The pianist’s “divine madness”

Sequentia Cyclica (1948-49) is by any measure a demonic artwork.  One of the longest and arguably the most monumental piece of classical piano music, it is based on this theme, a version of the well-known Gregorian chant Dies irae:

This 4-minute cantus firmus is followed, for over 8 hours, by 27 variations, lasting anywhere between 2 and 65 minutes each, and drawing on a vast array of forms and genres.  Some of these variations consist of theme and variations.  For an extreme example, No. 22 consists of a variation and 100 variations on it.  By the time the 27th variation, a 40-minute six-voice fugue on five subjects, is over, I, at least, feel as if somebody has reconfigured the 20-volume Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians in a vertiginous series of Deleuzian plateaus.

The “Cyclical Sequence” is an obsessional achievement of the obsessive Anglo-Persian composer Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji (1892-1988), a prolific and recluse musician and critic who wrote many works of comparable scale and ambition while imposing additional practical prohibitions to their performance.  More than any other case, his life and work illustrate the grip of θεία μανία that the piano applies to musicians, composers and performers alike.

To many, the piano is not an instrument to play but an artistic “megamachine” to conquer, even subjugate.  Different ways to achieve this entail to pursue an encyclopedic command (Scarlatti, Alkan), to create a vocabulary (Bach, Nancarrow), to establish an audience (Chopin, Liszt), to write a music history (Rzewski, Sorabji), and to transcribe the canon (Godowsky, Hamelin).  In all these approaches, the musician is haunted by an abstract machine that promises an alternative world, a transcendent domain, on the condition of total devotion to it and a quest for ever greater challenges in spiritual ascesis.

Early in his education, Dr. Pantelis Polychronidis, my other self, looked into the abyss of a total pianistic life and prudently stepped back, saving himself from its divine madness.  Nevertheless, I can still see in his artistic disposition traces of that night journey to the top of mountain Cithaeron, sacred to Dionysus, and I think of Sorabji, possessed by μανία, working maenadically on yet another variation of a variation of the impending day of divine wrath, the Dies irae, which he used in no fewer than 10 of his compositions.

10 October 2020

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