Sorabji's second organ symphony

Sorabji's second organ symphony

March 1, 2020

In September last year, I listened to a rare live performance of the entirety of Sorabji's Second Organ Symphony. This composition has been referred to as one of the weirdest works of classical music, partially because of its length - nearly nine hours. It's not the most “accessible” type of composition either - the best impression I've found is from the recorded excerpts made by David Carter. The first hit on YouTube, of the very end, doesn't do the piece many favours. No complete recordings have yet been made.

I'm no music critic, but I felt inclined to share some thoughts about the experience of sitting through it.

To cut a long story short, I “didn't hate it”, and I would even consider doing it again.

Getting a ticket

The story of how I came to be sitting in Hamburg's new Elbphilharmonie concert hall at 11am on a Sunday in mid-September 2019 is quite complicated. The performance, by Kevin Bowyer, was originally scheduled to take place in the first season of the Elbphilharmonie's opening. I'd been lucky enough to get a subscription ticket to the “pure” organ concerts, this one included. I was curious, but I had a schedule conflict and, after some dithering, decided to exchange that part of my subscription ticket for something else. A few weeks after I did that, the concert was cancelled anyway due to the organist's illness.

The concert was re-scheduled for a later season, and after a lot of changing my mind back and forth, I decided to take the plunge and book a combined ticket for both halves of the complete performance (it was also possible to book for just half). Interestingly, the originally scheduled performance had sold out, but this one didn't. With the excitement about the new concert hall still running high, I wondered if the programme committee were perhaps just seeing how much they could “take the piss” and still sell the place out. Nevertheless, I did not expect any friends or family to accompany me.

This was only the third ever complete performance of the piece. The fourth if you count a performance at the University of Iowa which included “only” 22 of the 50 variations.

About sitting through a nine hour concert

That's nine hours not counting intervals.

The first notes came after a short introductory speech at 11am, and the last was about twelve hours later. There were two intervals in the first half, then a break of about 90 minutes before the finale which was performed a single block of about 3 hours. There were no encores (duh).

Sounds like a marathon, right? Too long to sit still for? Well, if you've ever been on a long-haul flight, you know that you can sit for this long with less opportunity for stretching your legs. Similarly, people do marathon movie series viewings or binge watch TV shows all the time. For instance, the entire Lord of the Rings film trilogy (theatrical versions) is even longer, at 9.3 hours. The extended edition is significantly more than 11 hours long in total. As long as you take every opportunity to go to the bathroom, and don't drink too much liquid, it's really not a big deal.

Still, the number of people walking out midway, even very soon after the start, was upsetting. I can understand some people not being up to the full challenge, of course, but it was a bit disappointing that people chose this concert (probably the first one at the Elbphilharmonie which wasn't sold out in advance) as their chance to get into the place and look around. Not to mention disturbing everyone by loudly discussing with their colleagues exactly when to do so. In the second half, the first exits that I saw were after only 7 minutes. Seriously? 7 minutes into a 3 hour performance? Did those people book tickets with their eyes closed? Ok, rant over.

About the music

I didn't find the symphony to be musically more esoteric or “inaccessible” than about 50% of the organ programme at the Elbphilharmonie, but perhaps that says more about the programming there than anything else. Flicking through the heavier metal end of my music collection, I think a lot of that stuff is more “challenging” to follow and appreciate.

The acoustics of the Elbphilharmonie are extremely dry. I would describe it as “surgical” - you can hear everything in crystal-clear high-definition stereo, including any coughs or murmurs from anywhere in the audience. In other organ concerts there, I've felt like I could have pointed at the source of any particular note, even to which end of which rank of pipes it came from. For most organ music, I think this doesn't actually work very well - it would sound better if the sound from the (many) different ranks of pipes had a chance to blend together, like in a church. However, in this case it worked well, making it easier to separate the many overlapping sounds and melodies. Seat position makes a big difference. My normal subscription place is sideways on, such that the main organ has a large angular separation from the “echo” pipes found in the roof, and I tend to find it distracting when some of the music suddenly comes from a completely different place. For the Sorabji concert, my seat was aligned such that the sound was all coming from one apparent source.

Despite what it may seem like at first, or what critics have said about the symphony, I didn't have the impression that it was “just random notes”. I was able to recognise a definite structure, with patterns appearing and getting called back later - perhaps much later.

I wondered to myself, did the music need to be that long? I felt there was a point near the end of the middle section (a theme and 50 variations) where I felt like the piece could have ended but instead carried on for another 20 minutes. Beyond that, I did feel like all the notes had reasons to be there. So, perhaps it could've been a little shorter, but really not much.

Reflections on the experience

This was the only classical concert I've been to where I was actually nervous beforehand. I was expecting either to drop into some kind of hypnotic trance-like state after the first few hours, or perhaps to just get bored and think about other things while half-listening to some background music. I was surprised that neither of those things happened to me. I really did listen and take in the whole thing.

At the very end (which, by the way, is very loud), the standing ovation for the organist Kevin Bowyer was well deserved. Even for those who hated the music, it's impossible not to respect the feat of physical endurance we'd all just witnessed. Of course, anyone who wasn't fully committed to the piece had left long before that point, leaving about 50 of us there.

The experience brought up several questions for me. For example, would it have made a difference if instead of a composed, notated and practiced performance, we'd instead watched nine hours of improvisation? What if a recording of the symphony existed, and I had the opportunity to listen to the whole thing in advance? Would it have made a difference if I had taken that opportunity, or if I'd saved myself for the live performance?

I don't have answers to those questions. I wouldn't say that listening to the entire Second Organ Symphony was a profound enlightening experience, but it did motivate me to write this essay, which has to count for something. If there were to be another performance in my area, I think there's a chance I'd actually go any listen again.