Born: August 14, 1892 - Chingford, Essex, England
Died: October 14, 1988 - Wareham, Dorset, England
The Englisg pianist, writer on music, and composer, Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji (actually: Leon Dudley), came from a mixed-origin family. His father was a Zoroastrian Parsi civil engineer and his mother - as far as is known - was a part Sicilian, part Spanish soprano. He spent most of his life in England. From his early 'teens he developed an insatiable appetite for the latest developments in contemporary European and Russian music and went to great lengths to obtain the latest scores of such composers as Gustav Mahler, Debussy, Arnold Schoenberg, Skryabin, Sergei Rachmaninov and others at a time and in a country where almost all such music was largely unknown and unrecognized. Of an independent and uniquely curious nature, it is perhaps unsurprising given the pre-War English environment that his education, both general and musical, was mostly private.
For a composer as prolific as he was soon to become, Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji was an unusually late developer and his voracity in absorbing all the most recent trends in other people's music seems to have excluded from his mind the idea of making his own until he reached his twenties. A close friend and confidant of the English composer Philip Heseltine from 1913, Sorabji wrote to him that he was considering a career as a music critic. Once he had begun to compose, however, the floodgates of his imagination burst and a tremendous river of musical creativity flowed forth almost uninterrupted until the early 1980's.
An intensely private person who loathed to participate in public gatherings of any sort, he performed some of his own piano works on rare occasions and with considerable success, but with even greater reluctance. In the mid-1930's he withdrew not only himself from the concert platform but his works from public hearings, declaring that he considered them unsuited to conventional concert performance and that "no performance at all is vastly preferable to an obscene travesty". While he never actually imposed an unequivocal "ban" on public performances of his works, as used to be claimed, the result was that concert-goers around the world heard almost none of his music for nearly four decades. In view of the colossal difficulties involved in performing much of his music, it was not unexpected that this regrettable situation would continue almost unchallenged for so long.
In the intervening years, Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji worked as a critic for The New Age and The New English Weekly until his retirement in 1945; he also continued composing richly expressive and extraordinarily elaborate music, mostly for the piano, without the slightest care as to whether or not it might ever reach the ears of the public.
Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji resented the intrusion of casual inquirers about himself and his work, as a result of which many entries on him in major music lexica were more notable for their conflict than for the reliability of their information about him. As a result, some of those who remembered his continued existence but knew little or nothing of what he was doing and why, chose - almost inevitably, one supposes - to spin webs of myth and legend about him. These tell more about their creators than they do about Sorabji. It has taken some years to wipe away the fatuous "Howard Hughes of Music" image of him which had been fostered by some who had little better to do.
Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji lived quietly and modestly in London and then in South Dorset in self-chosen isolation, undisturbed by the mêlée of professional public music-making. He had the good fortune of a small private income which allowed him this existence and permitted him to get on with his work uninhibited and undisturbed.
From 1976, the pioneering efforts of South African pianist Yonty Solomon began to turn the history of Sorabji's reputation. In a monumental series of London recitals, he presented a number of Sorabji's piano works for the first time and the interest which these generated has grown and developed ever since. His music began to attract the attention of a small but distinguished group of performers of outstanding gifts for whom not even the most fearsome complexities and virtuosic requirements of his major keyboard works presented insurmountable challenges. The 1980s witnessed, among other performances, an astonishingly accurate and powerful premiere of Sorabji's two-hour Organ Symphony No. 1 (1923-1924) and an absolutely stunning account of all four-and-three-quarter hours of his piano work Opus clavicembalisticum (1929-1930), which proved to be the crowning glory of John Ogdon's career.
Following Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji's death at the age of 96, a series of CD recordings began to appear, including the two works mentioned above. The Sorabji Archive has encouraged major performers and scholars to create fine new editions of the composer's works from his manuscripts. Sorabji's centenary year saw the publication of the first full-length book on him - Sorabji: A Critical Celebration, edited by Paul Rapoport.