Listening to the vibrant Dance Suite (1932) on the new Hyperion CD of orchestral music, it is difficult to understand how this music has been ignored for nearly 85 years. The work was given a partial performance in 1933 by the Scottish Orchestra, at the Glasgow’s St Andrew’s Hall, conducted by John Barbirolli and with the composer as soloist. On 14 June 1933, it was heard in its entirety at the ISCM Festival in Amsterdam. The Concertgebouw Orchestra was conducted by Constant Lambert. The Suite comprises four movements and is scored for piano and orchestra. It is not a concerto, nor even a concertante, however the piano does play a vital role in providing orchestral colour.
The opening movement is a reel. Not really a pastiche of the White Heather Club but more ‘generic’, making use of note patterns and rhythms viewed through the eyes of musical modernism prevalent during this period. It is exciting, wayward and largely chromatic with much dissonance and bite. The orchestration is vivacious and colourful.
The second movement is a ‘Piobaireachd’ (very loosely pronounced ‘Peebarochk’) which literally refers to pipe music of the ‘classical school.’ These musical events were presented as ‘variations on a theme’. John Purser, in the liner notes, explains that this ‘traditional’ form ‘fascinated’ Chisholm. There is a ‘strange’ and ‘ethereal’ beauty about this movement. Certainly, the composer has not attempted to create an ‘Edinburgh Tattoo’ version of the ‘form’ but has created an almost ‘Bergian’ interpretation of it. This is one of the loveliest pieces of Chisholm that I know. The ‘March’ is a ‘fun’ movement. There is nothing militaristic about it: just pure entertainment. The finale reverts to a ‘reel’, this time it does owe something to a Scottish ceilidh. All the exuberance of this unique social event is present. What Chisholm has achieved with this is to create an archetype (rather than an example) of the dance. It is sheer pleasure from end to end.
The Dance Suite was dedicated by Chisholm to ‘To my dear wife’ who at the time of the Amsterdam performance was at home in Glasgow about to give birth to Morag, their first child, born on June 11.
I suggest that the listener next explore the three Preludes: From the True Edge of the Great World (1943). The title alludes to the Hebridean islands which folklore sometimes regarded as Ultima Thule or the Edge of the World. Certainly, since the time of the great Roman senator Publius Cornelius Tacitus, the Hebrides have been regarded as one of the limits of geography. As a tyro classical ‘scholar’ I must add that the Romans probably knew of Iceland, the Faroes and possibly even Greenland. Chisholm originally composed a series of ten preludes for piano on this theme. I understand that nine of these were latterly orchestrated by the composer. Chisholm took his inspiration from Amy Murray’s Father Allan’s Island where he derived all the tunes. The listener is encouraged to regard these as mediations or improvisations on elements of the melody rather than a straightforward transcription for piano or orchestra. From the original twelve preludes, this Hyperion disc includes ‘The Song of the Mavis’ [Thrush], ‘Ossianic Lay’ and ‘Port a Beul’.
‘The Song of the Mavis’ certainly enters the world of the ‘favourite’ bird. Historically, the original melody suggests the parent bird calling its young to mealtime. But this music does not parody birdsong: it is a paean to Spring and the reawakening of life after winter.
Most Scots who take an interest in Scottish literature are aware of James MacPherson’s (1736-96) recreation of the Ossianic myth supposedly from ancient sources but more likely from his imagination or later retellings. Chisholm’s ‘Ossianic Lay’ is based on Amy Murray’s ‘The Day we were at the hillock of rushes.’ He has created an impressive (but short) tone-poem for orchestra that examines this mythical exploration of the heroic days of Ossian. Forget the forgeries and the MacPherson scandals: this is a stunning portrayal of shadowy heroes from the distant past. It is a song without words, full of misty sea and remote islands and forgotten romance.
The final number on this CD is ‘Port [puirt] a beul’, which, Purser tells us, means ‘mouth music’. This is a Scottish version of ‘scat’ sung by jazz performers. It is translated ‘cheerful music’ and is often represented by nonsensical vocalisations which parody the rhythms of the music. Chisholm’s short study is breathless and downright fun.
The four-movement Violin Concerto (1950) is a remarkable work by any standards. Purser perfectly sums up the ‘bottom line’: this is a work that displays ‘haunting lyricism, Middle-Eastern sensuality with Western formality: its sound world is unique.’ Now, I am not sure that geographically this is ‘Middle-Eastern.’ The sources that Chisholm has mined for this work are largely Hindustani. This would seem to imply the northern areas of the Indian sub-continent, including Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan and some states of the modern country of India. It is also known as North Indian classical music or Shāstriya Sangīt.
I have never been a huge fan of Indian ‘classical music’ although the late Ravi Shankar was (and remains) a generational icon. I do know that its appreciation and performance involves philosophy and cosmology as well as the musical notes.
What Chisholm has done, is to fuse these Hindustani musical ‘tropes’ into the modernist musical culture of Western Europe. To what extent this is successful will be up to the individual listener. The Eastern influence is most obvious in the solo violin part, especially in the first and third movements.
The composer has revealed his sources for the opening movement, ‘Passacaglia telescopico (in modo Vasantee)’ and the third, ‘Aria in modo Sohani’. This implies that Chisholm used a special ‘scale’ or ‘raga’ that also carried symbolic resonances. For example, the ‘Raginee Vasantee’ sings ‘of the spring, evoking images of a woman whose hair is decorated by peacock feathers and her ears ornamented with mango blossoms.’ The ‘telescopic’ bit refers to the gradual shortening of the passacaglia theme, until nothing is left, and then growing it again to full maturity. It is a novel, but wholly effective conceit.
The second movement, a ‘scherzo’ also uses this ‘rag.’ Opening with aggressive war-like music, nodding to Holst perhaps, it is followed by the ‘trio’ which is deeply contrasting and contemplative.
The Aria, which is really the heart of the work is beautiful. It is based on the ‘Rag Sohani’ which is associated with night-time. The movement is downright romantic and features a love duet between the flute and the violin.
The finale, a ‘Fuga senza theme’ is a little unusual to say the least. There is a vibrancy and ‘breath-taking energy’ about this music that seems to transcend any organisational principles of lack of. But there is a structure. What Chisholm has done is to dispense with the formal fugal subject and answer and substituted it with a half a dozen angular fragments which he seems to chuck about in various patterns. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Chisholm’s Violin Concerto was premiered during the Van Riebeeck Festival by the violinist Szymon Goldberg in Cape Town during March 1952 and at that year’s Edinburgh Festival.
One reviewer (The Times, 8 September 1952) wrote that the violin concerto ‘offers few concessions…The ear cannot take in its subtleties of construction, nor without a clearer definition of the terms of reference can the manipulation of the…[ragas] be fully appreciated.’
W.R. Anderson’s (Musical Times, October 1952) thoughts most likely echoed public opinion at the time about this ‘difficult’ work when he wrote: ‘…[Max] Rostal played a Mozart concerto and one by Erik Chisholm with Hindu thematic and rhythmic influences, of which I could make very little.’
Please, Listener, when exploring this outstanding Violin Concerto, do not feel that you need to understand the first thing about Indian/Hindustani music to appreciate this great work. If I had heard it, without knowing of (not even beginning to understand) its theoretical underpinnings, I guess that I would have thought that Chisholm was using synthetic scales of his own devising or some convenient devices found in the music of Bartok. Music is more universal than we give it credit for.
The sound quality of this new Hyperion disc is superb: I cannot fault it in any way. The liner notes, which I have made extensive use of, are written by Chisholm biographer, John Purser. This detailed essay is essential reading before and after listening to the music. The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Martyn Brabbins are clearly enthusiastic about this music. They are perfect advocates of all three pieces. Danny Driver brilliantly plays the piano solo in the Dance Suite. He has already contributed a recording of Chisholm’s two stunning piano concertos on Hyperion CDA67880.
I do wonder if they could have squeezed another orchestral piece by Erik Chisholm onto this disc: 62 minutes does seem to be a wee bit mean.
I certainly hope that Hyperion will urgently follow this spectacular CD with more releases of music by Erik Chisholm.
Conversation with John Purser
I asked John Purser about Erik Chisholm’s operas and if he felt that they are worthy of revival. I understand that the musical style does not always ‘fit in’ with the Scottish or Hindustani dichotomy, but is often beholden to more ‘traditional’ modernist or early music styles.
Not only are the operas worthy of revival, they have proved it. Dark Sonnet (1952, after Eugene O’Neill) and The Pardoner's Tale (1961, after Geoffrey Chaucer) were revived in Cape Town and were very successful. Simoon (1953) based on a libretto by Strindberg, was revived in Glasgow and both the single performance and the subsequent CD thereof have been highly praised. Simoon's style has many connections with the Hindustani works and The Inland Woman (1951, after Mary Lavin) has Scottish elements. This opera may yet prove to be a match for Vaughan Williams’s Riders to the Sea which rather pushed the Chisholm out of the way. The completed Chaucer operas are intriguing.
The Dark Sonnet and The Pardoner's Tale are only available privately from the Cape Town Opera School revivals. Both should be recorded.
I asked which composers had a vital impact on Erik Chisholm. This being apart from the Scottish/Hindustani influences. For myself, I included RVW (4thSymphony), Arnold Bax, Alban Berg, Kaikhosru Sorabji and Bela Bartok
I agree with the importance of Bela Bartok and Alban Berg but also add Karol Szymanowski and Johannes Brahms. John Blackwood McEwen, the Scottish composer and academic was an exemplar, in particular. Erik Chisholm was eclectic and, as a pianist, performed an incredibly varied and extensive repertoire.
Finally, I asked John Purser what other orchestral works ‘demanded’ to be recorded: in an ideal world, all of them would be.
There is a strong case for the revival of the third major Hindustani work - The Van Riebeeck Concerto - better to be known as Concerto for Orchestra as Chisholm had little love for the motivations behind the van Riebeeck festival. And then the Straloch Suite and the remaining Preludes from The True Edge of the Great World in their orchestral dress. Finally, the music for the ballet, The Forsaken Mermaid in its orchestral version.
I would in my wish list also include The Adventures of Babar: Suite for orchestra, the Suite Hebredia and the Overture: The Freiris of Berwick.
With grateful thanks to John Purser for his assistance and interest in the preparation of this essay.
Erik CHISHOLM (1904-1965)
Violin Concerto (1950)
From the True Edge of the Great World: Three Preludes for piano solo, orchestrated by the composer (1943)
Dance Suite for orchestra and piano (1932)
Matthew Trusler (violin), Danny Driver (piano) BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Martyn Brabbins
Re. City Halls, Candleriggs, Glasgow, 5-6 October 2016
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this essay was first published.