10-15: Sorabji Transcendental Studies 1-62 / Ullén - Mabel Mercer Sings Cole Porter 1954 - Seven Samurai Soundtrack 1954 - Zdeněk Fibich Symphonies Jarvi 1998

1682 – John Ferrabosco (English composer & organist at Ely Cathedral Cambridgeshire, son of Alfonso II)
1883 – Francesco Schira (Italian composer, conductor & singing teacher, active in Portugal & England)
1899 – Johann Nepomuk Fuchs (Austrian composer, conductor, music editor & teacher)
1900 – Zdeněk Fibich (Czech composer, music critic & teacher)
1914 – Aleksander Różycki (Polish composer, pianist & teacher)
1955 – Fumio Hayasaka (Japanese composer of film & concert music)

1964 – Cole Porter (American pop songwriter, composer, pianist & singer)
1965 – Carl Hoff (American jazz bandleader & arranger)
1968 – Franz Reizenstein (German-born British composer, pianist & teacher)
1988 – Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji (British composer, music critic & pianist of Parsi heritage)

1999 – Josef Locke (Irish tenor)
2008 – Edie Adams (American pop singer, actress & comedienne, spouse of Ernie Kovacs)

Well, Cole Porter... there's a name you should all know. Porter is in that very upper tier of songwriters from Tin Pan Alley - the writers and publishers of traditional American pop in the first half of the 20th century, on whose works generations of the record-buying, theater-attending, and movie-going public have been fed. Of the other songwriters who occupy that tier, only Porter and Irving Berlin were known for writing both the music and words to most of their songs, which almost puts the two of them in an even more exalted tier all their own.

What's funny about Berlin and Porter being grouped together in this way is that the two otherwise couldn't be more different from one other. Berlin arrived in America as a nearly penniless young Jewish kid from Russia. Porter came from an old monied family of Indiana Baptists, and attended Yale University. He was a classically trained musician, sang in the glee club and the vocal group The Whiffenpoofs at Yale, and was drawn to musical theater even as a youth. Berlin could't read a note of music, relied on scribes to notate the staggering thousands of songs he wrote, peddled his songs as a teen on Tin Pan Alley (back when there still really was such a place - West 28th Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenue), and played all of his songs in the same key on the piano - the rather unlikely tonality of F-sharp!

And in contrast to the earthier, sweeter quality of Berlin's compositions, Cole Porter's songs had a rare wit, urbanity, and sophistication to them, both musically and lyrically. It was a quality that helped the songs transcend the style of the time - the biggest hits anyone's ever had with Cole Porter songs came in the late 1950s and early 60s, when Frank Sinatra and the Nelson Riddle Orchestra recorded several of them, producing some of Sinatra's biggest hits a good 20 to 30 years after the songs had been composed. And like the works of Irving Berlin, and the brothers Gershwin, Cole Porter's catalog is one of those everyone and their dog has dipped into, and still does. Yours truly has even tried his hand at some Cole Porter tunes here and there. :>

Well, Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji... there's a name you should... have some trouble pronouncing. Perhaps you haven't heard of Sorabji, unless you're a classical piano virtuoso, or some kind of musicologist. But if you haven't, then he's one of the most fascinating composers you never heard of.

Sorabji was born in Britain, to a Spanish-Sicilian mother and a Parsi father. The Parsis are a people from India, but they are ethnically Persian. To be more specific, they're descended from a group of Persians who emigrated to India about 1000 years ago. Sorabji considered himself to be a Parsi, not a Brit. He even chose to eschew the Church of England and adopt the religions of his ancestors - specifically, Zoroastrianism from Iran, and Tantric Buddhism from Bhārat.

Sounds like a pretty interesting character so far, doesn't he? Well, we're only just getting started with Sorabji. For one thing, he was gay; in fact, the most famous Parsi in music history was also British and gay. He was a rock singer and pianist born with the name Farrokh Bulsara - but you probably know him better as Queen's Freddie Mercury. It wasn't enough that Sorabji was gay, though - he even published an article blasting Britain's discriminatory attitude towards homosexuals, and in particular the horrible treatment Oscar Wilde had received several years earlier because of it. And this article was published in the 1910s, no less!

Sorabji was later to become well-known to the British public as a writer, specifically of music criticism, more specifically of a particularly invective brand of music criticism in which he took a number of well-known British composers to task quite mercilessly. He had particular scorn for the music of Gustav Holst, for some reason. He was among that group of Brits who held up Frederick Delius as Britain's great composer. Other composers who felt similarly about Delius included Constant Lambert and Philip Heseltine (Peter Warlock), the latter of which Sorabji counted among his rather limited set of close friends (he was notoriously reclusive).

Now try this on for size: from about 1935 onward, Sorabji FORBADE all performances of his works, without his express written consent. That's correct. Now, why would he do such a thing? Well, you have to understand what Sorabji's music is like. If you were to cross the highly complex musical styles of Alexandre Scriabin and Ferruccio Busoni, and then compound that with the long-windedness of late Morton Feldman, and then extend that long-windedness to truly unbelievable proportions, you'd be approaching what much of Sorabji's music is like. So, you see... Sorabji forbade his music to be performed because his music is nigh-well impossible to perform... at least much of it is. 

And when I'm talking about long-winded, I'm not sure you get what I mean. Sorabji's most famous work, the Opus Clavicembalisticum (1930) for solo piano, takes about 4 to 4-1/2 hours to perform. But this work is short... short... compared to some others. Sorabji's Organ Symphony No. 2 (1932) takes about 8 hours to play; its second movement alone is as long as the Opus Clavicembalisticum. Sorabji's longest work is said to be his Fifth Piano Sonata (Opus archimagicum), which is estimated to take 11 hours to get through. Many of Sorabji's more gargantuan works are still unpublished, and have never been played, much less recorded, by anyone.

Really something to think about the next time you hear about how long "Stairway To Heaven" or "Layla" is...


Update: I'm really sorry about the problem with the Sorabji. I could have sworn I checked out all those links, but Parts 2 and 5 have been deleted. I'll see if I can solve the problem via the original blogger, or else find a suitable substitute for you!

Update 2: Substitute has been found. It's not the sort of thing I would have preferred (more or less, miniatures in Sorabji-world), but it's all that seems to be available at the moment.


  1. Hello, I have just a few notes on your article (the bit[s] about Sorabji, specifically): Sorabji's mother was not Spanish-Sicilian, but English. This claim is a myth promoted by Sorabji, which was refuted in Sean Vaughn Owen's dissertation "Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji: An Oral Biography". "Opus clavicembalisticum" was written 1929-1930 and the Second Organ Symphony 1929-1932, but perhaps you only wanted to include the years when the works were completed, so there's nothing wrong with your information. Sorabji forbade performances of his music in 1936. Lastly, "Opus archimagicum" lasts a bit over 6 hours.

    Best wishes.

  2. Thank you very much for your information... I've been hoping for months now someone would chime in and correct all the erroneous information I'm putting out there! And I'm glad someone finally figured out how long the Opus archimagicum is, and that it isn't nearly as long as some had feared... do I recall correctly, or wasn't there a public premiere of the work that was finally being planned? Or has that taken place already? Funny about Sorabji's story about his mother... another great example of how unreliable autobiography can be! He must have come up with that bit to be consistent with his claim that he self-identified according to his ethnicity, rather than his citizenship. Now, turns out he was half English after all! What a fascinating character.

  3. "Opus archimagicum" has not yet been premiered, but it is supposed to be released as part of Tellef Johnson's site http://www.opusarchimagicum.com/, which includes a mailing list with all related information.

  4. I'm sorry about reviving the comments section here once more, but you might want to check out http://www.concertzender.nl/programmagids.php?date=2012-05-18&month=0&detail=56166. It contains a recent broadcast of the first two movements of Sorabji's Second Organ Symphony. The broadcast of the third movement is mentioned at http://www.concertzender.nl/programmagids.php?month=0&date=2012-05-24 (the time is Dutch). I hope you enjoy it (unless you already have checked it out)!

  5. Please feel free to comment on any and all posts! Thank you for this, I very much look forward to hearing it. I'll leave another comment later with my impressions.

    1. This is just a "minor" issue, but I highly suggest that you listen to it with either headphones or extremely good speakers; I concede those on my computer may just happen to suck big time, but I have found listening to the piece with headphones, as opposed to doing so senza them, FAR more enjoyable.

  6. I'm sorry, but it's taking me much longer to get around to listening to the organ symphony than I thought it would. I've been awfully busy this week. I promise I'll get around to it over the weekend!

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