In 2019 I will be performing the work Toccata seconda per pianoforte by Kaikhosru Sorabji (1892-1988), an English composer of Indian ancestry who wrote some of the longest, most complex – and certainly most fascinating – works in the piano repertoire. Toccata seconda (1934) is a two-and-a-half-hour-long work that has been performed in concert only twice before – the first time by Sorabji himself – and is therefore a true rarity of piano literature.
Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji (1892-1988) is a fascinating personality in the history of 20th century music. Born in England to an Indian-Parsi engineer and an English singer, he was mostly self-taught in piano and composition; he travelled little, withdrew from public life early on, and devoted his relatively uneventful life – first in London, then in a small village in Dorset – to the composition of an extraordinary corpus of works, most of which were never published or played during his lifetime. Convinced that the absence of any performance was preferable to misrepresentation, Sorabji himself discouraged public performance of his compositions for over 30 years, an attitude that only begun to change near the end of his life.
Sorabji composed prolifically, with a particular focus on the piano. He wrote over 100 works, many of which are still little known, partly due to the fact that most of them remained unpublished in the form of intricate manuscripts that only gradually are being edited and made available in typeset editions. Even published works are unfrequently performed due to their enormous length and complexity. Sorabji justified his creation of long, elaborate works by affirming that “the musical necessities and not the convenience or comfort of the audience are what matters in these high regions of Brahman manifesting as Art”. He compared his own way to that of Middle-Eastern artists and craftsmen, and admired Oriental art for its intricacy, complexity and abundance of invention, which he likened to the works of Nature.
The difficulty of performing Sorabji’s large-scale works is extreme. In addition to their sheer length, their textural and rhythmical complexity, intricate polyphony and transcendental virtuosity often set them at the edge of playability. However, the unparallelled exhuberance and individuality of these works make Sorabji’s oeuvre unique in Western music.
TOCCATA SECONDA per pianoforte
Sorabji wrote four piano works entitled toccatas – the third is lost – which he defined as “works of some extension in numerous smaller sections of varying character”. These multimovement toccatas were ultimately modelled on Busoni’s Toccata: Preludio, Fantasia, Ciaccona, which Sorabji greatly admired.
Toccata seconda per pianoforte (1933–34) belongs to an extraordinarily fertile decade in Sorabji’s creative life that saw the composition of several gigantic works, beginning with Opus Clavicembalisticum (1930) and culminating with the (even longer) Symphonic Variations for piano (1937) and Tāntrik Symphony for piano alone (1939). The composer was evidently satisfied with Toccata seconda, which he described as “an admirable little work of 111 pages, one of the best things that I’ve done so far”. He wrote to Erik Chisholm: “I think the Toccata will surprise you, particularly the romantic Aria and the tropical night Nocturne. The fugue will roll you out flat. Technically a ‘simple’ one, it includes huge episodes of a fugal nature upon the four countersubjects, and is as fine a fugue as any I’ve ever done, I think. The Stretto is an imposing affair too.”
Compared to other compositions of the same period, Toccata seconda is a more compact work and – in spite of its challenging complexity – is somewhat more accessible to the listener due to its emphasis on lyricism and its division in multiple segments of contrasting character, style and tempo, in which virtuosic sections alternate with delicate, sensuous slow movements. The whole structure gravitates around two large Baroque-like edifices – a long passacaglia and a massive fugue – that conclude each half of the work.
There have been only two known performances of Toccata seconda to date, the first of which was given by Sorabji himself at what was to be his last public appearance as a pianist, in December 1936 in Glasgow. A performance of this “little work” lasts about two and a half hours.
STRUCTURE OF THE WORK
Toccata seconda consists of nine movements representative of most of Sorabji’s favourite genres: forms of Baroque inspiration (chorale prelude, passacaglia, fugue), virtuosic free fantasies and fast sections in moto perpetuo style, and Sorabji’s characteristic slow movements (“tropical” nocturne and polyphonic aria). It is therefore an excellent synthesis of Sorabji’s style, distilled into a relatively compact format.
I. PRELUDIO-TOCCATA. A virtuoso fantasy, beginning in the vein of Bach’s Chromatic Fantasia, in which moto perpetuo writing alternates with freer, more improvisatory passages. The piano writing features complex scales and arpeggios. Beginning with a single line, the texture grows gradually denser towards the end, with proliferation of double notes, additional voices and polyrhythms.
II. PRELUDIO-CORALE. A slow, profoundly lyrical movement. A polyphonic chorale theme of religious character is subjected to variation and accompanied by contrapuntal parts in progressively shorter note values, from crotchets and minims to irregular semiquaver groups. The gradual increase in tension through acceleration, dynamic and textural crescendo leads to a powerful climax.
III. SCHERZO. A humorous, playful fantasy of light, fragmented texture, irregular rhythms and swiftly changing moods, with a virtuosic outburst at the climax. At one point Sorabji parodically quotes, in close succession, Saint-Saëns’s Samson et Dalila, the incipit of God Save the King and Mozart’s aria “Dove sono i bei momenti” from Le Nozze di Figaro.
IV. ARIA. This polyphonic aria – one of the most intimate moments of the work – consists of an intricate web of melodic lines, often in polyrhythmic relation, except in the introduction and the coda, where a single melodic line is enveloped by softly played chords in both hands.
V. OSTINATO. The nucleus of the work and culmination of the first half, it is a long passacaglia on a fourteen-note bass, first heard alone and then followed by 49 variations – an example of Sorabji’s frequent obsession with square numbers – featuring broad inventiveness of texture and figuration. The movement starts calmly, but texture and tension build up gradually in waves, reaching maximum activity in a series of variations before subsiding again into stillness in the low register of the keyboard.
VI. NOTTURNO. The lyrical mood returns in a sensuous “tropical nocturne”, one of Sorabji’s most personal genres. The Notturno opens with a slow ostinato figuration in the left hand, recalling Le jardin parfumé. Although the dynamic level is intended to remain soft throughout, the music gains intensity through the superimposition of complex chromatic lines and increasingly profuse decoration.
VII. INTERLUDIO-MOTO PERPETUO. The perpetual motion style of the first movement returns in this section, beginning with an analogous scalar design and featuring similar figurations.
VIII. CADENZA-PUNTA D’ORGANO. A short virtuosic fantasy on an E-flat pedal point serving as a prelude to the ensuing fugue. The note values accelerate gradually from quavers to semiquavers, ending in a final explosion of chords in both hands.
IX. FUGA LIBERA A CINQUE VOCI. The most extended section of the work, it is based on an unusually long, but expressive, single subject. The fugue consists of a double exposition of the subject in all voices, followed by fugal treatment of each of the four countersubjects. The five-part texture expands in the conclusive “Coda-Stretta”, which combines various versions of the subject and countersubjects in a final, densely polyphonic development that seems to emulate the effect of a full organ. The work concludes radiantly on a powerful B major chord.
A detail of the 111-page manuscript of Toccata Seconda (Coda-Stretta).
Source for biographic data, quotations and all sort of information concerning Sorabji and his works:
Marc-André Roberge, Opus Sorabjianum: The Life and Works of Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji. (Version 1.16). Québec, 2017. Freely available online in professor Roberge’s website, the Sorabji Resource Site.