It is possible to argue that the Glasgow-born Erik Chisholm is one of the leading twentieth-century composers: not only in Scotland but in the United Kingdom and worldwide. Therefore it seems to me almost unbelievable that until a decade ago there was virtually no music by him in the CD catalogues. Since then Dutton have issued the Ossian Symphony and Pictures from Dante and Dunelm have released six volumes of the piano music and the Piano Concerto No. 1 Piobaireachd. Other songs and piano pieces are sprinkled throughout the listings.
The present CD showcases two important ballet scores from the nineteen-forties. One is a major work that ranks beside Sir Arthur Bliss, Constant Lambert, Lord Berners and perhaps even Igor Stravinsky himself. The other, although much shorter, is no less accomplished.
Both scores were written or revised for the choreographer and dance educator Margaret Morris. Her particular contribution to ballet was the development of her own system of dance and movement training which she called the ‘Margaret Morris Movement’ (MMM). This was an attempt to define a system that was more natural for dancers than ‘classical’ ballet routines. At the beginning of the Second World War, Morris formed the Celtic Ballet Club and went on to produce a number of sizeable productions for war charities. After the war, in 1947, she formed Celtic Ballet of Scotland which was a small professional company. It was to be a fusion of two important dance elements - her own system and Scottish Country Dancing.
Morris wrote in her autobiography that ‘it was William Maclellan (a Glaswegian publisher) who took me to see the composer Erik Chisholm who had ... composed several ballets on Scottish legends and he played one of these to me, ‘The Forsaken Mermaid’. I was enchanted by it and saw that it was entirely suitable for presentation by my Celtic Ballet amateurs, most of the cast being fisher folk.’
It is not made too clear in the liner-notes that The Forsaken Mermaid had been composed in 1936. Elements of the score had been performed in full-orchestral guise at that time. However, it was subsequently arranged by the composer for two pianos and at the performances was played by Chisholm, and Wight Henderson.
The ballet was devised in three main scenes with a prologue and a concluding epilogue. A good plot summary is given in the liner-notes, but a brief overview would note that the ‘book’ was apparently based on an old West Highland Tale from a collection made by J.F. Campbell. It is a story about a Skye fisherman called Alan, who falls in love with a mermaid that he has dragged up in his net. They marry, but unfortunately a ‘vixen’ called Morag tempts Alan away from his mermaid wife at a Halloween party. The mermaid, in her despair returns to her life in the watery deep. After a huge storm, where disaster strikes the fishing community and Alan is cursed, he dives into the sea and is eventually reunited with her at the bottom of the ocean. He is metamorphosed into a merman. The story surely owes something to the Russian tale Sadko that was effectively realised by Rimsky-Korsakov.
Musically this is sea-music at its very best: however the composer has made considerable use of Scottish folksong and dance music. The score is always colourful with the two pianists imitating orchestral textures, including harp arpeggios and flute trills and the bagpipes.
Erik Chisholm is usually labelled as a ‘modernist’ composer which I guess could suggest that he uses techniques and a musical language that is far removed from romanticism. Yet to me the genius of this particular score is the cunning balance between flagrantly romantic music, a brittle, bright hard-edged sound and reference to the traditional fiddle and bagpipe music of Scotland. The reviewer in the July 1943 edition of Music & Letters has noted the ‘splendid reel’ that forms part of the Halloween festivities which is ‘bold in harmony and allowing the two pianos to pit themselves against each other in a spirit of unrestrained rivalry.’ Another fine example of musical development is the Kail March where Chisholm takes a bagpipe tune and develops it into a considerable modern fugue.
The Hoodie Craw is a much shorter work, lasting a mere nine minutes. The plot is largely a retelling of the Cinderella story - in a Scottish guise. In fact the ‘book’ is based on a tale from J.F. Campbell’s Popular Tales of the West Highlands - Volume 1 which had been published in 1861. There are four main characters - the two ‘unpleasant sisters, Cinders and the Hoodie Craw. The Craw always appears at the girls’ house when they go out to wash in the morning. Alas, the two sisters ‘who lack social skills’ are always terrorising the poor bird. Cinderella defends it from them: it is hardly surprising that after receiving a kiss from her, the Craw turns into a handsome prince! The rest is history.
It is a score that is full of interesting and sometimes quite introverted music. There is certainly none of the pantomime knockabout here: there is no ‘Boots’ to relieve the tension. The music is once again based on Scottish airs and melodies; however to my ear this is somewhat more terse and gritty. Although there are many beautiful passages, there is no ‘big romantic’ theme as such. I was not quite sure when the kiss was given and received. The musical colours are purples, browns and greys, rather than a scene painter’s bright primaries. It is a score that needs a wee bit more attention by the listener to come to terms with - but the rewards amply repay the effort.
This is stunning music, stunningly played by Murray McLachlan and Graham Scott, which just cries out to be performed in the projected orchestral version. I am not sure about the availability of the full score and parts, so I do not really know if this is feasible. But based on the ‘two-piano reduction’ this is a work that demands our attention. Whether they would still be effective as ballet productions is probably a debatable point. However, the music is self-sufficient and presents both story and atmosphere in manner that is enjoyable and inspiring.
It would be good if a recording of the other Margaret Morris
commission, The Earth Shapers could be released. And
then there is the ballet score of The Pied Piper of Hamelin.
and a note from Rob Barnett:-
I second John France’s enthusiastic endorsement of this
disc. With the knowledge of how the Ossian symphony and
Piobaireachd Piano Concerto sound one might reasonable
lament that we now encounter these bejewelled scores in the
monochrome of two pianos. That said this is so much better than
not hearing the works at all and the two pianists are searchingly
enthusiastic and expert advocates. The music of The Forsaken
Mermaid echoes with an exuberance of bells - a wild Gaelic
carillon. This is music that is not fey and waif-like. It is
strong, reeks of gamelan and even of Szymanowski’s Harnasie
highlands. Szymanowski had been a concertising guest in the
Chisholm household in Glasgow in the 1930s where Chisholm presided
over a wildly enterprising concert series rivalling anything
in England or the Continent. Both Morris-based scores are rife
with adventurous writing yet without rebarbative dissonance.
Its richness recalls the two Hill-Songs by Percy Grainger. Certainly
the skirl and snap of the Highlands is present without the stultifying
filter of tartan and shortbread. I count myself fortunate indeed
to have encountered such music. We must continue to hold out
for the orchestral versions of these two wonderful scores and
of the other ballets. I have not given up on hearing Chisholm’s
other symphony and the Foulds-enigmatic Second Piano Concerto
The Hindustani. I am sure that the Erik
Chisholm Trust will be doing all they can to bring these
Chisholm Trust contact details
Morag Chisholm (Chair), Bolton Lodge, 102 Christchurch Road,
Winchester, SO23 9TG, United Kingdom. Tel / Fax: +44 (0)1962
865857. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org