Kaikhosru Sorabji

From New World Encyclopedia

Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji (August 14, 1892 – October 15, 1988) was a prolific British composer, music journalist, essayist and pianist. He is best known for the numerous piano pieces he wrote to demonstrate the many dimensions of the instrument. Much of his music was never published and exists only in manuscript form. One of his most famous works, Opus Clavicembalisticum is considered one of the most difficult pieces ever written for any instrument. Kaikhosru Sorabji was most proud of his ethnic background and sought to use his music to bring forth harmony and cooperation between races, cultures, ethnicities, and religions. Sorabji composed the piano compositions and wrote the articles to build bridges for peace.

Biographical details

He was born Leon Dudley Sorabji in Chingford, Essex (now Greater London), of mixed Indian (Parsi), Spanish, and Italian (Sicilian) descent. He later changed his name to demonstrate his strong identification with his Parsi heritage. He explained why he did this in Sorabji: A Critical Celebration, edited by Paul Rapoport, which includes his response to the suggestions that his name was not his real one:

It is also stated that my name, my real name, that is the one I am known by, is not my real name. Now one is given one's name—one's authentic ones—at some such ceremony as baptism, Christening, or the like, on the occasion of one's formal reception into a certain religious Faith. In the ancient Zarathustrian Parsi community to which, on my father's side, I have the honour to belong, this ceremony is normally performed, as in other Faiths, in childhood, or owing to special circumstances as in my case, later in life, when I assumed my name as it now is or, in the words of the legal document in which this is mentioned "... received into the Parsi community and in accordance with the custom and tradition thereof, is now and will be henceforth known as..." and here follows my name as now.

As a critic, he was loosely connected to the "New Age" Magazine group surrounding A. R. Orage. His critical publications were of concentrated bitterness, weight and sharp wit, yet were wickedly funny and had an extreme mistrust of the English public taste. Among his best publications are essays about Busoni, Reger, Szymanowski and Bernard van Dieren. Studies about "Tantric Hinduism" led him to his essay Metaphysical motivation in music and to his Tantrik Symphony.

His works were influenced by Alkan, Ferruccio Busoni (to whom his second piano sonata is dedicated), Godowsky, Max Reger, Karol Szymanowski, Scriabin and Delius. He was friends with Philip Heseltine (Pseudonym: Peter Warlock) and became a music journalist in part because of their friendship.

His work Opus Clavicembalisticum (1930) for solo piano takes about 3¾ and 4¾ hours to play, and consists of three sections, each divided into several movements, and each larger than the last. It was once listed (inaccurately) in the Guinness Book of Records as the longest piano piece ever written. His own Symphonic Variations, in three volumes, could take even longer—about eight hours (a similar duration to Frederic Rzewski's work The Road), and occupies 484 A3 pages of manuscript. Several other works by Sorabji may last longer than Opus Clavicembalisticum. While the Symphonic Variations is his longest piano work, his fifth piano sonata, Opus Archimagicum, the Sequentia Cyclica Super Dies Irae ex Missa Pro Defunctis, and the complete set of 100 Transcendental Studies, all have substantially longer durations than Opus Clavicembalisticum.

Sorabji's characteristic trademark is his use, inspired by Busoni, of baroque forms—chorale preludes, passacaglias, and fugues — with harmonies, melodies, and approaches that are not neoclassical as usually understood.

Many details of his life were for a long time hard to come by, as Sorabji was extraordinarily reticent about his life. He was notorious for almost always refusing requests for interviews or information, often with rude messages and warnings not to approach him again. He was equally notorious for refusing permission for his works to be publicly performed.

The select group of musicians who have tackled Sorabji's often enormously difficult works includes: Michael Habermann, Donna Amato, John Ogdon, Geoffrey Douglas Madge, Jonathan Powell, Yonti Solomon, Reinier Van Houdt, Tellef Johnson, Fredrik Ullén, Kevin Bowyer, Carlo Grante, and Marc-André Hamelin.


Kaikhosru Sorabji was a composer who bridged the old and the new worlds through his prolific compositions. In not wanting to forget where we came from, Sorabji used many Baroque and Classical nuances in his writing along with the Tantric and Parsi religious and cultural motifs to remind listeners that the foundation of our stability lies with our family and heritage. His writings on music, especially those of the metaphysical qualities of music which spoke of creative powers which were above and beyond the laws of nature, were pioneering cornerstones in the new study of the psychology of music.

Selected List of Works

The following list is adapted from Sorabji: A Critical Celebration below, with permission, together with information from the brochure of the Sorabji Archive. Many of the manuscripts have been edited, and copies of the original manuscripts, and of the new editions, are available from the Sorabji Archive.

Works for orchestra

  • Poem, Chaleur, a short piece for orchestra (1917)
  • Symphony no.1 for piano, organ, chorus and large orchestra (1921 – 1922)
  • Opusculum, a fairly short piece for orchestra (1923)
  • Symphony no.3 "Jāmī" for baritone solo, wordless chorus, and large orchestra (including piano and organ) (1942 – 1951)
  • (The second symphony, 1930 – 1931, was intended for piano, large orchestra, organ, a final chorus and six solo voices. Only the piano part was completed, though this is, in number of pages, itself longer than the Opus Clavicembalisticum and seems to be a self-sufficient work.)
  • Messa alta sinfonica (Symphonic High Mass) (eight soloists, two choirs and orchestra.) (1955 – 1961)

Works for piano with orchestra

  • Eight Piano Concertos (no. 1, 1915 – 1916 to no. 8, 1927 – 1928, some unpublished, full score of no. 2 missing. The numbering used by Rapoport et al. is based on rediscoveries and reconstructed chronology, not on the numbers given in contemporary publications or even on the manuscript (eg. "Concerto V" written 1927–28 seems to have been the eighth in order of composition.)
  • Symphonic Variations for Piano and Orchestra (orchestrated in 1953 – 1956 from the first book of the three-book piano work written in 1935–37)
  • Opus clavisymphonicum — Concerto for Piano and Large Orchestra (1957 – 1959)
  • Opusculum clavisymphonicum vel claviorchestrale (Little Work for Keyboard and Orchestra) (1973 – 1975)

Works for Voice and Orchestra

  • Music to "The Rider by the Night" (text, Robert Nichols), only exists in full score
  • Cinque Sonetti di Michelangelo Buonarroti (baritone and chamber orchestra)

Works for Bells

  • Suggested Bell-Chorale for St. Luke’s Carillon (St. Luke's Church, Germantown, Philadelphia)


  • The Poplars (Ducic, translated Selver) (two versions)
  • Chrysilla (de Régnier)
  • Roses du Soir (Louÿs)
  • l’Heure Exquise (Verlaine)
  • Vocalise (two versions)
  • Apparition (Mallarmé)
  • Hymne à Aphrodité (Tailhade) (two versions)
  • l’Étang (Rollinat)
  • I was not Sorrowful (Dowson)
  • Le Mauvais Jardinier (Gilkin) (incomplete)
  • Trois Poèmes (Baudelaire and Verlaine)
  • Arabesque (Shamsu’d-Dīn)
  • Trois Fêtes Galantes (Verlaine)
  • Trois Poèmes du “Gulistān” de Sa‘dī (translated Toussaint) (two versions)
  • l’Irrémédiable (Baudelaire)
  • Vocalise “Movement”
  • Three Songs (Baudelaire and Verlaine)
  • Frammento Cantato

Chamber works

  • Primary among these are the two piano quintets, written 1919 – 1920 and 1932 – 1933 (a lengthy work numbering 432 pages, challenging Morton Feldman's String Quartet II for longest chamber work status). New typeset editions of all of the chamber works are available from the Sorabji Archive.
  • Concertino non grosso (four violins, viola, and cello)
  • Il Tessuto d’Arabeschi (flute and string quartet)
  • Fantasiettina Atematica (oboe, flute, and clarinet)

Works for solo piano

  • Five sonatas (sonatas 1 – 5, 1919 – 1934–1935. Also sonata '0', 1917, rediscovered posthumously)
  • Six piano symphonies (Tantrik Symphony, 1938 – 1939, Second Symphony, 1954, Third Symphony, 1959 – 1960, Fourth Symphony, 1962 -1964, Symphonia brevis, 1973, Symphonia claviensis, 1975 – 1976)
  • Four numbered toccatas (Toccata, 1928; Toccata seconda, 1933 - 1934; Toccata terza (lost); Toccata quarta, 1964 – 1967. Also Toccata from two piano pieces, 1920 and Toccatinetta sopra C.G.F, 1929)
  • Opus Clavicembalisticum (1929 – 1930)
  • Symphonic Variations (1935 - 1937) (in three books, of which the first was later orchestrated. Despite the name they are not sketches but complete piano pieces. This is arguably Sorabji's longest work, approx. 7–9 hours)
  • 100 Études transcendantes (1940 – 1944) (in 4 volumes) (These range from short virtuso studies to expansive concert works, such as no. 75 'Passacaglia')
  • Concerto da suonare da me solo e senza orchestra, per divertirsi (1946)
  • Sequentia cyclica super "Dies iræ" ex Missa pro defunctis (1948 – 1949)
  • Quasi Habanera (1917) (Not to be confused with the Quasi-Habanera movement of the Fantasia Ispanica)
  • Désir éperdu (1917)
  • Two Pieces (In the hothouse, and Toccata)
  • Fantaisie Espagnole
  • Prelude, Interlude, and Fugue
  • Trois Pastiches (Pastiches of Chopin, Bizet, and Rimsky-Korsakoff)
  • Rapsodie Espagnole (Transcription of the Ravel orchestral work)
  • Le Jardin Parfumé (1923)
  • Valse-Fantaisie (Hommage à Johann Strauss) (1925)
  • Variations and Fugue on “Dies Iræ” (1923 – 1926)
  • Fragment (Prelude and Fugue) (1926)
  • Fragment for Harold Rutland (1926/1928/1937)
  • Toccata No. 1 (1928)
  • Djami (1928)
  • Passacaglia (unfinished) (1929)
  • Introduction, Passacaglia, Cadenza, and Fugue (completion by Abercrombie of unfinished 1929 Passacaglia)
  • Toccatinetta (1929)
  • Symphony (unnumbered solo piano work intended for piano, orchestra, chorus, and soli) (1930-1931)
  • Fantasia Ispanica (1933)
  • Pasticcio Capriccioso (Chopin Pastiche) (1933)
  • Toccata No. 2 (1933 – 1934)
  • Quaere Reliqua Hujus Materiei inter Secretiora (based on the story “Count Magnus” [M. R. James])
  • Gulistān (“The Rose Garden” [Sa‘di])
  • St. Bertrand de Comminges ("He was Laughing in the Tower”) (based on the story “Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook” [M. R. James])
  • Prelude in E flat (J.S. Bach transcription)
  • Schlußszene aus “Salome” (Strauss concert paraphrase)
  • Un Nido di Scatole
  • Toccata No. 3 (lost)
  • Passeggiata Veneziana (based on “Barcarolle” from “Les Contes d’Hoffman” [Offenbach])
  • Rosario d’Arabeschi
  • Fantasiettina sul nome illustre dell’egregio poeta Christopher Grieve ossia Hugh M’Diarmid
  • 20 Frammenti Aforistici
  • Toccata No. 4
  • 104 Frammenti Aforistici (Sutras)
  • Variazione Maliziosa e Perversa sopra “la Morte d’Åse” da Grieg
  • 4 Frammenti Aforistici
  • Symphonic Nocturne (A large work for solo piano still in manuscript form)
  • Il Grido del Gallino d’Oro (variations and fugue on a theme from “Le Coq d’Or” [Rimsky-Korsakov])
  • Villa Tasca
  • Opus Secretum
  • Passeggiata Variata
  • 2 Sutras sul Nome dell’amico Alexis
  • Passeggiata Arlecchinesca (based on material from “Rondò Arlecchinesco” [Busoni])
  • Trascription in the Light of Harpsichord Technique for the Modern Piano of the Chromatic Fantasia of J.S. Bach Followed by a Fugue, as well as a number of other transcriptions

Works for organ

  • Three organ symphonies (1924, 1929 – 1932, 1949 - 1953)

Voice and Organ

  • Benedizione di San Francesco d’Assisi (baritone)

Selected list of performed and recorded works

The list of works listed above are known to have received public or broadcast performances, and/or recordings.

There is information on performances up to its date of publication in the book A Critical Celebration, in the chapter Un tessuto d'esecuzioni (named in parallel with the composer's chamber piece Il tessuto d'arabeschi (1979, for flute and string quartet and dedicated "To the Memory of Delius.") Information on premieres, again up to that date and so far as known can also be found in the entries on individual works in The "Detailed Catalog" section of the chapter called "Could you just send me a list of his works?"

Orchestral works

  • Two performances of Chaleur have taken place in Frankfurt, in 1999 and 2000.

Works for piano with orchestra

  • Piano concerto no. 5 (Published as Concerto II pour piano et orchestre in 1923 by F. and B. Goodwin Ltd. of London, written in 1920. Premiered in Utrecht in March 2003, and broadcast by Radio Hilversum, Netherlands in May 2003 with Donna Amato, soloist)

Works for chamber ensemble

  • Piano quintet no. 1 (public performance, Chris Berg piano; string quartet. This concert also contained the "modern premiere" of the second piano sonata, that is, its first performance since the composer had performed it in the 1920s.)
  • Il tessuto d'arabeschi—performed May 1982 in Philadelphia.

Works for solo organ

  • Organ symphony no. 1—second movement performed in 1928 by E. Emlyn Davies. Entire work premiered by Kevin Bowyer and Thomas Trotter in 1987. Recorded by Kevin Bowyer on a Continuum CD (1001, released in 1988.)
  • Organ symphony no. 2—first movement performed in 1994 by Kevin Bowyer. The entire work was scheduled to receive its first complete performances (over 6 hours) in Glasgow and Darmstadt in October 2006, however Kevin Bowyer has since postponed this performance by a year due to illness.

Works for solo piano

  • Sonatas
    • Sonata 1 premiered by Sorabji in 1920, recorded by Marc-André Hamelin for the label Altarus in 1990
    • Sonata 2 premiered by Sorabji in 1922, recorded by Tellef Johnson for the label Altarus in 1999
    • Sonata 3 premiered by Yonty Solomon in 1977; a recording by Tellef Johnson is scheduled for release from the label Altarus in 2006
    • Sonata 4 premiered by Sorabji in 1930, recorded by Jonathan Powell for Altarus in 2004


  • Fourth Symphony premiered by Reinier van Houdt at Utrecht in March 2003 and performed several times, in Canada in 2003
  • Symphonia Brevis premiered in New York City, 2004 by Donna Amato


  • Of the numbered toccatas, Toccata (1928) is recorded (also by Jonathan Powell, for Altarus in 2003). Toccata 2 was premiered by Sorabji in 1936.

Opus Clavicembalisticum

  • Premiered by Sorabji in 1930. Given its second complete performance in 1982 by Geoffrey Douglas Madge, who performed it several times. Two of these performances have made it to recording media. His first, from Utrecht, was recorded for Keytone Records, and has long since been deleted. A subsequent performance in Chicago has been released on a set of BIS CDs (a Swedish label). Madge has also performed the work in Montréal, Bonn, Paris, and Berlin. He has since made the decision not to perform the work. Altarus has also released a recording by John Ogdon. The piece has been performed six times by Madge, four times by Jonathan Powell, twice by John Ogdon and once by Daan Vanderwalle.

Études transcendantes

  • Individual ones of these (and individual numbers of his set of Symphonic variations) have found their way into concerts (e.g. at the Newport Festival and the Schloss vor Husum festival of unusual piano music) and onto recordings. BIS have announced that the complete set will be recorded by the pianist Fredrik Ullén; the first volume was released in 2006.

Other piano works

  • Michael Habermann recorded many short works in the 1980s for the MusicMasters label, as well as a CD for Elan and a CD of transcriptions for BIS. The earlier recordings have been re-released by the British Music Society.
  • Donna Amato has also recorded several shorter works, all released on the Altarus label.
  • Altarus have also released other shorter works, with recordings by Yonty Solomon, Carlo Grante, Charles Hopkins, and Jonathan Powell, who has a number of other recordings scheduled for release.


  • Sorabji's songs for soprano have been recorded by Elizabeth Farnum (soprano) and Margaret Kampmeier (piano) for Centaur.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Rapoport, Paul (ed.). Sorabji: A Critical Celebration. Aldershot: Scolar Press, 1992. ISBN 0859679233.
  • Sorabji, Kaikhosru Shapurji. Around Music. Hyperion Press, 1979. ISBN 0883557649.
  • Sorabji, Kaikhosru Shapurji. Mi Contra Fa: The Immoralisings of a Machiavellian Musician. Da Capo Press, 1986. ISBN 0306762757

External links

All links retrieved October 4, 2022.


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