Sorabji’s piano sonatas are among his most unique works, and a stepping stone to the mature piano symphonies that would occupy roughly the last fifty years of his composing career. The sonatas represent a curiously consistent trajectory in the increasing length and scope that would define Sorabji’s work as it progressed from the 1920s and on.

Sonata 0 is the first of these works, a pleasant work lasting around 25 minutes that is as much as a collection of the composer’s early Franco-Russian influences as his attempt to write a large-scale work for the piano in one movement in a “ceaseless musical fabric.” Out of all of the sonatas, the “0” is the only to use actual repetition of sections rather than cleverly reiterated motives that would characterize Sonata No.1, an ecstatic solo work also in one movement, but considerably unique for its exuberant mood and clever application of virtuoso techniques without losing the substance that propels it.

Sonata No. 2 is perhaps Sorabji’s most misunderstood sonata. Radically different from its predecessors, it consists of a series of climaxes and vistas that, over a long duration of 50 minutes, continually and paradoxically grow larger and larger until a cataclysmic climax occurs. Despite such chaos, those grasping for harmonic, rhythmic and melodic unity can find useful signposts. Just as we maintain consistency through our own handwriting, so does a composer, even Sorabji in his experimental period. He seems to have unconsciously found himself drawn to similar chords, rhythms, melodies and textures even if, as sometimes seems to be the case, he was making all attempts to avoid any suggestion of self-repetition. For instance, the second sonata begins with a ascending motto in thirds, as if rising out of a murky mid-register into some sort of half-light. That motto is heard many times in the course of the work, the fabric to a musical Persian carpet saturated with color and detail. The motto is not always repeated exactly, rhythmically or intervallically. But many times throughout the work’s duration, the ear will easily identify this ascending gesture – from which new ideas and textures organically grow in a constant and compelling stream of consciousness. Being able to aurally recognize this musical shape from time to time is the key to the simple navigation of this complex work though the time it takes to gain an aural familiarity is considerable given the sonata’s overall length.

The Third Sonata retains many of its predecessor’s qualities, but where the Second Sonata was concerned with using the ascending interval of the major third and the augmented triad as a building block, Sorabji’s Third Sonata is now preoccupied with the dissonant interval of the second (major/minor) which shapes the direction of many of the work’s important gestures and allows for a most discordant composition.

It is not unwise to think of the Second or Third Sonata as an enormous Persian rug, and the listener is a small ant traversing its terrain. At once, the work up-close seems athematic, perhaps jarring and unconnected, but like that rug, the overall cumulative effect or larger picture reveals a series of inter-connective threads (based on the above-mentioned intervallic plans for each sonata). Just as even the smallest of steps begin a journey, Sorabji’s opening ascent in the Third Sonata leads us down a musically thorny, angst-ridden expressionistic path -- yielding a wealth and extremes of human moods, all at once intense, angry, hyperactive, introspective, celestial and meditative -- ultimately self-destructing in what must be one of the most outrageous climaxes in musical history.

The Third Sonata unfolds like a journey through a varied landscape of dense foliage, wide-open vistas, and churning industry. Musically speaking, this means furious passages of rapid chord sequences, languid vistas structured around chains of eighth-notes, and dissonant contrapuntal passages that build to explosive climaxes. Conceivably in the world of experimental jazz, where music, whether strictly notated or improvised, has a free-form, spontaneous nature, Sorabji’s compositional approach might have been welcomed. However, in the circles of conservative musical 1920s London and the concise, ordered thinking of the avant-garde’s post-Second Viennese School, the Third Sonata may have appeared a deliberate affront to the principles of the day. Yet for all of Sorabji’s apparent dismissal of motivic cohesion, perhaps rooted in a deep-seated desire to defy the establishment, his subconscious instinctively finds repetition in the form of the literary technique of foreshadowing. Here Sorabji hints of the work's massive climax with a tell-tale leitmotiv from as early as the second minute of the ninety-some minute piece. This leitmotiv stands out against the thorny harmonic texture with its contrasting descending triad (sol-mi-do), a repetitive and distinct sing-song pattern not unlike a singer's vocal warm-up. One can listen throughout this piece for this motif until it finally appears full force at the 65th page, and then gradually infecting the last ten minutes in bold fortissimo unisons in both hands, forming the basis for a propulsive series of three hundred and seventy chords which lead to the work's apocalyptic final gesture.

The Third Sonata seems to represent Sorabji’s attempt to bring closure to this experimental compositional style. It contains the wildest pages that Sorabji had produced up to that point and is, in the composer’s own words, “a gehenna-like work of some hour and a quarter’s duration,” staking the composer’s desire to rival the large-scale works of Beethoven, Alkan and Reger in terms of grandiosity and length. It is arguably the most difficult single-movement Sorabji work (or possibly of any other composer for that matter). Uncompromising, angular, intense, and seething with contrasts of every dynamic, emotional and textual kind, it represents the undisputed summit of his early output.

Sonata 3 was completed in 1922, a year of prolific activity for Sorabji, with six works completed or in progress during the year. He wrote this work, like his others, away from the piano – first calculating the length of manuscript pages in his head. Once a general duration was determined he was then free to traverse the depths and limits of his creative subconscious as pen touched paper. From the title page of the original manuscript, Sorabji seems to have seen the work in three sections, although such an intention had no eventual bearing upon the piece’s structure as it emerged when written.

Such a musical approach is rare in Sorabji’s overall œuvre. His other large-scale works frequently generate their huge contrasts in texture and mood between different movements, or commit to a single ecstatic state, as in the extended nocturne-pieces, a favorite genre of the composer’s. At the early sonatas’ time of completion, Sorabji was still a young composer trying to find his own voice, possessed by a wealth of wildly contrasting ideas that would eventually crystallize into the more formally rigorous mature works that followed almost immediately, perhaps not coincidentally with the ascendant influence of Busoni.

During this time, Sorabji was actively championing his music for friends, colleagues, and the public. Sonatas 1 and 2 were going through the printing press, and the young composer-pianist performed various works privately for distinguished listeners such as William Walton and Sacheverell Sitwell. On Friday, January 13, 1922, Sorabji publicly premiered these works to a small but enthusiastic crowd consisting of Schönberg pupils, publishers, and critics. Critic Paul Bechert was baffled by the music, saying “in short, that compared to Mr. Sorabji, Arnold Schönberg must be a tame reactionary. Withal, the impression Mr. Sorabji creates is that of a fully sincere personality, in whose madness there must be some sort of method. Just what that method implies, future generations may perhaps be able to discover.” After completing the Third Sonata, Sorabji was ready to move on to different methods, organizing the two remaining Sonatas and larger-scale works into often shorter movements, but extending overall durations in the process.