's principal occupation as a composer emerges most conclusively as what might be called pianism.

Based on the "Barcarolle" from "The Tales of Hoffman" by Jacques Offenbach, the "Passeggiata Veneziana" (Venetian Promenade, 1956) is the most distant from its source. In six movements, Sorabji seems to have nearly synopsized his life of technique in piano. A parade of finery through time, and without pictorial center, Sorabji produces a peculiarly new object that is rich almost exclusively for richness sake. Its all here: open-ended abstractions, extra-concentrated lyric details, multiple voice montage, gently floating nocturnal anarchy, and grand, even oddly majestic dance allusions, packed tightly into 21 diverse minutes. It is understandable that Habermann would declare it one of Sorabji's greatest compositions, as it strives for maximum novelty with a minimum of overstatement.

"Transcription In The Light of Harpsichord Technique For The Modern Piano of The Chromatic Fantasia of J.S. Bach, Followed By a Fugue" (1940), the album's headliner, is the opposite. That is, it is most like its templates. Sorabji is here so true to Bach originals (BWV 903 & 948), that it strikes one as abnormally symmetrical, lacking the pluralized dazzle one by now comes to expect. The BWV 903 fantasia is unique among the Bach works and as an earful to begin with, shares some of the flare of Sorabji's normal effusive habit. But the subsequent Sorabji-matched fugue is made to seem more theatrical, and, true to Bach, concludes congruently on major keys, an extremely isolated event in the available Sorabji score pages. It is refreshing to witness a new flavor however, as the composer tips his lantern on the baroque angst of this famous work from 1720 with what seems like an attitude of feigned seriousness. One wonders whether this and other "transcription" exercises were made for listener delight or as some kind of amusing in-joke among piano virtuosi. Still, the piece is probably the most accessible in conventional terms, of any in the five Habermann albums-perhaps, because Sorabji meddled with it the least.

The Chopin Minute Waltz reworked as "Pasticcio Capriccioso Sopra" (1933) appears here, just as bizarre as the sister version that was included on the earlier album "Le Jardin Parfumé", as well as the continuous note gush of "Variation 56" (1935-37) from Chopin's Symphonic Variations. But the most poetic piece on the album is the "Quasi Habanera" from 1917, an original composed when Sorabji was age 25. As Habermann is convinced it is no mere student work, his performance is inspired, delivered here as something charming and mature, as if Sorabji was so young he could not yet think to outdo himself. The airy five-minute Habanera is here delectably slowed down, whence intricacy is lustrous and fascinating, rightly on its own terms.

Finally, Sorabji translates Ravel's "Rapsodie Espagnole" as a portentous dream of crisis, circus and liberation. During the fourth and last movement there are player piano-like moments, of themes piling up, like a recapitulated blur of memories from the previous 15 minutes. Sorabji might have scoffed at resorting to a mechanical alternative for realizing his idiosyncratic music, if no human being could. Yet his scores seem to have anticipated and even prepared for the super skills that would eventually appear in the pianists of the last quarter of the 20th century, as well as automatic musical technologies such as the Poweroll computer piano that can now easily execute humanly unrealizable music.

Retirement from public performance

After retiring from public performance, Sorabji became entwined preeminently with writing scores. Just as he had coolly labeled earlier pieces (that most others still found hopeless to play), things like, "insipid baby piece" and "trifling", Sorabji seemed mercilessly content to write on without care if anyone ever played or heard what he imagined. Though he may have known he was creating primarily for himself, the fates would ultimately deny such a strategy. A legend, created by shear personal obstinacy while living, proved in the end too irresistible to be left alone by the curious and talented-enough. The storybook ending is also assisted by the fact that Sorabji lived to a very ripe old age.

For Habermann's part, Sorabji could not have been luckier to receive such a thoughtful and reverent visitor to his private estate of profuse ink and technical nightmare. The younger pianist went on to achieve something Sorabji himself could have never. Indeed, the keyboard virtuoso ceased performing exactly when, it might be surmised, it became too challenging for even him to render satisfactorily what he had composed.

When Habermann first happened upon this music in a Mexico City book store in the late 1960s, he recalled it resembling "unplayable piano music". So dense were the scores that a sight-read performance were all but out of the question. In view of this, Habermann resorted to the laborious tack of complete memorization in advance of performance. Around the time Habermann corresponded with and later met Sorabji in 1980, he was told that Sorabji himself could no longer personally memorize the music for performance if his life depended on it! But even beyond the olympic feat of memorization, Habermann seems to have approached it all directly as a fluidity problem! Being accurate to the scores, to every note and rhythm, which make this sound world feel so clock less and quickly sating, Habermann has realized, in all of the nocturnes, and most of the abstract jewelry-like miniatures, unmitigated riches, truly rarified piano experiences.

Sorabji's piano music is an improbable art, a compounding of florid intensities, one that succeeds in being a multi-faceted and one-of-a-kind world as if these were primary imperatives of its creation. But through Michael Habermann's ten, always prepared, well-rehearsed fingers and these five albums, could the potent gift of Sorabji's kingdom, which must be heard to be believed, be at last vouchsafed half a century later. Certainly not for everyone and especially not for those who appreciate the healing silences in music, Sorabji can be seen as an adventurous scout, a test case for what would become physically possible on the piano while holding to an attractive integrity and uniform complexity.

Through all of this realization, Michael Habermann emerges just as large, taking what must have seemed crazy to other pianists, cases of clearly too many notes, and playing them with great dexterity and a recognizable concert rightness. Carefully selected and sometimes prudently trimmed and arrayed, all of Habermann's readings make Sorabji a sensible, manageable experience. However sometimes daunting, and long the wait been, this music is for those who might appreciate that impossible dream of strange beauty, which only a few human hands have been able to render listenable.

Copyright ©2003 by Steve Taylor, all rights reserved.


Michael Habermann talks to Martin Anderson

A Composer and His Interpreter


The legends that grew up around Sorabji

During the lifetime of the Parsi composer Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji (1892-1988), English-born and -based, but god help anyone who called him English, all sorts of legends grew up around him: that he composed works of inordinate length, that they were of a technical difficulty that placed them beyond the abilities of even the most gifted pianist; that in any event it didn't much matter since Sorabji had banned the performance of his music. Like many myths, these ones also have their feet in fact. His longest works may approach the eight-hour mark. Very many of his scores are fantastically complex. And Sorabji himself stated in 1959 that he neither sought nor encouraged public performances of his works because "they are neither intended for nor suitable for it under present, or indeed any foreseeable conditions: no performance at all is vastly preferable to an obscene travesty." But the truth is rather less black-and-white. There are works in the Sorabji catalogue that are brief to the point of aphorism and others that could almost be described as listener-friendly. A growing body of pianists is proving that his music is indeed playable. And when the first wave of these dedicated players appeared – Yonty Solomon, John Ogdon, Michael Habermann and Geoffrey Douglas Madge chief among them – Sorabji was happy enough to give his blessing to their playing his music in public.

Michael Habermann plays Sorabji

One member of that avant-garde, the Baltimore-based pianist Michael Habermann, has just released a third CD of the music of Sorabji on Elan (CD82264), following up two earlier efforts, on MusicMasters (MMD60118W) and AS&V (CDAMM159) – both apparently recorded at the same concert in 1984 though, confusingly, the one work in common to the two discs has different timings on each. In his new release on Elan Habermann has returned to the gentler Sorabji, the two main works in his programme (likewise compiled from live recordings, made over the years, from 1980 onwards) being Sorabji's extended nocturnes, Gulistan and Djâmî.

Habermann 'phoned me on a recent Saturday at the appointed hour – lunchtime here in Paris, which means that my caller, ringing from Maryland, was up bright and early. I asked him first how he came across Sorabji's music, since even now it still tends to be something of a secret among initiates. It turns out that chance plays as big a role here as it does in most things. Habermann, who has a soft-spoken, easy-going, friendly voice, explains: "I was living in Mexico City as a teenager (my father had a job there) and was exploring the literature. I was in The English Bookstore and went to the music-book section. Lo and behold if I didn't see this amazing piece of music [the Fantaisie Espagñole ] by a composer with the equally strange name of Sorabji. I leafed through it and it looked unplayable – I had never seen anything as complicated as this before. So I didn't buy it! What was the point of buying something I would never be able to learn? But I came back a few days later and it was still there, so I bought it for a dollar. That's how my interest in him began."

What, then, was Habermann's background in music, that he found such an affinity with Sorabji's highly individual, fiercely polyphonic, arch-chromatic soundworld? Was he already acquainted with the music of composers like, say, Szymanowski who could have prepared his ears? "No, I had only really just started. I was a very late starter: I began the piano at age fourteen. We used to listen to Schnabel and other classical records at home, but we didn't have a piano until much later. The Sorabji was a curiosity. I had put it aside to begin with, but then I began to wonder how it would sound, and I set aside some time every evening. Eventually I was able to play it – but that was many years later."

How did he follow up this early encounter? "I looked in the reference books and at first I didn't find anything. Then one book pointed to England, and so I wrote to Oxford University Press, who were carrying his works at the time, and they sent me his address. I sent him a letter. He didn't answer, so I sent him another letter – and he answered! He said, listen, if you're interested in my music, why don't you contact Donald Garvelman in New York: he's just done a radio program. This must have been around 1970; some time had elapsed. I wrote to Donald and exchanged materials: I sent him some tapes and he sent me copies of some manuscripts. Then I moved back to the United States and met Donald. Years later we decided to go and visit Sorabji – I'm not sure of the date: 1983 or '84, something like that. I had been writing letters up till then. I was in awe of him: I was very excited about his music."

In an introduction in the booklet with Habermann's new disc, Garvelmann himself explains the beginnings of his own association with Sorabji and his music and then with Habermann: "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 mode for each other – composer with his ideal interpreter. I convinced Sorabji of this and obtained his permission for Habermann to perform and record his music, music which Sorabji had previously withheld from the world." (Not strictly true: in 1976, the year before Habermann gave his first authorized performance of a Sorabji piece, in the Carnegie Recital Hall in New York, Yonty Solomon had featured four of his works at a recital in the Wigmore Hall in London.) Garvelmann continues his high praise: "Habermann faithfully honors details of Sorabji's scores to a 'T,' doesn't simplify any passages for digital convenience, and amazes by always performing from memory. But equally important is his conceptual grasp and interpretative imagination which impart musical and emotional continuity to his performances."

The recluse

Sorabji was a fabulously reclusive man, outside whose door a sign read:










Another sign in the porch underlined the injunction: "All calls and visits Strictly Barred unless previously arranged". My only personal contact with Sorabji was a 'phone call when he was in his early nineties, and which consisted of little more than Sorabji snapping out "yes" several times in his rapid-fire, high-pitched voice and then hanging up with a brief "Right; goodbye" before I could get to the point of my call. Habermann, as one might expect, was received more graciously. "I had trouble understanding everything he said when we met, and I was scared about getting to the piano: I left that to the very end! He spoke very rapidly and with what, to me at least, was quite an accent. And he would also sideslip into French and other languages to make his point. But it was very exciting. His handwritten letters are a little hard to read, as are the typewritten ones because they're full of typos." Indeed: I have seen a few of Sorabji's letters, and it seems odd that someone with the reputation of being a astonishing virtuoso at one keyboard should seem so hopeless at another.

Habermann's collaboration with Sorabji

Did Habermann's contact with the composer result in any direct help, any indication of how he wanted the music to sound. "In some of the compositions there would be a question as to the identity of some of the notes so I would write and ask 'Is this a D sharp or an E Flat?' and send a photocopy of the page, and he would send that page back with his marking on it – and the answer would just be 'Yes'! On the other hand, I was amazed once: there was a passage in once of the pieces I had recorded earlier which opened with an a natural in the bass. And on that same page there were a number of questions. I had always though that a didn't quite sound right. I had been to the Library of Congres and checked the manuscript and there it was, an a natural. Then Sorabji put a flat in front of that note and it made all the difference! I don't know if he remembered everything or whether he was just being a devil, but there was some genius there – that's all I can tell you." What about guidance on interpretation? "Well, I did play for him and he said he really liked what he heard. I sent him some tapes, too, and he was very positive about my playing. I think he felt his job was to write the music and not to interpret it." But this was at the time of the so-called "ban" on public performance – didn't Habermann experience even any reluctance on Sorabji's part? "No, he was inspirational, the music was exciting and just the fact that he was approving of what I was doing was fantastic. It would have been nice to have taken lessons with him, but I only spent an afternoon with him. Composers have very strict ideas about what they want the composition to sound like, but you read again and again of composers who are very pleased to hear a composition performed in a way they hadn't expected.

"I went through all the pieces I could get my hands on and I made a list of those that I wanted to learn. At the beginning, of course, it was everything, but now I have narrowed it down to a select group of compositions. I think half of them are playable, and some too long for my taste." But we have missed an important point: what was it that drew him to the music in the first place? "It was so exotic, so different: it wasn't avant-garde or pointillistic, twelve-tone – in fact, it wasn't anything that I had heard before, so it was very interesting." Habermann's enthusiasm raises the question – which wouldn't have bothered Sorabji a hoot – of whether his music will ever command a wide audience. Adrian Corleonis, writing in issue 18:4 of Fanfare, struck a pessimistic note in a review of Altarus' two-disc set "In Memoriam John Ogdon" (AIR-CD-9063(2)), a collection of music by Ronald Stevenson, Alistair Hinton, Busoni and Ogdon himself – all composers with direct connections to Sorabji himself and all capable of pursuing their artistic aims without courting audience favor. Corleonis, writing first of Busoni's "far more receptive, cohesive, briliant audience – socially or intellectually – than any latter-day artist is likely to be privileged to perform before, an audience […] upon which Sorabji turned his back as a composer", went on to lament that "the audience for music qua music is not merely minuscule but thinly distributed around the globe. […] What we've been pleased to call 'high culture' is becoming an ever more peripheral vestige […]". Corleonis wasn't writing about Sorabji in particular, although his music plays to the gallery even less than the composers who fell within his purview. Habermann obviously thinks the music is worth persevering with, but how does he feel Sorabji's music fits into Corleonis' downbeat assessment? "I basically agree with it. It does appeal to the converted, of course, and to people with an open mind. People do seem to get hooked on it and they enjoy it, but even they tell me that Sorabji is not going to become a household name. But there are a lot of composers like that, I suppose, who are very interesting but who will never become famous."

What governed Habermann's choice of works for the Elan recording. "Well, first, I've got to be reasonable, so anything that's longer than half-an-hour or forty minutes has gotta go! It's just too many years of work." So he doesn't think in terms of what a concert audience can take? "No, it's a question of what I can do. But I do also think of the audience: I don't know if they want to hear forty minutes or one hour of continuous music – that's pretty hard on the ear. The slow movement of the Hammerklavier is taxing the ears already at twenty-five minutes. Of course, that's a wonderful piece of music, but I also think some of the Sorabji pieces are wonderful pieces of music – some of them are adorable."

That brings us to another question that wouldn't even have occurred to Sorabji: why did he compose these massive pieces, so big that the majority of his works have yet to be performed, indeed, may never be performed? "I think the fact that he was isolated helped him out. It enabled him to pursue his line of thought to the n th degree, to its logical conclusion, if you will. But his isolation was also his downfall: lacking the feedback that he needed, or was willing or unwilling to accept, he just went on and on and on. That's the sad part. There is a unique quality to it, but he did tend to go on in some of the pieces." So that it became an intellectual pursuit rather than the creation of real music? "Oh, I don't know about that. I am sure that to him it was a very emotional process. But it's hard for me to put myself in his shoes and imagine composing a piece three or four hours long. To me it's incomprehensible. The pieces I have recorded I find a beautiful balance of unity and variety."

Why those works – besides the two nocturnes, his recital includes two equally accessible though rebarbatively named Quære reliqua hujus materiei inter secreteriora and the Fantasiettina sul nome illustre dell'egregio poeta Christopher Grieve ossia Hugh MacDiarmid – in particular? "I have always been interested in them. I like the sound first of all. I like the melodies – and believe it or not, there are melodies in this music. Gulistan is a very sumptuous composition. I also like that fact that, well, let's talk about the dynamics in that piece. It's rather quiet, so he has imposed upon the music a false sense of direction by putting crescendos into crescendos. It's soft, it's agreeable to the ear. In some of the pieces he tried to pile climax on top of climax which I think sometimes becomes overbearing, but pieces like Gulistan and Djâmî are very lovely compositions, as if he is sharing some very intimate music with his friends, relaxing for half-an-hour."

Habermann's Elan CD is made up from performances recorded in concert over a period of time. Does he prefer the immediacy of live performance even in such complicated music, where a pianist would normally be grateful for the chance of a retake or forty-two? "From experience it seems that recordings go better in live performances than in the studio. Sonically, maybe one could argue that there's more purity in the studio, but this way bypasses a big problem: I hate editing, and if that's the way I played it, that's the way I played it."

To most of Habermann's listeners, Sorabji must be an altogether novel phenomenon. What is audience reaction generally like? "Some people can up to me afterwards and they are very, very excited; they say they've never heard anything so beautiful and let's hear some more. Some other people have said that their favorite piece was my tribute to Sorabji [À la manière de Sorabji, included as an appendix on the Elan disc], because that's about two minutes long! Others don't come up at all, but then I know people who don't like Beethoven. My friends always ask me when am I going to do other composers, and I always tell them I am doing other composers, that there are a lot of other composers I am interested in, but Sorabji's music is rather difficult to play and it takes a real commitment of time. So it seems to the outside world that he is the only composer I play when in actuality I play a whole bunch of other things too. To get his pieces into the kind of shape that I want…. Well, I know this is going to sound a little ridiculous, but the problem is not the notes. There are thousands and thousands of notes and it's very complicated, and the rhythms (especially in pieces like Gulistan) are so difficult that sometimes you can spend a week on a single measure, but the real difficulty in the music is making it sound good, making it sound logical, as logical as a Beethoven sonata. That involves a lot of analysis and trying to interpret the thing. And it takes a lot of time. I could have recorded these piece years ago, but they never sounded quite right to me, so I just let them mature a little bit. I would come back to it and try something different. It's the musical part that drives me." Anyone doubting the extent to which Sorabji's music drives Habermann should look at his chapter on the piano music in the collection of essays – Sorabji: a Critical Celebration – which Fanfare's Paul Rapoport edited for Scolar Press in 1992; there it becomes plain that Habermann's knowledge is very deep indeed.

Habermann's quest for Sorabji continues, one imagines, so what works would he like to look at next? "Well, I hope so. I still have to take care of the family, go to the supermarket, but I would like to put out one or two more. Not too many more. There are a lot of other things that attract me and I want to get to them. I was playing some Haydn variations and I thought: 'God, this is one of the most beautiful things I have heard'. Last week I gave a seminar on the thirty-two Beethoven sonatas and I felt like abandoning my Sorabji project – those pieces are so incredible! I did quit a job a couple of years ago: some people want me to spend some more time at the piano so I am trying to appease them. I used to compose (indeed, I used to compose quite a lot), but that was twenty years ago, so I'd like to get back to that." Are there affinities between Sorabji's music and Habermann's own? "No, I like a lot of composers, and my music doesn't resemble theirs either. I try just to do a good job. The music is very difficult to get into the fingers but once it is there you wonder how it was so much trouble to begin with: it's beautiful, it's perfectly written. You know, except for music written for other instruments – piano reductions and that kind of thing – or things that really are badly written, I have always had a problem defining 'unpianistic'."

Does Habermann have any tips for the neophyte approaching Sorabji for the first time. "Pianists should just play what they like to play, if they can find something that they really like. And for listeners I usually recommend the pastiche on 'The Song of India' [from Rimsky-Korsakov's Sadko, and available on Habermann's AS&V disc]: they know the melody and they can hear what Sorabji does to it. Gulistan is also a good starting place, as is Djâmî.

Finally, since this is a Transatlantic call and Habermann is paying for it, how come the connection with Elan? "I had a call from a man who said he was a doctor, who said 'I love your playing, I think you're a wonderful pianist' and I thought it was a crack call. But it was real enough, and the connection came through him."

Copyright © 1996/1998, Martin Anderson

Personal tools