Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Eric Chisholm: A New Biography by John Purser

Erik Chisholm, Scottish Modernist 1904-1965 ‘Chasing a Restless Muse’ by John Purser The Boydell Press, hardback, 283 pages ISBN 978-1-84383-460-1 £50:00
I cannot quite remember when I first read about the composer and musician Erik Chisholm. I think it was in a spiral-bound catalogue published by the Scottish Music Information Centre: This booklet had a wealth of interesting information about works that I thought I would probably never hear. I seem to recall that this publication had been on sale at one of the Glasgow Promenade Concerts when they were held at the Kelvin Hall. That would be about 1975. However, I did not hear any music by Chisholm until the relatively recent Dutton Epoch recording of his masterly Symphony No.2 - unless one includes the Harris Dance which was released in 1997. Somehow, I missed the two or three other recordings issued between 1998 and 2004. And lastly, few people interested in British piano music can be unaware of Murray McLachlan’s superb, on-going exploration of the Complete Piano Music.

Up until this present volume, information about Chisholm was hard to come by. There were a few scattered references in the various journals, including the British Music Society Newsletters and the Composer magazine: there is an entry in Grove. Recently the excellent Website maintained by Chisholm’s daughter Morag has done much to promote his music: it is a model of its kind. But there was a lack of a standard biography and a detailed discussion of the compositions.

Erik Chisholm, Scottish Modernist 1904-1965 ‘Chasing a Restless Muse’ by John Purser is a comprehensive study of the composer and his music. It explores his contributions to the musical life of Scotland and latterly his work in the Far East and South Africa. Chisholm was much more that a composer: he was, at various times, a conductor of the Glasgow Grand Opera Society and later the Carl Rosa opera company, an organist, a concert pianist and a director of ENSA in South East Asia. His interest in modern music and its performance led him to found the Active Society for the Propagation of Contemporary Music in 1929 and the Barony Opera Society in 1936. At the end of the Second World War, Chisholm was appointed as Director of the South African College of Music at Capetown. Once again he was instrumental in promoting both new music and opera and set up the University Opera Company and the University Opera School. John Purser examines all these activities and presents a detailed discussion of many of Chisholm’s compositions alongside the biographical account his life.

The book is aimed at a serious audience: it is hardly likely to be read on the off-chance by the average music-lover. However, its appeal is far wider than to those wanting a few biographical details or some information about a particular piece of music. Chisholm’s active involvement in such a wide and diverse area of interest means that his story is central to the history of music, opera and ballet in Scotland in the years between the two World Wars. Furthermore his friendship with a wide range of musicians and composers, including the enigmatic Kaikhosru Sorabji, Béla Bartók, Paul Hindemith and William Walton, means that this book will be of interest to students of those particular composers. This is the first book written about Erik Chisholm, and I guess that it may be a long while before another major study is produced by another author. Interestingly, there is a dearth of books about Scottish composers. One looks in vain for biographies of Hamish MacCunn, John Blackwood McEwen, Alexander Mackenzie, William Wordsworth or Iain Hamilton. So, in many ways this book is the first of its kind. Someone pointed out to me that there is a fine biography of Ronald Stevenson - but he was born in Blackburn, although for some reason many people suppose him to be a Scot!

The structure of Purser’s book is a model for future studies. He writes a basically chronological text, but not quite. He intersperses the biographic flow with chapters on various important aspects of Chisholm’s musical activities and influences and friendships. For example, he majors on the Scottish inheritance that was so important for his music. Chisholm was beholden to the folk-music of the past in his task of forging a Scottish vernacular. It is this part of his career that earned him the nickname of MacBartók. It was his largely successful attempt at fusing a modernist style with the music of national music of previous generations that gave the distinctive sound to much of his music. This is expressed most forcibly in the fine series of Piobaireachd and the Sonatine Ecossaise. Another revealing digression is the study of Chisholm’s friendship with Sorabji and his music. A major essay on the Active Society of the Propagation of Contemporary Music is an important contribution to Scottish musical history in general. Later chapters explore the influence of Hindustani music, and the writing of Chisholm’s only book, The Operas of Leos Janacek. [available on-line at MusicWeb]

The apparatus of the book is of supreme interest. I am pleased that John Purser has opted for endnotes rather than footnotes. Two important appendixes present information about the Active Society and the Scottish sources of Chisholm’s Piano works. The first appendix is fascinating: it details the concerts and the office bearers of the Active Music Society between the years 1930 and 1937. The lists of works performed include pieces by Alfredo Casella, Ian Whyte, Arnold Bax and Cyril Scott. The book concludes with the usual offices of Select Bibliography, Discography, Selected Compositions and a comprehensive Index.

I guess that I was a little disappointed that there was not a complete ‘works list’ in this rather expensive book. To be fair, John Purser has provided some mitigation for this less than ideal state of affairs. He explains that Michael Tuffin is currently preparing a full catalogue of Chisholm’s music: this is due to be published in the near future. Furthermore he argues that the Erik Chisholm web pages link to the Scottish Music Information Centre’s Catalogue which is reasonably complete. However if the reader looks at the latest edition of Lewis Foreman’s biography of Arnold Bax, they will find a complete list of works, in spite of the fact that Graham Parlett has produced a fine and indispensable catalogue.

I think that the compromise would have been a complete listing of all the works and their many subdivisions, along with the date of composition, publisher and perhaps the date of the first performance. All other details such as reviews and bibliographical references could have been left to the forth coming volume. I was also a bit disappointed that the discography did not give the dates of the recording and in a few cases the performers are not noted.

These two criticisms apart, this is a superb publication. It is a massive investigation into the life and music of one of Scotland’s great, but massively underrated composers. It will provide the biographical and musical reference material for all interested parties for years to come. I wish that I had this book available when I was writing my reviews of the first five CDs of the Complete Piano Music. This is a book that can be read cover to cover, or can be used as a source book. Once the catalogue is available it will make a hugely valuable resource for Chisholm’s life and works in particular and Scottish music in general.

This is a book that looks good and certainly feels good. The text is printed on high quality paper in a font that is clear and easy to read. The book is well illustrated, with a large number of musical examples, a fine collection of line drawings and a good selection of black and white and colour photographs. The style of the writing is readable without in any sense failing to uphold the highest of scholarly standards. It is an expensive book, retailing at £50 which is more likely to be purchased by libraries and institutions rather than a mass of individuals. However, for scholars and writers who are interested in this composer or the period of his activity, it is an essential purchase.

If I had not received this book as a review copy I would most certainly have been saving up to buy one.

With thanks to MusicWeb International

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