The exciting new release from Hyperion Records of Erik Chisholm’s orchestral music is an excellent introduction to the music of a composer once described by Arnold Bax as ‘the most progressive composer that Scotland has ever produced.’ Despite many subsequent advanced Scottish composers such Thea Musgrave, Iain Hamilton and James MacMillan, this opinion, I believe, holds good to this day. Chisholm was a great innovator as well as a synthesiser. His main achievement was the fusion of Scottish Bag Pipe Music and Hindustani Ragas with mainstream European modernism. In this sense, he mirrors Bartok’s success in assimilating the music of the Balkans to his own genius.
Listeners will discover in Erik Chisholm a composer who is bursting with energy, conscious of his own unique voice and commanding a wide-ranging palette that successfully coheres, despite the seeming disparities of styles and musical influences.
This new CD cements the ‘Chisholm Triangle’ of influences in listeners’ minds: Scottish, Hindustani and Modernist.
Life and Times
There are now several helpful sources for establishing a biographical understanding of the composer’s life and achievement. The easiest to access are the excellent webpages maintained by the Erik Chisholm Trust. John Purser’s Chasing a Restless Music: Erik Chisholm: Scottish Modernist 1904-1965, (Boydell and Brewer, 2009) is more detailed and makes essential reading. There are the usual references in the various musical dictionaries and the inevitable Wikipedia entry.
Erik Chisholm was born on 4 January 1904 at 2 Balmoral Villas in Cathcart, an attractive suburb of Glasgow. His father, John Chisholm, was a master house painter and his mother was Elizabeth McGeachy Macleod. Aged thirteen, he left the local Queen’s Park School due to ill health. Anecdotally, Chisholm had begun to compose music before he could read. Later, he was writing poetry and ‘novels.’ Between 1918 and 1920, Chisholm studied at the Glasgow Athenaeum School of Music (now the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland) with Philip Halstead. His musical education continued with Herbert Walton (1869-29) then organist at Glasgow Cathedral and the Russian composer and pianist Leff Pouishnoff (1891-1959).
In 1926 Erik Chisholm moved to Nova Scotia, Canada where he held the post of organist and choirmaster at the Westminster Presbyterian Church, New Glasgow. He was also Director of Music at Pictou Academy, a secondary school. Three years later he returned to Scotland, where he accepted the post of organist at the United Free Church of St Matthew’s, Glasgow as well as supplementing his income by teaching. Lacking formal musical qualifications, Chisholm studied at Edinburgh University with the legendary Donald Tovey (1874-1940). He received his Bachelor of Music in 1931 and his D.Mus. in 1934. In the years after his return from Canada, Chisholm was the conductor of the Glasgow Grand Opera Society. During this period, he oversaw British premieres of major European operas, including Berlioz’s The Trojans and Mozart’s Idomeneo. One other important work introduced by Chisholm was Edinburgh composer William Beaton Moonie’s (1883-1961) The Weird of Colbar. This was given at the Glasgow Theatre Royal on 22 March 1937. Moonie is a composer ripe for rediscovery.
Erik Chisholm set up several societies during this period. There was the Scottish Ballet Society, the Active Society for the Propagation of Contemporary Music and the Barony Musical Association. He was also music director of Celtic Ballet, based in George Street, Glasgow. Additional income was provided by music criticism written for the Glasgow Weekly Herald and the Scottish Daily Express.
During the Second World War, Chisholm was conductor of the Carl Rosa Opera Company and director of ENSA in South East Asia. He was a conscientious objector, but was subsequently declared unfit for service due to a twisted arm and poor eyesight.
In 1946, Erik Chisholm moved to South Africa where he took up an appointment as Director of the South African College of Music in Cape Town. There he set up the university opera company and the opera school. During this period, he began to compose a series of operas, some of which were performed there.
On 8 June 1965, Erik Chisholm died of a heart attack in Cape Town. He was only 61 years old.
Getting to Grips with the Music
An examination of Chisholm’s music catalogue reveals a daunting quantity and variety of compositions. It is a truism that the piano works provide continuity through the composer’s career, nevertheless there is music in virtually every genre. This included eight ballets, many operas, two symphonies, four concertos, numerous orchestral works, choral and chamber music.
In 1963 Chisholm provided a stylistic overview of his compositional career on a scrap of paper. This virtually illegible note proposes four ‘periods’:
1. Early works 1923-27
2. Scottish Music 1929 to 1940 (?)
3. Hindustani works 1945-51
4. Operas 1950-63
There is a danger of adhering to this classification in a rigid manner. It is a rule of thumb, and will assist the performer or the listener to approach Chisholm’s vast catalogue with some sense of purpose.
As a Scot, I tend to relate to the Scottish ‘period’ of music more than that of the Hindustani works, but further investigation has revealed that there is a considerable musical similarity between these two traditions. Without being too technical, John Purser (liner notes) cites the Scotch snap, drones, use of grace notes and even the bagpipe itself as being common to both traditions. For the Western ear, the procedures of Hindustani music may be more difficult to come to grips with. It is a completely different musical culture that utilises unfamiliar scales and tunings, instruments, textures and symbolism. I explain a little more about these influences in my comments about the violin concerto later in this essay.
Note: A Scotch snap is ‘a rhythmic feature in which a dotted note is preceded by a stressed shorter note, characteristic of Strathspeys.’ A ‘drone’ is where the three lower pipes of the bagpipe play a fixed three note chord. Above this, the tune is played. Finally, a grace note is ‘an extra note added as an embellishment and not essential to the harmony or melody.’
The Chisholm Website sums up the composer’s relationship to Scottish ‘traditional classical music’ – ‘He is also alone in his attempt to infuse into symphonic structure the forms of Celtic music-lore (e.g. the pibroch, a form of music for the bagpipes) as distinct from the introduction into present-day forms of merely discursive Celtic atmosphere.’
I am not a fan of Scottish bagpipes: I do not mind hearing them from afar, but a ‘hundred pipers an’ a’’ is just a recipe (for me) for a headache. But I do like Jimmy Shand… We all have different musical tastes.
Some listeners may fear that Chisholm has infused his music with ‘tartanry’ which is all too common in musical works composed attempting to evoke a Caledonian atmosphere. Despite the many attractive Scottish and Celtic titles of his music, there is no pastiche of Harry Lauder or Rabbie Burns. Chisholm has taken up his native Celtic musical sounds and rhythms and applied the technical procedures of modernism. In this sense, he is in a trajectory from the Hungarian composer Béla Bartók.
To be continued...