Kevin Bowyer playing K. S. Sorabji - Organ Symphony No. 1

Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji – Organ Symphony No. 1 (1922/23)

“For those interested in such matters, Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji was born in Chingford, Essex, England on 14 August 1892; his father was a Zoroastrian Parsi civil engineer and his mother English (for a long time, until the work of Sean Vaughan Owen, she was reputed to be part Sicilian, part Spanish). He spent most of his life in England. From his early ’teens he developed an insatiable appetite for the latest developments in contemporary European and Russian music and went to great lengths to obtain the latest scores of such composers as Mahler, Debussy, Schönberg, Skryabin, Rakhmaninov and others at a time and in a country where almost all such music was largely unknown and unrecognized. Of an independent and uniquely curious nature, it is perhaps unsurprising given the pre-War English environment that his education, both general and musical, was mostly private.

For a composer as prolific as he was soon to become, he was an unusually late developer and his voracity in absorbing all the most recent trends in other people’s music seems to have excluded from his mind the idea of making his own until he reached his twenties.

A close friend and confidant of the English composer Philip Heseltine from 1913, Sorabji wrote to him that he was considering a career as a music critic. Once he had begun to compose, however, the floodgates of his imagination burst and a tremendous river of musical creativity flowed forth almost uninterrupted until the early 1980s.”

( - Alistar Hinton)

Kaikhosru Sorabji might not be a household name not even in the organist community but nonetheless it is closely connected with the organist Kevin Bowyer, who has championed the music for over a quarter of a century, and he is the only organist in the world who has played Sorabjis music on a bigger scale.

Kevin Bowyer writes about his relationship with the symphony and the performances:

“The playing history of the First Organ Symphony (1923/4, published 1925 by Curwen) before Århus is as follows:

1928 - E Emlyn Davies, a harmony professor at the Royal Academy of Music, played the middle movement in a recital at the Westminster Congregational Chapel. The audience included Sorabji himself (who was very pleased with it) and also the 26 year William Walton, who enjoyed it greatly and wrote to Sorabji to tell him so. Sorabji was so pleased with the performance that he dedicated his Second Organ Symphony (1929-32) to Davies. (The Second Symphony (unpublished), at over 8 hours duration, is the longest fully notated organ piece ever composed (so far as we know) and remained unplayed in its entirety until I did it in Glasgow in 2010).

A performance of the First Organ Symphony was planned to take place in Glasgow in 1931, played by two players at the piano, but never took place. As far as we know, there were no further performances at all until:

July 25, 1987 - The first complete performance. Holy Trinity Sloane Street, London. The idea was to have three organists play, taking a movement each. Thomas Trotter opted to play the middle movement and I was asked to play either the first or the last. Three months later, when no other player had volunteered, I was asked to play the remaining movement too, so the first performance consisted of me playing movts. 1 and 3, and Thomas playing movt. 2.

1988 - Århus - the first complete performance by a single player.

Since then I have played the First Symphony complete in Linz, Malmø, Darmstadt, Manchester and Glasgow.

I met the composer in January 1988 and went to see him five times before his death in October 1988, aged 96.”

- Kevin Bowyer

As mentioned above much of Sorabjis music is of immense proportions. The present release consisting of the organ symphony no. 1 plays two hours (45 minutes alone for the third movement). The music is intriguing and compelling not alone in its size but also harmonics and structure. Sorabji never seems to run out of ideas or thematic material.

It is some of the most complex music ever composed for one musician to play, so just calling it a virtuoso organ piece would not be a proper description and calling Kevin Boywer “just” a virtuoso organist (which he by any standard is!) would also not be a fulfilling description. What Kevin Bowyer has done here is by any measure of the highest order - mentally, musically even physically speaking – and not many, if any, organists is capable of playing this music.

On the technical side recordings do not have to be mono and with far from high fidelity sound quality to be historical. This recording is indeed historical even though it is only 24 years old.

It was recorded on April 24th 1988 in Aarhus Cathedral as part of the annual NUMUS Festival in the city (a festival dedicated to contemporary music). Thanks to former cathedral organist Anders Riber for providing this recording.

Thanks also to Kevin Bowyer and Alistar Hinton curator of the Sorabji Archive. For those interested in learning more about Sorabji, the website for the Sorabji Archive is highly recommendable – Worth mentioning is also Kevin Bowyers vast project to play, publish and record Sorabjis three organ symphonies -


  1. Thanks for this music. I will comment it after listening.

  2. An impressive and admirable project, this. I look forward to exploring and learning.

    Many thanks.

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