On December 1, 1930, a pianist named Kaikhosru Sorabji took to the stage at Glasgow’s Stevenson Hall to perform one of his own compositions. Entitled Opus Clavicembalisticum, Sorabji had only finished writing the work five months earlier, at which point he wrote a letter to his friend and fellow composer, Erik Chisholm, to tell him all about it:
“With a racking head and literally my whole body shaking as with ague I write this, and tell you that I have this afternoon early finished Clavicembalisticum ... The closing four pages are as cataclysmic and catastrophic as anything I’ve ever done—the harmony bites like nitric acid the counterpoint grinds like the mills of God, to close finally on this implacable monosyllable [an enormous 10-note chord marked sfffz] … But how it’s drained me!”
He wasn’t joking. At the time, Sorabji’s Opus Clavicembalisticum was thought to be the longest and most difficult piece of solo music ever conceived, and remains a contender for that title nearly a century later.
Its 252 pages are divided among three sections, comprising a total of 12 different movements—at times written over four and even five simultaneous lines of music—encompassing fugues, an enormous piano fantasia, a theme with 49 variations, a passacaglia with 81 variations, and a final coda-stretta section that brings the entire piece crashing to a halt up to 4.5 hours after it began. The piece was an impossibly vast undertaking, and an enormous compositional achievement. All Sorabji had to do now was perform it.
Sorabji’s appearance in Glasgow had been arranged by a local arts society called the Active Society for the Propagation of Contemporary Music. Chisholm was the Society’s president, who had to do “a good deal of sensitive and persuasive tactical maneuvering” in order to persuade Sorabji to perform it in public [PDF].
So extraordinary was Sorabji’s undertaking that a number of legends have emerged around the Opus Clavicembalisticum’s debut performance. One popular tale is that Sorabji paused between the first and second parts, stood, and left the stage. Presuming that there was to be an interval, the audience also stood to leave, only for Sorabji to return immediately to the stage, having paused only to down a glass of whisky in the wings. “Let’s get on with it,” he muttered, and instantly picked up where he left off. He did not stop for the rest of the performance, not wanting a break to interrupt his concentration. When he finished, shaking and drenched in sweat, he stood to receive the audience’s applause but almost passed out and had to be swathed in blankets while he recovered. He had performed the entire thing in a near trance-like state of concentration that had sapped him of all energy—but the audience was astounded. The Musical Times had been “amazed by the composer’s technique as a pianist.” The Glasgow Herald called it simply “astonishing.”
The score for Opus Clavicembalisticum was published the following year, and in March 1936, the pianist John Tobin staged a second public performance—this time of only the first part of the full piece—in London. Tobin, however, played the piece at barely half the speed Sorabji had intended, which greatly extended the opening third of the Clavicembalisticum to twice its intended length [PDF]. The reviews were lukewarm, and Sorabji was horrified. “No performance at all is vastly preferable to an obscene travesty,” he exclaimed, and vetoed all future performances of any of his works without his express permission. His ban remained in place right through to 1976, when he finally permitted a selection of his works to be recorded. He continued composing well into old age, and died in 1988 at the age of 96.
With no recordings or public performances to go on over the years, critical reception to Sorabji’s work has wavered, with many critics bemoaning the composer’s preference for quantity over quality. Others, however, see Sorabji’s work as vastly ahead of its time, as music to be studied and admired rather than heard and performed—“a musical Finnegans Wake” as one commentator put it.
Regardless of the reception, Sorabji’s place in musical history was ensured: In 1970, Guinness World Records officially recognized the Opus Clavicembalisticum as the longest non-repetitive piece of solo piano music ever written, and it remains one of the most bizarre and outstanding pieces of music in the entire classical repertoire.