Kaikhosru Sorabji »Opus clavicembalisticum«

Havergal Brian

Introduced and annotated by Malcolm MacDonald

This extract from La main gauche is interesting not merely for Brian's comments on Sorabji's Opus clavicembalisticum, but because of its wide-ranging modulation from Sorabji to Sims Reeves, as extreme an element of contrast as one might find in one of his late symphonies!

Though it might not accord with the wishes of those poetasters who came in with broadcasting to tell us about the past, present and future of music, I sometimes feel that all that is necessary to say could be scratched on a sixpence. In the matter of the future of music, for example, it is that a number of composers are convinced that modern music, as it began in Florence in 1600, is now over-ripe and is fast falling into decay. The pioneers are few: for none but the potentially great can write in an idiom other than that of his day and hour: but the mediocre many cast stones at the few, just as they did at Monteverdi, and in the same way as they do now at Schönberg, Stravinsky, Bela Bartók, Malipiero: no one of them shall escape. Busoni also strove for recognition: but we know him only by a few early works broadcast by Adrian Boult.

And now comes Kaikhosru Sorabji, the son of a Parsee father and a Spanish mother, and born in Essex. I am no seer, and do not say that here is the music of the future; but I would like to speak of his Opus clavicembalisticum, not as a Sabbatarian Olympus, but as one who certainly is no musical Sadducee: I concede the possibility of a rebirth of music.

No paper analysis could convey the slightest clue to this extraordinary work for the piano: it is contained in 252 oblong pages, the music written on three staves and without key signature. The composer cautions us that “accidentals hold good only for notes in front of which they stand with the exception of repeated notes and tied notes.” To me this Opus clavicembalisticum comes as an adventure in fugue making, and music-making of this order should always be a hazard. The shape of the fugue subjects here before me are those of Bach, figuratively only, but the treatment of the answers is that of Sorabji; and in it I find much that is new. When the answer is neither strict nor tonal, the 'cautions' made by all previous generations are swept aside, which results in an amazing work.

Sorabji would seem to have studied Busoni to some purpose: but neither that master nor any other appears to influence this work, except that they both use the same language, as do Pater and the police-court reporter. I consider Sorabji to have miraculous gifts; and Busoni himself did not fail to speak well of him after he had played his first Piano Sonata.

Things which confuse and torture most men when seeking expression are all so easy to Sorabji: as was said of William Blake and his Prophetic Books, he is the medium through which angels in spheres far away speak to men. This suggestion came first from Philip Heseltine years ago when writing of Sorabji in Dent’s Modern Musical History.

This Opus clavicembalisticum is a phenomenon, quite as much as Tristan ever was: and musicians will appreciate its composer’s uncanny cleverness when they learn that he writes out his _e_normous piano works and orchestral works direct into full score, and with never an emendation. Is not the time with us when we should hear Mr. Sorabji play this work?1 Could not the Musical Association justify itself by making such things possible? I offer my congratulations to the publishers, Messrs Curwen, and also to all whose work is included. The engraving is superb.

My present theme, thus far developed, might suggest that I think music is wholly and commendably a 'progressive' art. Far from it: I often sit aside and picture the cavalcade passing, yet rejoicing more and more in those elements that are static. Music has developed from the early operas of Monteverdi to the thrilling and magnificent works of contemporary Italian and German opera composers, and this movement has been accompanied by the progression of orchestral technique. The tone of orchestral instruments becomes less and less biting, owing to easier means of production. The trombone and bass drum alone stand aside from all change.

The one great element of music that does not change through the ages is voice production: it rose in Italy, and there it still flourishes as in the days of Monteverdi. The technique of the composer changes: singers of the great line accept the change in ease and comfort: because the foundations of good voice production are where they were. The triumphs of Rubini, Mario and Caruso were all won on the same method which Italy continues to practise. It was at one time thought that Wagner’s declamatory style would need a new vocal style to match it: but one can listen to Die Meistersinger and Tristan sung by Italians in a manner that would certainly have won the commendation of Wagner, whilst the finest of the German singers—those known to us during the Covent Garden season—sang by the Italian method. Sims Reeves2 learned his at in Italy; and John McCormack without doubt absorbed all that Italy could offer when he went there to study.

  1. Sorabji had, in fact, performed it in Glasgow in December 1930 ↩︎

  2. Celebrated English tenor, 1818-1900 ↩︎

La main gauche

Musical opinion, June 1932, pp. 747–748