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Sorabji Organ Project

The Sorabji Organ Project is by far the largest and most ambitious of its kind ever to have been supported by an educational institution; it is planned to span just over five years, from May 2008 to June 2013.

Kevin Bowyer is organist of Glasgow University Memorial Chapel; this project, funded exclusively by Glasgow University Trust, will revolve entirely around him. Kevin has been associated with the organ music of Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji (1892-1988) for more than twenty years. He will prepare new typeset critical editions of Sorabji's three organ symphonies and perform them in Glasgow and elsewhere during the course of the project whose culmination will be the world première of the Third Organ Symphony in the summer of 2013. He also plans to record all three works.

This project is of historic significance in a number of ways. Although Sorabji's public appearances as a pianist were very rare, from 1930-1936 he was the most frequent performer in the annual concert series of the Active Society for the Propagation of Contemporary Music, based in Glasgow and masterminded by Scottish composer Erik Chisholm. The society invited numerous important composers to the city to talk about and perform their work; those who appeared included Medtner, Bax, Szymanowski, Ireland, van Dieren, Hindemith and Bartók. Sorabji's works must have seemed immensely challenging to those attending these concerts, yet he was to comment most favourably on the intelligent and sympathetic reception that he received from his Glasgow audiences.

Sorabji's reputation has been gradually growing since the mid-1970s; before that time, there had been few public performances of his music and, as only a handful of his scores had been published, his work remained largely inaccessible. The past three decades have witnessed increasing numbers of performances, broadcasts and recordings as well as the easy availability of his entire corpus of work and the creation of many new editions of his scores. The first volume on the composer, the multi-author symposium Sorabji: A Critical Celebration, edited by Professor Paul Rapoport, was published in 1992 (Scolar Press [now Ashgate Publishing], Aldershot, UK) and reprinted two years later; one of its contributors, Professor Marc-André Roberge, has completed a substantial study of Sorabji's life and works which is due for publication soon. A number of other scholars have completed university theses and dissertations on the composer, including one by Simon Abrahams who is in the throes of editing several of Sorabji's larger piano scores; at the time of writing, the most recent is an oral biography by Sean Vaughan Owen.

As some two-thirds of Sorabji's works are for piano solo, it is perhaps inevitable that much of this activity has centred around the piano music. Sorabji's contribution to 20th century organ and piano literature is, like Messiaen's, of immense importance. Whereas Messiaen composed at least seventeen organ pieces, from miniatures to large-scale cycles, Sorabji's organ music consists of just three works, each of them symphonies and each cast in three movements; in purely quantitative terms, however, Sorabji wrote considerably more for the instrument than Messiaen, as those three symphonies together would occupy at least sixteen hours in performance!

Sorabji's First Organ Symphony is far smaller than either of the others, although at around two hours' duration it is anything but a bagatelle. Completed in 1924 and published the following year, it must have created a perplexing impression, particularly in the world of English organ music; although it evidences a thorough-going knowledge of then recent organ repertoire such as the works of Reger and the symphonies of Widor and Vierne, nothing like it had ever been composed before (it even predates Messiaen's earliest organ writing). Sorabji considered it to be his first truly mature work and is his earliest example of a large-scale multi-movement structure in which both fugue and passacaglia feature prominently. Its middle movement was played in 1928 in London by Edward Emlyn Davies; this performance evidently pleased the composer and greatly excited the young William Walton. Davies became the dedicatee of Sorabji's immense Second Organ Symphony, begun the year after that performance but not completed until 1932 because the composer interrupted work on it to write two piano pieces of epic proportions. Sorabji apparently began his Third Organ Symphony later in the 1930s but appears to have abandoned it for more than a decade; it was not completed until 1953.

Following Davies' performance, not a note of Sorabji's organ music was heard in public again until 1987, the year before the composer's death. On this occasion (again in London), the First Organ Symphony was heard in its entirety, played by Kevin Bowyer (movements 1 and 3) and Thomas Trotter (movement 2). The following year, Kevin examined the published score of the symphony thoroughly alongside a copy of the manuscript and annotated it with copious corrections; he then recorded the entire work (Continuum CCD 1001/2) on the magnificent Harrison & Harrison organ of the Church of St Mary Redcliffe, Bristol and performed and broadcast it in Denmark. Sorabji, then almost 96, heard the latter and was astonished at Kevin's virtuosity and command of all the music's intricacies; sadly, he died just before the recording was released (the entire middle movement was played from the master-tape at his memorial service). The recording met with fulsome international critical acclaim; a copy sent to Fernando Germani, no less, attracted the response 'astonished your brillant (sic) performances!'.

Kevin had met Sorabji for the first time in January 1988; shortly afterwards, he began to prepare a handwritten edition of the Second Organ Symphony and, on subsequent visits to the composer, he took with him copies of this mammoth 'work in progress', much to Sorabji's pleasure. This splendid edition was completed –coincidentally, in Glasgow – in 1991.

This project has represented a major mission for Kevin for many years. The fact that he has now been enabled to realise it is a cause for celebration; the history of the past century's organ music is about to be rewritten.


Posted: 19 May 2008

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