GUEST FEATURE • by Paul Harris
Do you ever swing off the beaten track? Musically, I mean…
Maybe searching out some new repertoire for your pupils?
Considering some aspect of technique you’ve always wanted to explore but never found the time?
Listening to some music you’ve always wanted to but never have?
Investigating an obscure but interesting composer?
If you have a moment or two I’d like to share with you my enthusiasm for one of the most extraordinary of all piano pieces – written by one of the most extraordinary of all composers.
The composer would not allow performances of this piece.
And at the time of composition it was longest and most complex work ever written for the piano.
A year or so ago my friend and colleague Tony Meredith gave me a copy of the music. He had purchased it at a rather special auction. Actually it’s a very special copy – it was given to Malcolm Arnold as a Christmas present in 1971 by fellow composer John Gardner with the delightful inscription: a divertissement for Xmas.
Malcolm must have been fascinated by it and judging by the state of the copy, I’m sure he did spend some quality time trying to make sense of the work therein, which fills some 252 pages.
He may even have played some if it… but not too much. He was a good pianist but you need a John Ogden to play this work. And indeed John Ogden did play it – and record it.
The Big Reveal
Well, enough of this teasing… you may have guessed I’m talking about the mammoth four-and-a-half hour (depending on your general stamina and well-being) epic Opus Clavicembalisticum, composed by Kaikhosru Sorabji (born Leon Sorabji in Chingford, Essex in 1892).
The thirty-eight year old Sorabji had already written a lot of piano music, much in the tradition of Chopin, Alkan and Liszt. He was also deeply interested in the music of Schoenberg, Scriabin, Mahler and Debussy (before many knew much about them) as well as having a fascination for complex structures.
There is a vast collection of piano music, much of it of conventional length (though there is also a nine-hour work if you do like your music ridiculously long).
There’s a helpful list to be found here.
But going back to Opus Clavicembalisticum – happily it’s not in one continuous movement, but divided into twelve sections that include four fugues, a passacaglia with 81 variations, two massive cadenzas and much else.
There have been a surprising number of performances and there are recordings. It’s not exactly easy-listening. But there’s no doubt that Sorabji is a voice worth listening to.
In a letter to a friend shortly after completing the work, the composer wrote:
“The closing four pages are as cataclysmic and catastrophic as anything I’ve ever done — the harmony bites like nitric acid the counterpoint grinds like the mills of God, to close finally on this implacable monosyllable” (an enormous chord that requires five staves).
‘Anything I’ve ever done,’ understates Sorabji – actually anything that just about anyone else had ever done!
Of course should you wish, you are allowed to play this work. There never really was a ban on this music. But maybe Sorabji’s deep anxiety that no one could do it justice (after a disappointing first performance evidently) has led to his music being largely forgotten.
You can download the Opus from the Sorabji Archive Website for a small fee.
There are also delightful miniatures believe it or not – the Toccatinetta for example. And if you can be bothered, there’s quite a (very sizable) treasure chest of fascinating stuff to be re-discovered.
I’d loved to have been there when Malcolm opened his Christmas present in 1971.