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
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
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 indispensible 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.
see also Erik
Chisholm: The Operas of Janacek by Robert Hugill