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Opus clavicembalisticum is a solo piano piece composed by Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji, completed on June 25, 1930.
The piece is notable for its length and difficulty: at the time of its completion it was the longest piano piece in existence. Its duration is around four hours, depending on tempo. Several of Sorabji's later works, such as the Symphonic Variations for Piano (which last probably about nine hours of music) are even longer.
At the time of its completion, the piece was possibly the most technically demanding solo piano work in existence due, for the most part, to its extreme length and rhythmic complexity and to the vast resources of physical and mental stamina demanded by its many passages of transcendental virtuosity, although some works conceived by New Complexity, modernist and avant-garde composers, along with Sorabji himself, were more difficult still; it is in this particular area that Opus clavicembalisticum primarily receives its notoriety, and to this day is still highly regarded in that light.
Sorabji may in part have been inspired to compose the work after hearing a performance of Busoni's Fantasia contrappuntistica by Egon Petri, and Opus clavicembalisticum to some degree embraces an homage to Busoni's work. Sorabji's earlier (1928) Toccata No. 1, also for piano solo and likewise a multi-movement work, evidences similar Busonian influence and is in some ways a precursor of Opus clavicembalisticum.
Opus clavicembalisticum has twelve movements, of hugely varying dimensions: from a brief cadenza, lasting only three minutes, to a mammoth interlude, containing a toccata, adagio, and passacaglia (with 81 variations), requiring around an hour to play. The work's movements are set in three parts, each larger than the last:
|VI.||Interludium primum (Thema cum XLIV variationibus)|
|IX.||Interludium alterum (Toccata, Adagio, Passacaglia cum LXXXI variationibus)|
Composition and dedication
In a letter upon completion of the massive work, Sorabji wrote to a friend of his:
With a wracking head and literally my whole body shaking as with ague I write this and tell you I have just this afternoon early finished Clavicembalisticum... The closing 4 pages are so cataclysmic and catastrophic as anything I've ever done—the harmony bites like nitric acid—the counterpoint grinds like the mills of God...
The dedication on the title page reads:
"TO MY TWO FRIENDS (E DUOBUS UNUM) HUGH M'DIARMID and C.M. GRIEVE" and proceeds "LIKEWISE TO THE EVERLASTING GLORY OF THOSE FEW MEN BLESSED AND SANCTIFIED IN THE CURSES AND EXECRATIONS OF THOSE MANY WHOSE PRAISE IS ETERNAL DAMNATION.
There have only been a handful of performances of Opus clavicembalisticum.
The first was by Sorabji himself on December 1, 1930, in Glasgow, under the auspices of "The Active Society for the Propagation of Contemporary Music".
Pars prima was performed by John Tobin on March 10, 1936; this performance is noted to have taken approximately twice as long to perform as the score dictates. This performance, and its reception, led to Sorabji's ban on public performances of his works, claiming that, "no performance at all is vastly preferable to an obscene travesty". Sorabji maintained this ban until 1976.
The next public performance of Opus clavicembalisticum took place in 1982, at the hands of the Australian pianist Geoffrey Douglas Madge. A recording of the performance was released on a set of four LPs, which are now out of print. Madge went on to perform it in its entirety on five other occasions, including once in 1983, a recording of which was released by BIS Records in 1999. This particular release is notable for its numerous technical flaws related mostly to pitch and rhythm. During several passages, entire measures of music are omitted or exchanged.
The only other verifiable and complete performance of this work, in public, was given by Daan Vandewalle, although a number of pianists have performed excerpts, which are usually the first two movements. For example, J. J. Schmid performed part of the work at the Biennale Bern 03 and Alexander Amatosi performed the first movement at the University of Durham School of Music in 2001.
- Rapoport, p. 301
- Roberge, p. 133
- "G.D.Madge and the OC – Mr. Hinton, please read | Piano Forum". Pianostreet.com. Retrieved 2013-04-08.
- "Opus Clavicembalisticum | Piano Forum". Pianostreet.com. Retrieved 2013-04-08.
- "The Sorabji Archive – Compositions – KSS50 Opus Clavicembalisticum". Sorabji-archive.co.uk. Retrieved 2013-04-08.
- Rapoport, Paul, ed. (1992). Sorabji: A Critical Celebration. Aldershot: Scolar Press. ISBN 0-85967-923-3.
- Roberge, Marc-André (1996). "Producing Evidence for the Beatification of a Composer: Sorabji's Deification of Busoni" (PDF). Music Review 54. Cambridge, England: Black Bear Press Ltd. (2): 123–136. Retrieved 17 October 2012.