Even More Sorabji!

Sorabji Symphony cover

SORABJI: Symphony No. 2, “Jâmî” for large orchestra, wordless chorus and baritone solo (1942-1951): 1st mvt; 2nd mvt; 3rd mvt / incomplete performance using Sibelius Software, available for free streaming on YouTube by clicking movement links above.

SORABJI: Organ Symphony No. 2: 3rd mvt excerpts; Fuga Triplex excerpts / virtual performance created with the Vienna Konzerthaus Organ, available for free streaming by clicking movement titles above

After discovering the Sorabji piano sonatas I wrote about in my previous article, I ran across these two gems, both created by an anonymous YouTube uploader who uses the pseudonym “davetubaking” but identifies himself onscreen in the third movement as David Carter. I must thank him personally for spending so many hours transcribing Sorabji’s note-filled, extraordinarily long scores and feeding them into a computer. The performance of the Symphony No. 2 is played by members of the Vienna Symphony orchestra and chorus on Sibelius Software, whereas the Organ Symphony No. 2 excerpts were programmed to play on the Vienna Konzerthaus organ. Although Mr. Carter has written to me that these are not synthesized performances, but actually played by live musicians [see his comment below], the sound quality does not indicate this, which is why at first I called them “synthesized performances.” Only in the third movement of the Symphony No. 2 do some passages sound as if they are produced by humans. But I do not blame Mr. Carter or the musicians for this; feeding the “live” data into the Sibelius Software apparently caused much of the sound profile heard in these performances. From this I deduce that Carter may indeed be living in Austria.

Sorabji took 10 years to write his second symphony, beginning in 1942 and finally completing it in 1951. The soft, mysterious opening is typical Sorabji, beginning in a tonal space but quickly moving to bitonality, with falling chromatic passages within, as the rest of the “orchestra” and chorus enter. With no offense intended towards the man who spent so many hours creating this—the first movement alone runs 94 minutes!—it’s kind of a shame that the synthesized orchestra sounds like a synthesizer and not like a real orchestra, although oddly enough the synthesized chorus sounds eerily lifelike. But it’s symptomatic of the Sorabji Problem. Since not enough listeners have sought out or adjusted to his music, live performances of any of his long works are at a premium, and since his symphonies require large massed groups of instruments and not just a solo performer as in the case of his piano or organ works, no impresario in his right mind is going to finance a live performance of these works.

But at least we get to hear the notes used in this symphony even if we have to imagine what the real orchestral textures sound like, and in the land of the blind the one-eyed man (or in this case, virtual performance) is better than nothing. One thing that struck me as the first movement proceeded on its merry way was that we can’t really tell if the inner voices were meant to be somewhat blurred, as they are here due to the synthesizer sound, or meant to be more clearly heard. Since Sorabji based a great deal of his later style on the music of Szymanowski, who came out of the French impressionist style, and Szymanowski used blurred or clouded textures in his symphonies, I would lean towards the former conclusion…but I can’t say for sure.

What I do think, however, is that the wordless chorus was meant to be blended into the orchestral texture, as it is here, and not stand out. For those whose musical experience does not extend to Szymanowski, let alone Sorabji, think of the last movement of Holst’s The Planets where the wordless choir is just another musical thread in the overall orchestration. Of course, in this case the chorus sings so often (though not continuously) that I think this might be another problem to mitigate against a live performance. I’m not sure that a human chorus could keep up throughout an entire four-and-a-quarter-hour symphony in live performance. I would think that such a thing would have to be broken up over two days in order to allow the singers some rest of their vocal cords.

Sorabji’s musical development in this first movement almost makes the rhythm, such as it is, sound amorphous. Like Szymanowski, he also focuses much of his attention on the middle and lower ranges of the orchestral instruments, thus creating even more of a “mood” effect with sound here than he does in his long piano works. Occasionally, as at about the 14:10 mark, he will suddenly bring the rhythm into focus, use a long crescendo to increase the volume at the same time, and suddenly move into upper registers of the orchestra to create huge climaxes. And here, as in all of his music, one hears what I refer to as a “liquid flow” of music, a technique that came to Sorabji from Wagner as filtered through the French school. Very little if any of his music comes close to the sharp-edged rhythms of Bartók or Stravinsky, and this is undoubtedly another reason why his music is not so well appreciated. Listeners like rhythm. They like Beethoven, and Brahms, Stravinsky, Bartók, Strauss and Orff. Although Szymanowski and his spiritual descendant, Weinberg, are more on the ascendant now than they were during their lifetimes, their music, too, is often relegated to the outer periphery of the classical sphere. Not only in 2020, but beginning in 2019, record companies, classical music magazines and performers have been harping on the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth, whereas the Weinberg centenary of 2019 consisted mainly of a few dozen concerts, most of them organized by violinist Gidon Kremer who is a huge fan of the composer, with a few sprinkled releases of his music on CD. The Weinberg “celebration” was sort of like a trickling faucet, whereas the Beethoven celebration was Niagara Falls.

With the sound quality of the Second Symphony being biased so much in the direction of a synthesizer, the listening experience places this “performance” in the category of an Organ Symphony, though it is not one. One interesting analogy that came to mind was of Scriabin’s Mysterium: Prelude to the Final Mystery as completed by Alexander Nemtin in 1970s and recorded in the late 1990s. Both the amorphous tempi and orchestral textures are surprisingly similar, yet I doubt that Nemtin knew anything of Sorabji’s symphonies (just as Sorabji probably had no knowledge of Nemtin’s recreation, since it wasn’t performed until after his death).

Without a score, the music is difficult to describe except in terms of the textures, tempi and rhythm (such as it is) that one hears from moment to moment. Yet I’ve always felt that, to a certain extent, Sorabji either didn’t think in terms of logical construction—much of his development, when not based on a toccata, fugue or chaconne, is more ruminating than logical—or didn’t want his listeners to get too hung up on following the structure lest they become burned out. My feeling is that he really did want his music to be as much of a felt experience as a musically structured one. He had a decided preference for the long form because he wanted to create a hypnotic environment for the listener…one with peaks and valleys, but still, a felt rather than an analyzed experience. He certainly achieves this in the first movement of this symphony.

Even the written descriptions that Carter provides as textual context for this performance onscreen tend towards generalities and not specifics of the musical structure, i.e.:

Crescendo from chorus leads to a notable passage with strident crochet chords from the chorus and the orchestra playing out a 3:4 cross-rhythm with repeated semiquavers in upper winds, violins, cellos & basses and repeated triplets in lower winds, horns & violas. Gongs enter as the brass close the passage with heavy straight duplet quavers.

Of course, his references to these cross-rhythms, repeated semiquavers and duplet quavers were evident to him because it was he who had the score and fed the data into the Sibelius Software for performance. Without this description in front of you, however, you’d be able to hear some of the rhythmic motion mentioned as well as the semiquavers and quavers, but it is still the massed sound as a block that washes over you and not the details. Yet I’m glad he mentioned the orchestration because the naked ear simply cannot hear this virtual performance as it would a real orchestra. At another point, he mentions that the “Strings divide into 20 parts,” but the ear cannot really hear all 20 parts, thus you simply have to take his word for it.

And hypnotic this movement really is, so much so that if one gives oneself over to the music without trying to analyze it one falls into the swirling, shifting web of sound—perhaps not gladly, since this music has more of an undercurrent of unease than peacefulness—and thus becomes “Sorabji-ized.” After an hour and a half plus a few seconds, you are on a different plane. The aptly-described “riot of mob activity” at the 48-mminute mark in the first movement is precisely that, and this is how it strikes the listener. At around the 50-minute mark we return to the hushed opening of the symphony, if anyone has a long enough attention span to recognize it as such.

The “short” second movement (only 21:20 long) is a sort of grotesque burleske in the manner of Mahler, though of course the underlying harmonies are more fluid, built around shifting pivot-points within the chords. This movement goes beyond the feeling of unease created in the first into full-fledged blackness and occasionally terror; there is nothing comforting in its spiky harmonies and jabbing, short melodic motifs, although at the four-minute mark it moves into sort of a spiky parody of belly-dancing music. At around 17:52, a strange syncopated rhythm suddenly appears, around which the orchestra rallies. FYI, the chorus doesn’t sing in this movement, or at least it wasn’t included in the realization.

As if to make up for the “brief” second movement, the third runs over two hours. This, too, is a fast movement but clearly more upbeat in terms of harmony and, to my ears, much denser in its melodic construction and tighter in harmonic movement than the first. An online message from Mr. Carter in this movement tells us that Sorabji described this symphony as his “most extended essay in that continuous, self-cohesive texture relying on its own inner consistency without relation to thematic or other matter (bold print mine) adumbrated in earlier, much shorter works.” So my instinct was correct; we are not intended to follow the development in the conventional sense, but let it all wash over us. Probably because this was conceived and written as the longest movement, there is much more going on technically here; even if you are just in passive listening mode, you cannot escape the very complex brass-and-wind passages (with chorus) that begin around the 36-minute mark and continue for a spell. Having led you to expect a sort of ambient music, Sorabji has suddenly turned up the complexity and made something quite elaborate of the music at this point.

heckelphone player

Heckelphone player

At about the 42-minute mark we hear even more complexity, now involving the percussion as the strings and winds practically tie themselves up in knots. According to Carter’s notes, he even uses something called a heckelphone, a double-reed instrument resembling the baritone oboe. By the 44 ½-minute mark the music becomes even more congested, with the strings divided into 18 parts which overlap one another (even the naked ear can pick up several of these without seeing the score) while a new melodic line arises. By 46:30 not only the polyphonic complexity but also the minor-leaning but clearly atonal harmonies become more complex as well. If I had to make a guess, I’d say this third movement was written considerably later than the first two, simply because it gets away from ambient listening and engages the hearer’s mind in an ever-increasing complexity of overlapping rhythms, voices and myriad inner details of the orchestration. I can also envision that this is where the rubber will meet the road for the unprepared conductor who decides to perform this work without extremely careful reading and interpreting of the score as well as rigorous preparation of the orchestra and chorus…yet another reason why it is probably not performed in live concerts.

This complexity never ceases from this point forward, but actually grows and expands as the movement moves towards its climax.

Considering all this, and even making allowances for the greater harmonic and rhythmic complexity of his music, it did not surprise me to learn that Sorabji was a huge fan of Mahler’s Symphonies and had been since his early adulthood, long before Mahler became even moderately well known. This Second Symphony is sort of a superannuated Mahler on acid and steroids, so to speak, particularly in this third movement.

Unfortunately, the fourth movement, which we are told runs about 47 minutes, has not yet been realized in sound, thus this performance is incomplete, but beggars shouldn’t be choosers. We must surely be grateful for what has been completed; it’s better than not hearing the music at all. But it is this fourth movement, entitled “Cantico,” that contains the baritone solo based on the eleventh section of one of Persian poet Mawlânâ Nûru’d-Dîn Abdu’r-Rahmân Jâmî’s works.

Sorabji’s The Judgment of Posterity: “In face of the unmistakable evidence that intelligence is everywhere declining, there is […] strong ground for questioning the arrogant pretensions of present-day criticism in reversing the judgments of earlier generations, and with the present progressive besotting and benumbing of such intelligence as still remains, […] there  is every reason to suppose that the next generation and the next after that will become progressively worse, and still less competent to pass judgment on our opinion and verdicts than even we ourselves of a hundred years ago.

“The things that will in all probability survive in the esteem of 2027 will not be the Mass of Life [Delius], the Reger 100th Psalm, the Sibelius later symphonies, but the Rhapsody in Blue, Valencia and such. As Mr. Aldous Huxley has pertinently remarked, ‘ours is a spiritual climate in which the immemorial decencies find it hard to flourish. Another generation or so should see them definitely dead. Is there a resurrection?’ Not, one is tempted to think, within the present cycle.” But Sorabji was not merely critical of Gershwin and Valencia. He also attacked Stravinsky and Hindemith, among others.

A bit condescending, yes. As his friend Erik Chisholm once said of his writings, “There are no half measures with this extraordinary man: his point of view is always that of an extremist. Things are either divine or satanic—and anyone who thinks differently is a fool, or a rogue, or both.” Yet Sorabji clearly had a point. Turn on your local classical FM station and you’re bound to hear Rhapsody in Blue at least three times a week, plus plenty of the most accessible Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert, Brahms and Dvořák, but very little of Mahler except for one of his “prettier” Andantes or Adagios and certainly no Ligeti, Partch, late Stravinsky, Alkan, Bartók or Sorabji. But hey, here’s another recording of the Meistersinger Act I Prelude for you!

But the reference to Delius’ A Mass of Life is interesting in two respects. First, it seems to me to have been a model for Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, an upbeat, explosive but somewhat short first section followed by a slower, more legato second section, with much more chorus in the first part and much more extended singing by the soloists in the second. Secondly, the almost continuous choral writing in the upper register heard in the Delius piece is also a characteristic of this Sorabji symphony.

As for the Organ Symphony No. 2, this is, unfortunately, an even more fragmented virtual performance than the Symphony No. 2. Although the great British organist Kevin Bowyer has performed it a few times in live concerts, there is no full recording of the work. Carter explains his reduction of the score in these excerpts thus:

Part 1, This starts with the first 4 minutes of the Preludio fading out and back in at 4’04” into the last 02:30 of the Preludio which end at 06:30 when the Adagio starts. You get the first 3’16” of the Adagio which then it fades out and back in at 09:46 to a section in the middle of the Adagio which caught my eye. Much of the Adagio, it seems to me is something of a funeral march, there certainly seems to be a steady tramp through large sections of the Adagio this middle passage in particular. This section fades out at 13:41 and into the last part of the Adagio which ends at 16:15 when we go straight into the remarkable Toccata which in this performance opens quietly and has an almost eerie mysterious quality. There are so many notes that you only get (for the moment) the first three minutes when at 17:23 we fade out and back into the last three minutes which ends at 20’36”.

Part 2, A much extended performance of the fuga triplex from Sorabji’s Organ Symphony No 2. I’ve now done the opening section of each fugue until all voices have stated the theme and then jump to the whole of the stretto for each fugue and the whole of the coda stretto that concludes the work. About 50 minutes of music. A complete performance of the fugues last about 2 hours.

I’ve taken liberties with voice leading so that which ever theme in whichever voice is being stated is louder. In the coda stretto that concludes the work each of the three themes is stated in all six voices bottom upwards one after the other. Even cheating with dynamics that’s still quite hard to follow as there is hardly any respite from 6, 7 or 8 lines of polyphony. The ending of my performance is pretty awesome but it is a pale imitation of the ending as performed by Kevin Bowyer live. I have been present at two live performances and it is a shattering experience.

So there you have it…two more masterful compositions by Sorabji, the first nearly complete and the second a series of “highlights.” But both are worth exploring, and I can only hope that someday someone will have the intestinal fortitude to actually record them in full actual performances.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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4 thoughts on “Even More Sorabji!

  1. David Carter is a tuba player, hence the pseudonym; he lives in London and has done since he was first in touch with us.

    You make valid points about the result of this extraordinary labour of love; yes, it is good that at least one can hear the notes but, of course, the synthesised nature of the sound is a far cry from what the composer had in mind, although the chances of live performance are, as you rightly observe, remote indeed and so this is the nearest that any of us is likely to get to the real thing for the foreseeable future. Moreover, the larger the orchestra that Sorabji uses – such as in this work, his first orchestral symphony and his eighth and last piano concerto – the more that problems of balance, audibility and intelligibility arise; compare the orchestral writing in these works with, say, the only major orchestral work that has yet received a live performance, his fifth piano concerto (1920) and this becomes immediately apparent and Sorabji’s orchestral skill and imagination is far better seen and heard for what it is.

    Yes, the Szymanowski legacy is indeed an important one for Sorabji. What is perhaps most remarkable of all is how little this symphony sounds like his keyboard music.

    As far as I am aware, the score was written from first page through to last rather than in any other order.

    Sorabji’s devotion to the music of Mahler was indeed notable and, not for the first time (think of Alkan, Godowsky, Busoni et al), he was promoting his work long before it became “standard repertoire”.

    The Second Organ Symphony has however, been performed live, albeit by only one organist, , the incomparable Kevin Bowyer (I attended its complete première in 2010); it is hoped that this and the third one will be recorded eventually.

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  2. Lynn, thanks for yor interest in these performances. One very important correction must be made. These are not “synthesised” sounds. The instrumental sounds were not created by a computer. What you hear are live recordings of the very best professional musicians from Vienna recorded in the very best recording facilities. Every single one of the 750,000+ individual notes (including the yet to be completed 4th movement) is a recording of a live musician. The miracle of how that is done is partly explained in the slides accompanying the 3rd movement and for anyone interested please visit the website of the Vienna Symphonic Library (VSL). I accept there is a legitimate concern that the performance may not sound “natural” in some respects. That is partly due to my lack of skill in using the wonderful software that comes with VSL, I am not a professional. You only have to listen to the demo performances of, for instance, the Rite of Spring on the VSL website or many of the soundtracks to blockbuster films to appreciate what can be done. The other reason, I believe, is that it is “unnatural” to hear such complex and technically difficult music played note perfect in respect of rhythm and intonation. The imperfections (however minor) that every human performance has are what makes every such performance unique. I do believe however that perfect performances are interesting as an alternative listening experience. Of course as well as notes, rhythms and intonation there are other performance elements – dynamics, phrasing, tempo etc – which a “virtual performer” can bring to their performance and as Sorabj, even in his orchestral scores, has virtually none of these things I have been very creative in these choices, which is partly why it takes so long to create these performances.

    The Organ Symphony extracts were created as a way of preparing for Kevin Bowyer’s performances. Until these wonderful Organ Symphonies are recorded opportunites to hear them will be rare indeed. I have been fortunate to be present at two complete performances, the WP in Glasgow and the perfromance in the Elbphilharmonie, Hamburg. Nothing I have done can compare to, or prepare you for, the experience of the live performance.

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    • Dear David: I am truly in awe of your abilities to manufacture these virtual performances, and I will surely make the correction you indicate in my article, but I have very good ears and these do NOT sound like real instruments played by humans. I take your word that they are, however, and will note this in the article.

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