The Sorabji opus

Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji was so incensed at a poor 1936 performance of his epic work Opus clavicembalisticum (at that time the longest piano piece in history) that he banned it for forty years.

When it was finished in 1930, Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji’s Opus clavicembalisticum was the longest piano piece ever composed. It clocked in at more than four hours. The opus would be excruciating to perform just because of its length, but it was also a piece of dazzling complexity. Sorabji himself described the harmony as “bit[ing] like nitric acid.” Consider this excerpt:

Sorabji performed the whole thing himself in 1930, and then no-one else even attempted it in public for six years. The first person to give it a go was a pianist named John Tobin. He played just one third of the opus. It took him twice as long as it was supposed to take. Accounts differ as to whether Sorabji was present, but in any case the poor performance (and poor public reception) set him off.

Famously declaring that “no performance at all is vastly preferable to an obscene travesty,” the composer issued a public ban on performances of his work. Well, it wasn’t exactly a formal ban. But he strongly encouraged everyone to leave his pieces alone. The Opus clavicembalisticum was his masterpiece; he only wanted the best of the best to even attempt it:

Its intellectual and technical difficulties place it beyond the reach of any others – it is a weighty and serious contribution to the literature of the piano, for serious musicians and serious listeners only.

Mr Miseryguts

Sorabji continued to compose – and he later wrote even longer piano pieces – but he did not relax his ban for forty years. In the 1970s he finally relented and allowed public performances again. The third performance of Sorabji’s opus took place in 1982, forty-six years after its debut.

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