When writing to his friend and musical confidant Philip Heseltine in the 1920s, Sorabji heaped glowing praise on a variety of composers, in particular, the Russian Alexander Scriabin and the English Frederick Delius, who was a contact of Heseltine’s. In fact, Sorabji’s first attempt at composing anything was a transcription of the Delius song In the Summer Garden. Yet, as Sorabji continued composing and completed the First Sonata for piano solo, he had an enormous opportunity to play that work for the seminal composer-pianist Ferruccio Busoni. The story, quite familiar by now, goes like this from Sorabji’s own accounts:

When I got to the ‘West Wing’ in the outer circle of Regent’s Park – to that part of a large house in which Maud Allan lived – I was shown into a very large overheated room – obviously Miss Allan’s practice room – and in a few minutes he came in as quietly as a cat and shook hands with me with the courteous grace of manner impossible to the Northern Barbarians. He drew out the manuscript of the First Sonata and said “I want you to play me this”…I was APPALLED. I said, “Signor Maestro, this is terrible…I am no pianist…and to ask me to play in front of YOU…besides, I am no pianist…and to ask me to play in front of YOU…besides, I am in the third day of a long fast.” “Never mind, do what you can; music is, after all, to be heard, and I cannot play it.” Well, I sat down and got through it, trembling and pouring with sweat. When I had finished he said “I could not have played it better…what would you like me to do?” I said, “Give me a letter which will help me to get it published.” “I will do that,” he said “But do you say that this music was written in this country?…THIS country?,” he repeated, with astonishment in his tone. I assured him it was. “I do not say that I altogether like this music but it has given me the most extraordinary sensations…it is like a tropical forest.” I of course took good care to tell him that there was nothing, but nothing English about me. He smiled, and when I said I might give him the manuscript (I had a copy), he said he would very much appreciate it, and would I please write on it “given to Signor Busoni” …which of course I did. I walked away back to the flat in a sort of ague, trembling from head to foot. That same afternoon I had been invited to see dear Blanche Marchesi (I was with Busoni in the morning) and when she knew I was fasting and wouldn’t break my fast until six o’clock (the canonical hour, you know), she wouldn’t let me out of the house until she had seen me eat something!”

Where as the afore-mentioned Delius and Scriabin played an enormous role in the musical vocabulary of Sorabji’s early works, this chance encounter with Busoni seems to have been one of the most significant encounters in Sorabji’s life. The First Sonata owes not so much to Busoni in its compositional language, but the good experience Sorabji had playing for il Maestro motivated the Parsee not only to dedicate the Second Sonata to Busoni, but to embrace much of Busoni’s own idiom in that very work. There are moments in the Second Sonata that seem culled straight from Busoni’s Indian Fantasy, and a variety of textures appear in its peaks and valleys that appear to be very “Busoni-esque” in their harmonic and textual shadings. But this was only the beginning. Soon after the completion of the Third Piano Sonata in 1922, Sorabji ditched his single- movement organic-fantasy style for the multi-movement structure favored again by Busoni in his Fantasia Contrappunistica. If that wasn’t enough, Sorabji completed the Trois Pastiches, one of which contains a transcription of Carmen, owing to Busoni’s transcription of the same opera titled Carmen Fantasy. The movement titles out of Opus Clavicembalisticum could be straight out of the F.C., complete with a Coda Stretta to boot. And then, in the Fifth Piano Sonata “Opus Archimagicum,” Sorabji uses the B-A-C-H motto to ground the composition, as did Busoni. Finally, there is the dedication of the Variazioni e fuga triplice sopra “Dies Irae” per pianoforte to Busoni that borders on the obsessive in its praise and idolization. What really was the reason for all of this?

It might have been simple enough to say that Busoni was kind to Sorabji, and for the accomplished but insecure young composer, having such a legendary figure so receptive to him might have been the event that freed him up to embrace Busoni’s work not so much in the manner of homage but as a key to solving the various problems that affected his early work. Most art is based on what comes before it, and Sorabji followed the maxim that one can use another person’s ideas as long as he/she brings something new to the table. Indeed, Sorabji brought an emotional tempest to dinner, so to speak, taking forms pioneered by Busoni’s re-discovery of Bach’s Art of Fugue and exploding them to almost pathologically perverse lengths. Busoni’s own music might have its difficulties, but it doesn’t possess the almost flamboyant malevolence that colors Sorabji’s best works. Nor does Busoni’s work contain the meditative transcendental quality that characterizes Sorabji’s nocturnes and the best sections of the various large-scale multi-movement works. The extreme contrast and virtuoso writing pushed to absurd heights in Sorabji’s music is all his own, and at the end of the day, it is this unique quality that the listener remembers, not the form – i.e. the Busoni models were merely a method or conduit for Sorabji to access his own voice. Had he played for Schönberg or Rachmaninoff in lieu of Busoni, and had similarly positive results, Sorabji could have formally gone in different directions perhaps more sympathetic to those men, but most likely, his personal, emotive voice would have remained intact.