“Too many notes”, complained Emperor Joseph II to Mozart in response to his opera Le Nozze de Figaro; quite how he would have reacted to the concert that took place a little over a week ago in Glasgow University Chapel—featuring the Finale from Kaikhosru Sorabji‘s Second Organ Symphony, a single movement lasting a little over three hours—is anyone’s guess. Having said that, the temptation into which many people fall when speaking about Sorabji’s music is precisely to get hung up on size. Much is made of the colossal time spans his works occupy, and the virtuosic demands of the material, in addition to the composer’s well-known reclusiveness and apparently disagreeable manner towards—well, pretty much anyone really. Such preoccupations do little to promote an active engagement with the music itself, seeming to regard mere quantity as a feature of merit, confining Sorabji’s fascinating output within a small, narrow and woefully inadequate box of clichés, half-truths and irrelevances.
Size, however, cannot be ignored in Sorabji’s case, as became explicitly clear at last week’s concert. Given by über-organist Kevin Bowyer, the concert was originally intended to be the first performance of the complete Second Organ Symphony. With an estimated total duration of around six to seven hours, this was an extremely ambitious aim, one that, when the time came, proved to be a stretch too far for Bowyer, who opted to play just the final movement. The word ‘just’ is a bit unfair, though; as i said, the Finale has a duration of a little over three hours, so the extent of Bowyer’s task was only partly diminished. Precisely how ambitious the task had been became vividly clear in Bowyer’s programme note. At considerable length, it details his attempts to learn the piece, likening the experience to St George grappling with the dragon. Bowyer speaks of whole-day practice sessions, with startling side-effects: “depression and hallucination are among them – a perception of non existent people standing nearby and behind. Towards the end of the session I often felt the room dissolve to be replaced with the sense of being in another space, another room of completely different size and form – a kind of hallucinating dizziness…”. His palpable disappointment at not yet being in a position to perform the complete work was perhaps best summed up in his description of the concert as a “work-in-progress play through”, but this proved to be mere self-deprecation, as Bowyer’s subsequent performance demonstrated superlative skill and profoundly deep understanding and empathy with Sorabji’s material.
So—what of the music? The Finale comprises a number of sections, of which the first three—an opening Prelude, a ravishingly beautiful Adagio and a rapid Toccata—seem to form a coherent unit, together lasting around 70 minutes. After this came the last section, a colossal fugue of almost 2 hours’ duration, falling into three sections, titled (in Sorabji’s characteristic way) ‘Dux primus’, ‘Dux alter’ and ‘Dux tertius’. A first hearing of such a vast quantity of music can only leave one with impressions and ‘gestural’ memories of the experience, but my lasting impression is that these sections that supposedly together form the Symphony‘s Finale do not—due, in no small part, to their length—convincingly sound like sections of a single movement. They would, certainly, be convincing as separate movements in their own right, and as such would present a familiar shape of many an organ symphony. But the first three sections simply cannot support a fugue of such length, and i wonder whether—with time and, eventually, future listenings—this will prove to be the undoing of this movement. ‘Dux primus’, in particular, takes such a long time for its material to blossom that it borders on the turgid; by contrast, the latter two sections, despite being longer, do, i think, merit their length, aided by their substantial ‘coda stretti’. These both begin around halfway into their respective sections, and serve to tighten and focus the material to their conclusions, the latter of which—bringing the Finale and, ultimately, the entire Symphony to a close—is simply amazing, its vast chords miraculously sounding simultaneously consonant and dissonant.
i have no doubt that Emperor Joseph encapsulated the opinion of many people in his “too many notes” critique, an opinion that has little changed and perhaps ever been so. Certainly, in today’s climate, with the average person’s attention-span diminished to a few minutes (if that), Sorabji’s music appears to be almost entirely incongruous. His substantial œuvre contains numerous pieces of lengthy duration, one of the most well-known being his piano work Opus Clavicembalisticum, which lasts around four hours. The majority of listeners, i suspect, would choose not to engage with music (or, indeed, anything else) on such an epic scale. It certainly crystallises—and takes to the extreme—the notion of sacrifice that is at the heart of serious engagement with the arts, sacrifice in terms of time, effort, and above all, openness; a sacrifice that few people are prepared to make. My own experiences of such lengthy works rank among the most remarkable and rewarding that i have had. Something different happens over this kind of time-span, something that inevitably polarises the listener into either an engagement or disengagement, both of which can only be profound. i perhaps associate this kind of experience with similarly long-term liturgical experiences (such as the Easter Vigil); regardless, the opportunity for music (or anything) to tap into something deeper—something, perhaps, approaching the numinous—seems inextricably connected with scale and its concomitant demands (the stripping away of distractions and intensity of focus on something other than the self). Last week’s concert passed surprisingly quickly, although i suspect i wasn’t alone in feeling dazed and bewildered in the wake of such music, and not merely due to its length; Sorabji’s work sounds like few other composers (although passages of the Finale bore resemblances to Tournemire’s even more massive L’Orgue Mystique), his baroque structures and post-(not a-)tonal harmonies making for a challenging, intoxicating and at times overwhelming mixture.
Obviously, no recording has yet been made of the Second Organ Symphony, and a year must pass before Kevin Bowyer once again attempts to get his mind and fingers around it. When one pauses to consider that this music was written in the early 1920s (four years before Messiaen would write his first organ work, Le Banquet Celeste), Sorabji’s modernity and originality are nothing short of astonishing. All credit, then, to the small number of performers who are so keen to see his music deservedly reach a much wider audience.