The fugue has fascinated many composers over the centuries, as it is a curious device that demands a intellectual mastery of technical form but also generates a sense of direction, motion and a goal like no other musical subgenre. World literature’s finest works often involve a hero or antihero on the archetypal mission or quest, and how is a fugue any different? The subject in a fugue must be put through a number of “tests,” and go through a variety of different roles; once having fulfilled these, the composition ends, i.e. the goal or task is reached. All the while, the constant movement generated by this process gives the listener a sense of purpose and direction until the climax is reached and the challenges are resolved.

In most of his seminal works, Sorabji’s treatment of the fugue is no different from Beethoven’s use of it in the Hammerklavier or that of any other 17th or 18th century composer that uses a fugue as a dramatic end point to a large work; in much of Sorabji, the fugue has the final answer and is the summit of the composition, both from an intellectual and dramatic standpoint.

What is frustrating about Sorabji’s fugues is a problem not unique to him but to all 20th century composers who essentially are attracted to the fugue’s linear or horizontal aspects (the entrance of the various subjects and countersubjects to build textural density and dramatic intensity), but not the vertical (i.e. harmonic) parameters. Therefore, the finest modern fugues tend to focus on idiosyncratic themes that can be easily identified by the ear and simultaneously generate a wild excitement in their reiterations, as to hopefully compensate for the lack of harmonic beauty or mastery that the finest fugues of previous centuries were able to attain. Sorabji’s ability to do this is spotty at times, but from his entire output there are several fugues that do maintain genuine interest and from both a dramatic and musical standpoint throughout their sometimes unwieldy durations.

Sorabji’s fugues range from free-form (the “Cadenza-fugata” in his second orchestral symphony) to extremely rule-oriented in regard to the treatment of the subject and its various inverses and countersubjects (i.e. the fugues in the Opus Clavicembalisticum ). We have a brief “Fughettina” in the short piano work Toccatinetta sopra C.G.F and a massive one in the Third Organ Symphony lasting at least ninety minutes. Sorabji chooses to use a variety of different voices for various fugues, which in a Sorabji composition tends to be technically irrelevant because all ten fingers are constantly utilized to the breaking point regardless of the voice count! In a major Sorabji work, it is not uncommon for the fugue to last a full hour or more, depending on how many subjects Sorabji uses and the tempo he chooses.

Sorabji’s first use of the fugue seems to have occurred in 1922, where the Third Sonata has a fugato-like section that builds to an enormous climax. The same year, Sorabji wrote an actual fugue movement in the Prelude, Interlude and Fugue for piano solo. One would probably attribute Sorabji’s embracement of the fugue at this point of his life to Reger’s Bach and Handel Variations for piano solo. Both of these works end with dense fugues that take on organ-like sonorities, traits similar to Sorabji’s early attempts at this sub- genre. But by the time Sorabji was writing the Opus Clavicembalisticum, the fugues, from an inspirational point of view, are clearly from the Busoni Fantasia Contrappunistica fugal playbook. The O.C.’s use of a “Coda Stretta” confirms this, though Sorabji’s take on the idea of an extended fugal coda is nightmarish and apocalyptic, something no one would have attributed to Busoni’s particular musical language.

As Sorabji is never entirely predictable, there are several large-scale works that deviate from using the fugue as a closing movement. The Opus Clavicembalisticum does close with one, but, in addition, the composition uses three others as major signposts throughout the work. The Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Piano Symphonies all feature a concluding adagio with the large fugal movement right before it, perhaps a sign of Sorabji’s maturity that a somber and slow finish would ultimately be of greater emotional depth.

Unusual to Sorabji is the fact that his massive Second Piano Quintet, four hours in length, is minus a fugue anywhere in the composition. Also of interest is how none of the full orchestral Sorabji works feature a major fugue movement, as Sorabji’s counterpoint merging with full instrumental forces would have been unique to behold.

In reference to the previously mentioned idea of accessibility, Sorabji’s best fugues utilize familiar mottos that help ground the listener. The Dies Irae theme for example, is used in three fugues – the finale of the Variations, the Opus Archimagicum, and Sequentia Cyclica super “Dies Irae. ” Unique to the Archimagicum is how each fugue subject is based on a pre-existing motto or idea, the Bromage motto, B-A-C-H motto, and the Dies Irae theme. Rather than being reduced to a soup of textural density and dissonant angularity, these elements stand out and connect directly with the listener. Also fascinating from a purely structural angle is Sorabji’s technique of sticking three or more fugues that are completely independent from each other together, using a sometimes virtuoso nexus as glue. This method is seen chiefly in the Sixth Piano Symphony, with an antecedent in the Third Piano Symphony. This method offers to the listener the idea of constant contrast and change within a clear-cut fugal context.

Here is a breakdown of the Fuga finale for the Sonata 5: Opus Archimagicum.


First subject begins with the G-A-B-E Bromage motto (first four notes). All five voices enter and their countersubjects are developed and inverted over the course of this section..

STRETTO 1 occurs, reiterating the entrance of all five voices on the Bromage motto.


The second subject enters, the first six notes the Dies Irae theme. Once again, all five voices enter and are developed and expanded with their countersubjects. A climax occurs where the second subject is played out against the counterpoint in large chords.


The third theme is a skittish staccato theme in sixteenth notes beginning on the B-A-C-H motto (first four notes). As always, the five voices enter and develop the theme and its countersubject to the max.


This concluding section pits all of the themes together against each other, exploding into a cascade of chords. Dies Irae occurs in a canon in the treble and bass, supporting and/or contrasting the inner voices. The final pages explode into a rapid-fire succession of chords, with the B-A-C-H theme taking final precedence over everything, ending the piece in B Major.

Below is a list of all of Sorabji’s fugues from which one may glean the surface logic behind each one and the elements contained:

Prelude, Interlude and Fugue (1922) (piano solo) Mvt. 3, one subject, 8 pg.

Organ Symphony (1924) Part 2, Mvt. 2 “quasi fugue,” two subjects, Andante, 14 pg.

Variationi e fuga triplice sopra “Dies irae” per pianoforte (1926), Part 3, three subjects, 51 pg.

Toccata (piano solo) (1928) Mvt. 4/5 (Coda Stretta), two subjects, 26 pg.

Piano Sonata IV (1928-29) Part 3, Mvt. 4/5(Coda Stretta), two subjects in four voices, 30 pg.

Toccatinetta sopra C.G.F. (1929) (piano solo) Mvt. 3, “fughettina,” 2 pages.

Opus Clavicembalisticum (1929-30) (piano solo) Part 1, Mvt. 3, 4 voices, 1 subject, Moderato, 12 pages/Part I, Mvt. 4, two subjects, Animato assai, 22 pages/Part 2, Mvt. 3, 3 subjects, 3 voices, Moderato, 34 pages/Part 3, Mvt. 3/4, four subjects, Molto moderato, 54 pages.

Symphony No. 2 for Piano, Large Orchestra, Organ, Final Chorus and Six Solo Voices (1930-31), Part 3, Mvt. 3 “Cadenza-fugata,” 14 pages.

Second Organ Symphony (1929-32) Part 3, final movement, 3 subjects, 84 pages.

Toccata no. 2 (piano solo) (1933-34) Final movement, one subject in 5 voices, 32 pages.

Piano Sonata V “Opus Archimagicum” (1934-35) Final movement, three subjects in 5 voices, 58 pages.

Symphonic Variations (piano solo) (1935-37) Variation no. 81, three subjects in five voices, 67 pages.

Tantrik Symphony (piano solo) (1938-39) Final movement, five subjects in five voices, 76 pages.

Transcription in the Light of Harpsichord Technique for the Modern Piano of the Chromatic Fantasia of J.S. Bach, Followed by a Fugue (piano solo) (1940) Mvt. 2 (final), in three voices, 7 pages. [Transcription of BWV 948]

100 Transcendental Studies (1940-44) (piano solo) No. 100, “Coda-finale,” five subjects, 50 pages.

Sequentia cyclica super “Dies irae” ex Missa pro defunctis (1948-49) (piano solo) Variation no. 27 (finale), five subjects in two, three, four and five voices Third Organ Symphony (1949-53) Part 3, final movement, six subjects, 80 pages.

Second Piano Symphony (1954) Part 3, Mvt. 5, five subjects, 42 pages.

Opus clavisymphonicum – concerto for piano and large orchestra (1957-59) Part 2, Mvt. 2, “Cadenza fugata,” one subject, 29 pages.

Third Piano Symphony (1959-60), 2 subjects (37 pages) separated by an interlude (17 pages)

Fourth Piano Symphony (1962-64), Part 2, mvt. 4 – Var. 49c, three subjects. Toccata no. 4 (1964-67), section 7, last movement, five subjects, 31 pages.

Concerto non grosso for String Septet with Piano obbligato quasi continuo (1968) Part 3, “Finale” [includes a fugue with one subject] Symphonia Brevis [Fifth Piano Symphony] (1973) Part 2, mvt. 7, “quasi fuga,” 2 subjects, nine pages.

Sixth Symphony for piano (Symphonia claviensis/Symphonia Magna) (1975-76) Part 3, mvt. 2, “quasi fuga” – [5 fugues of one subject each, with an interlude between each pair], 30 pages.

“Il gallo d’oro” da Rimskij-Korsakov: Variazioni frivole con una fuga anarchica, erectica e perversa (1978-79) (piano solo) Final mvt, Moderato, two subjects, 12 pages.