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Exploring Music: Lilliputians on the Keyboard--St Bertrand de Comminges

The MHS Review 389 Vol. 11 No.11 1987

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David M. Greene


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I have a class of freshmen who, show­ing glimmers of what used to be taken for literacy, are absolved from the usual­ly mandatory regimen aiming at mastery of the alphabet, and, accompanied by an adult, are allowed to read real books. Just now we are blazing our way through the Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini, the 16th-century Florentine goldsmith and sculptor.

The kiddies are wondering whether Benvenuto qualifies as an artist. Their problem is that he made his things to order: for money. They would agree that there's no point in being an artist unless you can cash in on it, preferably with a best-seller or a movie contract.

I'm not yet ready to discuss with them the case of Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji. Sorabji (some accounts insist that he is sited by the Bureau of Vital Statistics as Leon Dudley) is an artist: a pianist and composer. For 70 years he has written music so difficult that it has baffled most would-be performers of it. He quit play­ing it or anything else in public before 1930. Ten years later he banned its per­formance by anyone and retired to, ac­cording to him, a Granite Tower, where he keeps cauldrons of oil and lead a-­boiling to stave off the outside world. Only in very recent years has he relax­ed his performance ban to a small hand­ful of pianists, Michael Habermann be­ing first among them.

Sorabji may qualify as eccentric, but he is certainly not crazy, showing as he does a mind considerably keener than most. And he has quietly and steadily gone on composing: the New Grove, published in 1980, lists works com­pleted as recently as 1978. All this raises the question: for whom does the serious artist (as distinguished from the talented opportunist) create, and why? Artistry, it seems to me. is a combination of craft­smanship. concentration, energy, and vision. And I suspect that what impels a Sorabji. an extreme case to be sure, but one apparently uncomplicated by other considerations, is the delight he takes in realizing objectively the last fac­tor through the exercise of the other three.

To talk about Sorabji or his music is not easy. The man, who insists that who and what he is is his own business, does not offer any clues to inquiring reporters. Little of his music has ap­peared in print. His discography, as far as I am presently aware, amounts to Habermann's three LPs and Geoffrey Douglas Moore's "live" performance of the gigantic Opus Clavicembalisticum, allegedly the longest single work ever written for piano. The music--what I have heard of it-might be described as a latter-day development of Liszt, Alkan, and Busoni. It is at base romantic, but dependent on a formidable understan­ding of counterpoint, and generously seasoned with dissonance. Yet it belongs to no "school," and avoids the modern systems beloved of academics (because they are so "teachable" --you too can be an artist!).

Of the present selection, the Prelude, Interlude and Fugue is a huge, abstract, contrapuntal tour de granit. We are told that St Bertrand de Comminges: "He was laughing in the tower" is based on a ghost story. I seem to recall that the author is said to be M.R. James, best known for "The Monkey's Paw," but I find it in none of my collections of scary tales, nor am I able to track down St Ber­trand de Comminges, assuming he ever existed. Though the waltz-pulse haunts Hommage a Johann Strauss, you will probably be disinclined to whirl your partner around the floor to its strains. From the aural evidence, Mr. Haber­mann has more arms than Siva, or else has trained Lilliputians to run about the keyboard in his aid. This you gotta hear!

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