Music maestro

Remembering the Parsi composer who wrote some of the longest-ever pieces for the piano

Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji wrote massive, complex compositions in early 20th century. Is that the only reason he is not widely known?

For someone who revelled in obscurity, even ensuring that his work was accessible only to the “serious and dedicated” listener, Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji has gained a small but dedicated following in death.

In 1992, the Canadian musicologist Paul Rapoport edited a book on the reclusive but brilliant composer-pianist-critic. Alistair Hinton, Sorabji’s literary executor and a composer himself, maintains the excellent Sorabji Archives. And in 2013, Marc-Andre Roberge, another musicologist, wrote a biography of Sorabji that is free to download.

It is an irony that would not have been lost on Sorabji.

In his lifetime, Sorabji had a reputation for being “difficult”, not least because he composed gigantic works of great complexity that made extreme demands on a pianist, who, as one admirer plaintively said, were only “ten-fingered”.

His Symphonic Variations for Piano, for instance, runs for nine hours and his Opus Clavicembalisticum for four hours. There are more works of similar lengths that have put Sorabji’s compositions on the list of long non-repetitive piano pieces.

When not composing massive works, Sorabji wrote playful pastiches based on the works of Chopin, Bizet and Rimsky-Korsakov – all among his more popular pieces. Influences came from everywhere. He composed aphoristic fragments and dreamy soulful nocturnes, including two based on the works of Persian poets Saadi and Jami, as well as pieces inspired by the writings of the ghost story author Montagu Rhodes James and Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid (pen name of CM Grieve).

Yet, Sorabji hated labels. As he once wrote:

“I am not a ‘modern’ composer in the inverted commas sense. I utterly and indignantly repudiate that epithet as being in any way applicable to me. I write very long, very elaborate works that are entirely alien and antipathetic to the fashionable tendencies prompted, publicized and plugged by the various ‘establishments’ revolving around this or that modish composer.

Why do I write as I do? Why did (and do) the artists-craftsmen of Iran, India, China, Byzantine-Arabic Sicily (in the first and last of which are my own ancestral roots) produce the sort of elaborate highly wrought work they did? That was their way. It is also mine. If you don’t like it, because it isn’t the present day done thing, that is just too bad, but not for me, who couldn’t care less.”

Musical journey

Kaikhosru Sorabji was born on August 14, 1892, to a Parsi father, Shapurji Sorabji, and an English mother, Madeline Mathilda Worthy. At first named Leon Dudley, he was given the Parsi name, Kaikhosru during his navjote ceremony in 1913. It was this Parsi name that he came to use and be known by.

However, the relationship between father and son was strained. Shapurji Sorabji travelled often between Bombay and England, before settling permanently in Germany, following what is rumoured to be another marriage. A trust fund was provided for Sorabji and his mother, but the abandonment had done its damage.

Musically, Sorabji was mostly self-taught, though there were certainly early influences. In the biography Opus Sorabjianum, Marc-Andre Roberge mentions Charles Arthur Trew as one of Sorabji’s teachers. Emily Edroff Smith, a friend of Sorabji’s mother, was another teacher, according to Rapoport. In yet another view, Sorabji’s first ambition was to become a music critic rather than a composer, but somehow the two went hand-in-hand.

He gave his first public performances in 1920, but it was from 1930 to 1942 that he was at his most prolific and ambitious. He wrote articles of musical criticism for New Age between 1924 and 1934, and in the next decade, for the New Music Weekly. His musical writings appeared in 1932 in a book titled Around Music, and in 1945 in a book called Mi Contra Fa: The Immoralizings of a Machiavellian Musician.

Midway through this prolific period, however, Sorabji chose to step away from the limelight, forbidding performances of his work and stopping its publication. As one story goes, he was embittered by a problematic performance of Opus Clavicembalisticum by John Tobin.

This divorce from the music world was partly related to Sorabji’s obduracy over his work. At the same time though, it was also his response to the music world’s attempts (often successful) to label a man of mixed Parsi-English heritage who was shaped by different influences. In his personal life, Sorabji was tormented by his sexuality – he lived with his partner, Norman Reginald Best, and moved with him to Dorset in 1956 – in an age when homosexuality was a prosecutable offence in Britain and elsewhere.

It took considerable persuasion from friends like Frank Holliday and Norman Gentieu and almost three decades before Sorabji relented. In 1962, Holliday recorded Sorabji playing some of his music, like in this following recording of Gulistan.

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Beginning the 1970s, Sorabji’s admirers had more frequent encounters with his works.

Donald Garvelmann, a music producer and radio show host, arranged a three-hour broadcast on Sorabji’s music on a New York radio station. Around this time Sorabji met Alistair Hinton, who later set up the Sorabji Archives, meticulously detailing the Parsi-English composer’s compositions and chronologically listing the progression made on editing and publishing them.

There were also public recitals of Sorabji’s work by gifted pianists.

Yonty Solomon made the first public recital of Sorabji’s work since the 1930s. John Ogdon, Geoffrey Madge, Donna Amato performed the Toccata Sonata (the last piece Sorabji performed in Glasgow in 1936) in April this year. And Michael Habermann, a Baltimore-based pianist, made five recordings of Sorabji’s work.

It was Garvelmann who championed Habermann’s performance of Sorabji’s music, introduced Sorabji and Habermann (they had been writing letter to each other before), and called Habermann the “ideal interpreter” of Sorabji.

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In an NPR recording, Habermann tells the story of how he first became acquainted with Sorabji’s work. In a Mexico City bookstore (his father worked there then), Habermann, then 17, came across Sorabji’s Fantasia Espagnole. To Habermann, the author’s name was unfamiliar, even exotic, but it was the piece that intrigued him – it looked unplayable. Habermann came back a second time when he bought the work priced at 12 pesos. He taught himself to play the piece, fascinated by its complexity (Sorabji called this his “baby piece”). From then on, he was a Sorabji convert. Not only did he seek out Sorabji’s published works, he also wrote to him.

Garvelmann listened to some tapes of Habermann playing Sorabji and it convinced him that here was Sorabji’s ideal interpreter. Habermann was meticulous and painstaking about getting every note right, spending, as Garvelmannn recalls, a week on a single measure. Though he performed several of Sorabji’s pieces, including Introito and Preludio-Corale from Sorabji’s Opus Clavicembalisticum in the early 1970s, it was in 1980 that Habermann finally visited Sorabji at his Dorset cottage.

Habermann played Djami, a bit nervous as the composer listened in rapt attention. Later, when a taxi driver arrived to take Habermann to the station, Sorabji spoke his final words of the meeting: “I have just heard my music played more marvellously than I ever imagined possible.”

Habermann composed a short piece, almost two minutes long, in a tribute to Sorabji called A la manière de Sorabji “Au clair de la lune”. In response, Sorabji sent back, as Habermann tells it, not “a moderately-sized work”, but a 93-page work dedicated to Habermann called The Golden Cockerel by Rimsky-Korsakov: Frivolous Variations with an Anarchic, Heretical, and Perverse Fugue.

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Sorabji died in October 1988. But his music had been put on the world map, as Garvelmann writes, thanks to Habermann’s five recordings.

Habermann, a pianist composer in his own right, and a popular performer and teacher in Baltimore believes Sorabji is one of those composers who are interesting but will never be famous (this is what Sorabji himself would have preferred). Among his most accessible and popular pieces – those whose performances have elicited warm admiration and drawn applause – Habermann lists some nocturnes, with their special dreamy and mystical qualities and the charming, idiosyncratic shorter pieces such as pastiches from Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sadko.

As Habermann writes, Sorabji’s musical personality blended the brooding, defiant aspects of his character with something mystical and poetic. It was a persona most visible in this performance by Habermann of a piece that Sorabji wrote in dedication to his friend, the poet Hugh MacDiarmid.

Listen to Michael Habermann playing Pastiche: Hindu Merchant’s Song from Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sadko, and Gulistan and Djami.

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From catching Goan dances in Lisbon to sampling langar in Munich

A guide to the surprising Indian connect in Lisbon and Munich.

For several decades, a trip to Europe simply meant a visit to London, Paris and the Alps of Switzerland. Indians today, though, are looking beyond the tried and tested destinations and making an attempt to explore the rest of Europe as well. A more integrated global economy, moreover, has resulted in a more widespread Indian diaspora. Indeed, if you know where to look, you’ll find traces of Indian culture even in some unlikely cities. Lisbon and Munich are good cities to include in your European sojourn as they both offer compelling reasons to visit, thanks to a vibrant cultural life. Here’s a guide to everything Indian at Lisbon and Munich, when you wish to take a break from all the sight-seeing and bar crawling you’re likely to indulge in.

Lisbon

Lisbon is known as one of the most vibrant cities in Western Europe. On its streets, the ancient and the modern co-exist in effortless harmony. This shows in the fact that the patron saint day festivities every June make way for a summer that celebrates the arts with rock, jazz and fado concerts, theatre performances and art exhibitions taking place around the city. Every two years, Lisbon also hosts the largest Rock festival in the world, Rock in Rio Lisboa, that sees a staggering footfall.

The cultural life of the city has seen a revival of sorts under the current Prime Minister, Antonio Costa. Costa is of Indian origin, and like many other Indian-origin citizens prominent in Portugal’s political, business and entertainment scenes, he exemplifies Lisbon’s deep Indian connect. Starting from Vasco Da Gama’s voyage to India, Lisbon’s historic connection to Goa is well-documented. Its traces can be still be seen on the streets of both to this day.

While the Indian population in Lisbon is largely integrated with the local population, a few diaspora groups are trying to keep their cultural roots alive. Casa de Goa, formed in the ‘90s, is an association of people of Goans, Damanese and Diuese origins residing in Lisbon. Ekvat (literally meaning ‘roots’ in Konkani) is their art and culture arm that aims to preserve Goan heritage in Portugal. Through all of its almost 30-year-long existence, Ekvat has been presenting traditional Goan dance and music performances in Portugal and internationally.

Be sure to visit the Champlimaud Centre for the Unknown, hailed a masterpiece of contemporary architecture, which was designed by the critically-acclaimed Goan architect Charles Correa. If you pay attention, you can find ancient Indian influences, like cut-out windows and stand-alone pillars. The National Museum of Ancient Art also has on display a collection of intricately-crafted traditional Goan jewellery. At LOSTIn - Esplanada Bar, half of the people can be found lounging about in kurtas and Indian shawls. There’s also a mural of Bal Krishna and a traditional Rajasthani-style door to complete the desi picture. But it’s not just the cultural landmarks that reflect this connection. The integration of Goans in Lisbon is so deep that most households tend to have Goa-inspired textiles and furniture as a part of their home decor, and most families have adapted Goan curries in their cuisine. In the past two decades, the city has seen a surge in the number of non-Goan Indians as well. North Indian delicacies, for example, are readily available and can be found on Zomato, which has a presence in the city.

If you wish to avoid the crowds of the peak tourist season, you can even consider a visit to Lisbon during winter. To plan your trip, check out your travel options here.

Munich

Munich’s biggest draw remains the Oktoberfest – the world’s largest beer festival for which millions of people from around the world converge in this historic city. Apart from the flowing Oktoberfest beer, it also offers a great way to get acquainted with the Bavarian folk culture and sample their traditional foods such as Sauerkraut (red cabbage) and Weißwurst (a white sausage).

If you plan to make the most of the Oktoberfest, along with the Bavarian hospitality you also have access to the services of the Indian diaspora settled in Munich. Though the Indian community in Munich is smaller than in other major European destinations, it does offer enough of a desi connect to satisfy your needs. The ISKCON temple at Munich observes all major rituals and welcomes everyone to their Sunday feasts. It’s not unusual to find Germans, dressed in saris and dhotis, engrossed in the bhajans. The Art of Living centre offers yoga and meditation programmes and discourses on various spiritual topics. The atmosphere at the Gurdwara Sri Guru Nanak Sabha is similarly said to be peaceful and accommodating of people of all faiths. They even organise guided tours for the benefit of the non-Sikhs who are curious to learn more about the religion. Their langar is not to be missed.

There are more options that’ll help make your stay more comfortable. Some Indian grocery stores in the city stock all kinds of Indian spices and condiments. In some, like Asien Bazar, you can even bargain in Hindi! Once or twice a month, Indian film screenings do take place in the cinema halls, but the best way to catch up on developments in Indian cinema is to rent video cassettes and VCDs. Kohinoor sells a wide range of Bollywood VCDs, whereas Kumaras Asean Trades sells Tamil cassettes. The local population of Munich, and indeed most Germans too, are largely enamoured by Bollywood. Workshops on Bollywood dance are quite popular, as are Bollywood-themed events like DJ nights and dance parties.

The most attractive time to visit is during the Oktoberfest, but if you can brave the weather, Munich during Christmas is also a sight to behold. You can book your tickets here.

Thanks to the efforts of the Indian diaspora abroad, even lesser-known European destinations offer a satisfying desi connect to the proud Indian traveller. Lufthansa, which offers connectivity to Lisbon and Munich, caters to its Indian flyers’ priorities and understands how proud they are of their culture. In all its India-bound flights and flights departing from India, flyers can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options, making the airline More Indian than You Think. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalised by Lufthansa to the extent that they now offer a definitive Indian flying experience.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.