If one looks at Sorabji’s early large-scale works, principally the first four sonatas, they follow a free single-movement form, charting an evolution from a kind of organic fantasy rooted in Franco-Russo influences (Sonata 0 and 1) to an almost written-down improvisation around repeated gestural shapes exploding into a series of gradually intensifying climaxes (Sonatas 2 and 3). As Sorabji found himself completing the 90-minute Third Sonata, there may have been no direction further to go. He needed to find a better way to house his eclectic and disparate influences while accommodating his need for successively larger climaxes. Perhaps one solution was to return to the idea of a multi- movement plan that would an give shape and structure to his subconscious for the first time, via familiar classical forms often popular in Baroque and Classical periods. This return to the past proved equally effective to Sorabji’s idol Busoni in his Fantasia Contrappuntistica, so why not the Parsee give it a whirl?

The Fourth Sonata is the first of Sorabji’s sonatas to be divided up into movements, but the first major work to embrace such a strategy is the First Organ Symphony, divided up into three large sections or parts, each embracing musical forms inherent to the organ itself: the prelude, the passacaglia, the postlude, the pedal-point, the toccata, the fugue. It is quite unique to see Sorabji applying a similar methodology to a work for piano solo several years later, the Toccata No.1. This work, consisting five movements but no large- scale sectional structure, builds its momentum through a series of fugal episodes relieved only by a brilliant and brisk Cadenza which occurs roughly midway through the work. It has become clear from the Organ Symphony and Toccata that for Sorabji, a concluding, slow-burning Fugue that builds to an exorable climax is an effective way to conclude a work, as it was before for composers from Beethoven to Reger.

Piano Sonata No. 4 is the first of the sonatas to embrace the multi-movement structure, successively developing the potential of the first piano toccata, keeping the organ-friendly forms and structures of the fantasia, cadenza and [concluding] fugue while juxtaposing these with the organic single-movement type design of Sonatas 0-3 as well as the nocturne-type writing seen in Le Jardin Parfume and Djami. Such a method radically expands Sorabji’s overall length past the Third Sonata’s duration, but allows for individually shorter and more varying movements, creating greater variety, textures, and the ability for the music to actually come to a legitimate finish as one movement ends and the next one begins – thus negating the sometimes unsatisfying peaks and valleys of Sonatas 1, 2 and 3.

This strategy of Sorabji’s continued through his entire compositional trajectory of large scale works – through the seminal Opus Clavicembalisticum, the Fifth Sonata (Opus Archimagicum), the Second Quintet, Toccatas 2-4, Organ Symphonies No. 2 and 3 and the Piano Symphonies. Of additional interest is Sorabji’s addition of additional devices such as the “punta d’organo,” or other Classicist forms like the “scherzo” or the operatic “aria” to spice up or provide adequate contrast and connection within the large-scale multi-movement compositions.

It is interesting to perceive, in the world of “20th century art music,” what is ultimately good or bad, effective or ineffective, because so much is of a individual opinion based on one’s own life limited to his/her own particular set of experiences, beginning with one’s own upbringing. However, we can never divorce the universal human factor from any form of expression. The human spirit at its most universally primal craves movement, motion, and responds accordingly to such, and artists have tried, in their own forms, to reflect this. Sorabji’s method is to use shape and time to represent the journey of life and his juxtapositions of the contrasting movements in his major works, when managed effectively, creates an overall large-scale aural and structural shape that stimulates the psyche and its intellect with a unique symmetrical balance not unlike those found in nature with the yin and the yang.

Which large-scale (3-plus hours) Sorabji work has the best chance of reaching such an ideal?

Although there is hardly no right answer, one would look for a work that overall has a good balance –a strong beginning, middle and end, equally proportioned. One might venture to say that the three-act structure, among the most dramatic and satisfying in the world of opera, plays, and films, finds its parallel in the three-part works of Organ Symphonies 1,2,3, Piano Symphonies 2,4 and 6, Opus Clavicembalisticum, and Opus Archimagicum. [A work like Sorabji’s Sequentia Cyclica super Dies Irae, which is perhaps the most brilliant theme-and-variations work written in piano history, fits into a different form and therefore is a different beast altogether and for all intents and purposes should warrant its own separate article.]

For the work to reach its maximum ideal in form, each part must balance the work as a whole and not weigh the others unnecessarily down. One wonders if this need poses a challenge to the Second Organ Symphony with its first part relegated to an introductory role to the gigantic second and third movements. The Third Organ Symphony is equally bottom heavy with the third section at such a vast disproportion to the first. Although each part of the Opus Clavicembalisticum consistently expands in length from the one before, one wonders if the Interludium B should be its own part, making the O.C. a four- part not three part structure, thus helping the listener in grasping the work as a balanced whole. The Second Piano Symphony’s second part seems a little weightless in comparison to the first and third parts but features a strong lyrical middle movement in which an extended duration is inevitable and structurally appropriate. In the case of the Fourth Piano Symphony, a symmetrical structure in which the second part takes on a heavier role flanked by a shorter first and third section seems highly satisfactory, and the Sixth Piano Symphony seems to find a well-proportioned balance overall.

Piano Sonata No. 5 (Opus Archimagicum) has the most balanced structure of all the works in question, for its first, second and third parts are of equal length at 2 hours each for a grand total of six hours.

When it comes to the structural analysis of the movements within these large-scale parts, one looks for effective variety and contrast, as well as a clear design that would allow the ear to recognize it as such during the course of several listens. Such a design is missing in the Fourth Piano Symphony’s middle section, which, despite the genius of its preludio- interludio-ostinato movements, sports an additional variation and fugue-set which seems spiritually distant from the rest despite sharing the same source material. In addition, it seems that the middle parts of the Second and Sixth Piano Symphonies may offer too many individually detached movements which seem to give the listener more a feeling of an episodic, Sorabjian variety sketch-show than a tight knit, memorable juggernaut slowly building over its lengthy course. Despite the clarity and effective arrangement of two brilliantly proportioned beginning movements (perhaps owing to the overall success of the entire composition), Opus Clavicembalisticum, like its model, Busoni’s Fantasia Contrappuntistica, utilizes a number of fugues throughout that halt the structure with a textural repetiveness, something that Sorabji’s other large-scale works wisely avoid.

Once again, Opus Archimagicum’s arrangement of movements for contrast and individuality in the listener’s mind is exemplary. Although it lacks the compressed, introductory one-two punch of the Preludio and Preludio Corale of the Opus Clavicembalisticum, the first part uses a unique symmetry to divide what normally would be a large-scale single movement organic fantasy work (found in the likes of the Organ Symphony 1, Sonata 4, Piano Symphony 2,4 and 6) into two halves, then injected with two transitional movements, the diabolical Presto: Sotto Voce Inquieto and the beautiful Punta d’Organo third movement, which fuses the Sorabjiaan nocturne with a pedal point reminiscent of Ravel’s Le Gibet.

Archimagicum’s second part is completely different from any other of the large scale works in that it is symmetrical, divided into two halves with movements 5 and 6 generally contrasting each other, and for that matter, anything previously heard before them. Movement 5 is a violent fantasy linked with clear motivic repetitions that return from time to time and 6 is a ravishing nocturne Adagio with two bell toll climaxes spread across seven staves..

Archimagicum’s third and most successful section is its last, which begins with a brilliant preludio, then a preludio-corale based on Dies Irae, and a Cadenza, which acts as a palate cleaner/nexus type connection to the final Fugue. In this sense, the Opus Archimagicum behave likes an inverted Opus Clavicembalisticum as the first part of O.C. shares a similar structural ground plan to the third part in Archimagicum (although Sorabji uses one large fugue to conclude the sonata).

While such a bird’s eye view of these different large scale works may prove to be problematic in itself, looking at Sorabji’s surface shapes definitely give us insight and interest on how the ultimate picture – the eagle’s view of millions of notes -- may affect the listener as a whole.