I recently discovered that I had never uploaded my review of Erik Chisholm’s Complete Piano Music Volumes 1 to 4 onto my blog. This was originally published on MusicWeb International in 2009. Since then the remaining volumes of the cycle (5, 6, &7) have been issued, John Purser’s biography of the composer has been published and changes to the Chisholm website have been made. So I present a slightly revised version of that review. I have not changed my view on this music in the intervening six or so years. I present it in two posts.
This is an all for nothing project. I can hardly imagine anyone wanting just a single CD of this collection of piano music. I know that I am pained at only having four of the projected seven volumes of this fascinating but virtually unknown music to review.
If I were to put my cards on the table and give a ‘heads up’ overview of my thoughts on this cycle it would be as follows: this is possibly one of the most important single contributions to British Piano Music alongside Bax, Ireland, Sorabji, Hoddinott and from my personal point of view, Cyril Scott. It is fair to say that the unknown-ness of this music will mean that it is a very long time before it takes its rightful place in the canons of British Piano Music. My prime concern is simply this – I fear that these CDs will not be bought by general listeners – they are hardly likely to be played on Classic FM, for example. So I guess the buying public will be those who know something of Chisholm’s music (a precious few, I imagine) or those lucky enough to have come under the influence of those ‘precious few’’ and have been introduced to this music.
One thing I must insist on saying before I move on with this review – and it is this. In spite of a number of ‘picturesque’ Scottish and Celtic titles of many of these works, Chisholm’s music is no crass ‘tartanry.’ This is not pastiche ‘highlan’ music that is meant to evoke a sentimental view of the land north of the border. And as a Scot, I have heard plenty of that kind. Chisholm’s art is obviously influenced by his native musical sounds and rhythms, but the result can only be defined as a part of the Western tradition in a trajectory from Schoenberg and Bartok. A note on the Chisholm Website explains this well – “He is also alone in his attempt to infuse into symphonic structure the forms of Celtic music-lore (e.g. the pibroch) as distinct from the introduction into present-day forms of merely discursive Celtic atmosphere.”
First of all a few biographical notes about Chisholm. I should preface my remarks by noting the excellent Website that is managed by his daughter, Morag.
Erik Chisholm was born in the Cathcart suburb of Glasgow on 4th January 1904. Apparently, he was a kind of ‘wunderkind’ who was composing music before he could read and also writing poems and ‘novels’ whilst still in junior school. He studied with Herbert Walton, the erstwhile organist at Glasgow Cathedral and Lev Pouishnoff, and then at the Scottish Academy of Music between 1918 and 1920. After this, he toured the United States and Canada before returning to Edinburgh and studying under the great Sir Donald Tovey. He received his Doctor of Music from Edinburgh in 1934. During this time he was also the conductor of the Glasgow Grand Opera Society which gave under his direction a number of first British performances, including Mozart’s Idomeneo, Berlioz’s The Trojan’s (still remembered by the older generation when I was a young man in the early 1970’s in Glasgow), Dvorak's Jakobin and Moonies’ Weird of Colbar. Chisholm did seem to have a penchant for setting up groups and societies – but these were all means to an end for his enthusiasm for new music. He founded the Active Society for the Propagation of Contemporary Music in 1929; this was followed by the Barony Opera Society in 1936.
During the Second World War he was the conductor of the Carl Rosa Opera Company and was a director of ENSA in South East Asia.
After the war Chisholm was appointed as Director of the South African College of Music at Capetown. Once again he was instrumental in promoting new music and opera and set up the University Opera Company and the University Opera School.
Erik Chisholm died in Capetown on 8 June 1965, aged only 60 years.
Apart from his massive corpus of piano music, Chisholm’s works include an opera, based on The Canterbury Tales, two ballets, The Forsaken Merman and The Pied Piper of Hamelin, two symphonies, two piano concertos, and a Violin Concerto. There is a huge catalogue of other music, including tone poems, chamber pieces, songs and choral works.
Interestingly, the author of the Grove article suggests that ‘it was as an opera composer that he produced his best work: this is particularly evident in the trilogy Murder in Three Keys and in the three acts that constitute Canterbury Tales. The latter is arguably his best stage work and a good example of his dramatic flair.’
Yet for the majority of listeners and enthusiasts of British music the only work that is known is the fine Second Symphony ‘Ossian’ released by Dutton Records.
One fact makes this review rather tentative. There is the problem of chronology: a number of works on these CDs do not have dates of composition in the text and furthermore I was unable to find another source of a dating. The Chisholm WebPages do not yet show this information for every work.
In a top-line overview, it is fair to say that there appears to be two key divisions of Erik Chisholm’s piano music – those works with an obvious Scottish or at least Celtic influence. And secondly, there are works that appear to be more universal. For example, the Sonatinas and the Cameos. Although I believe that this is in many ways an ‘academic’ divide.
It is important to note that Chisholm was the first ‘serous’ composer to devote time to the study of Highland bagpipe tunes known as Piobaireachd. This systematic study of these works has resulted in well over a hundred piano pieces based on these tunes. William Saunders, writing in the Musical Times in 1932 suggests that these Piobaireachd are ‘curiously rhythmical works, with enormous potentialities for the expression of every phrase…of what to a Scottish Highlander must ever sound as the artistic manifestation of what he regards as the noblest of all emotional experiences.’
I feel that the best place to begin a consideration of Chisholm’s piano music may well be with the Straloch Suite. This work was completed in 1933 in a number of incarnations – including arrangements for full orchestra and for string orchestra. There is a somewhat convoluted compositional history, but the present Suite has three movements that are based on tunes from Robert Gordon of Straloch’s lute book of 1627.
The opening ‘grave’ of the first movement is a million miles away from Scottish music until the composer introduces a tune called ‘Ostende’ and makes contrapuntal and fugal play with it. There is a balance here between the serious and the humorous. The second movement is a working out of three tunes from the lute book – including an attractive love-song based on An thou wert my own thing. The last movement appears to nod to Bartok. However John Purser points out that the 'off beat' chords are actually in the original Straloch version.
The interesting thing about this Suite is that the material used by the composer does not overwhelm. It is obvious that he is using ‘Scottish’ tunes – but they do not detract from the logical and often quite involved structures and constructions that are f beholden to twentieth-century music. The listener need not concern themselves with identifying tunes – in fact I believe that this may detract from enjoyment of this piece.
Another good entry point to Chisholm’s piano music is the three Sonatinas. In fact, he composed six examples of this genre: presumably the other three will be presented on succeeding CD issues. They are undated and were given a group title of E Praeterita, which means ‘From the Past’. The melodic material used by Chisholm in these works is from mainland Europe rather than from the Highlands of Scotland. For example, the three movements of the First Sonatina are effectively contrapuntal variations on O Gloriosa Domina by the 16th century Spanish composer Luis de Narvaez. The first movement of the Second Sonatina is derived from a lute Fantasia by Luis de Milan. The Third is slightly different being based on four 'ricercars'. The word ‘ricercare’ means ‘to research’ but is applied to musical forms that are largely contrapuntal and often academic in nature. However, in this case there is nothing dry and dusty about this music. One last thought about these Sonatinas. Many pianists were brought up playing these ‘small sonatas’, such as those by Clementi and Kuhlau and are therefore associated with didactic music and perhaps are regarded as being ’easy’. It is best to see these short works in the terms of the Ravel and Ireland’s Sonatinas: there is nothing simple or technically naïve about this music. They are miniature masterpieces.
One of the most fascinating collections of pieces on these four CDs is the Cameos: Portraits. These are amongst the earliest pieces presented here. They were published around 1926 but are only a selection from a greater number of Cameos that remain unpublished or in draft form. Each of these pieces is given a picturesque title – for example the first is called A Jewel from the Sidereal Casket, the fourth, The Companion to Sirius and the penultimate is called The Sweating Infantry – which is based on some words from Walt Whitman. These eight pieces are truly original, do not rely on any published melodies or tunes and exploit the piano to the full. The sixth cameo is interesting. It is called the Procession of the Crabs. John Purser suggests that the image for this work may have come to Chisholm whilst on holiday at that playground of Glaswegians -Millport on the Isle of Cumbrae in the Clyde Estuary. This piece “marches determinedly, using [a] variety of harmonic density to help punctuate the rhythm”.
These eight pieces are entertaining, sophisticated and technically competent pieces that surely deserve their place in the repertoire.
Another work that does not involve ‘quoted’ Scottish tunes as such are the enigmatic Portraits. However, the influence of native music is never too far away – often presented in a distorted light, but revealing themselves to the careful listener. These six pieces were written over a five year period between 1924 and 1929. The first, an Epitaphe for “a little child who left this world just as soon as he had entered it” is absolutely full of despair. Chisholm fills this music with dissonances that resolve themselves into Debussy-like parallel triads.
The composer noted that the second Portrait, Melodie Chiaroscura, was ‘from some strangely foreign parts. Here Nature revels in colour. There are bright liquid blues tapering to an infinity of ether; scarlet towers bursting violently into blazes of…purple: yellow parts scored symmetrically with jet black parallels side by side with webs of high-pitched undulation in pink. There is no unity of colour...’ The listener can ignore the density of this text and just enjoy the impressionistic sounds that seem to unite the Far East, France and Scotland.
Porgy is quite short: it is based on a passage from Du Bose Heyward’s eponymous novel on which Gershwin based his great opera. The piece is dedicated to Hugh S. Roberton, the conductor of the celebrated Glasgow Orpheus Choir. It is really a musical description of a procession of African-American ‘Repent ye saith the Lorders’ on their annual parade. It is a tremendous tour de force.
Agnes and the Maultasch is another bleak and quite dissonant piece that the composer instructs to be played ‘hauntingly’. It is based on ‘fairy tale’ called ‘The Ugly Duchess’ which is full of death and ghosts.
Suss communes with Maimi would appear to be the last of the Portraits to be completed. It is dedicated to Lion Feuchtwanger who was the author of a novel called Jud Suss – published in English as ‘Power’. As a novel it was intended to expose the racist policies of the Nazis. The ‘plot’ of the music is really a meditation on Suss, in the form of a ghost. He is in prison and is a man ‘who has never yet felt an emotion except hardness of heart and hate is overwhelmed with tenderness and his house of cards crumples to the ground’. All because Suss has been visited by his beautiful daughter Maimi.
The last Portrait is exactly that: A Portrait of a Fashionable Gentlewoman. This is another complex piece that explores two separate musical strands. Firstly there is the pastiche waltz and secondly the growing complexity of the musical language moves it far away from being simply a parody of contemporary salon music. It is a fine conclusion to a difficult but rewarding set of pieces.