Erik Chisholm, Scottish Modernist 1904-1965

John Purser

Boydell Press h/b£50

Chisholm Picture

To Glasgow in the 1930s pianist and composer Erik Chisholm brought Bax, Casella, Walton, Hindemith, Cyril Scott, Szymanowski and others. Medtner also came, and gave a second concert in St Andrews, but only after the removal of portraits from the walls because they unnerved him. Schoenberg was invited, but demanded £1,000 per concert. 'One way of saying "no",' observed Chisholm. However, Bartók came twice to Glasgow, in 1932 and 1933, for the more reasonable fee of £15. He stayed at Chisholm's house, the Scotsman taking the opportunity to deliver an introduction to Scottish music.

Behind these visits was the Active Society for the Propagation of Contemporary Music, formed in 1930, Chisholm being the mastermind. Purser observes: 'Chisholm was not outside a movement and learning from it; he was in it and creating it along with some of the greatest of his contemporaries.'

Chisholm had performed Liszt's Piano Concerto No 1 in public at seventeen. He was a virtuoso piobaireachd player, and combined both interests in his piano sonata of 1939, An Rioban Dearg. The slow movement laments the loss that year of the submarine Thetis, still-controversial today.

Rejected for the forces by failing his medical, during the war years Chisholm composed, worked for ENSA as musical director in India and Singapore, and in 1945 became dean and principal at the University of Cape Town, where he remained. He wrote one book, The Operas of Leoš Janácek, published in 1963.

Twenty-six musical examples are given. Some original touches impress - for instance, in his second chamber opera, Simoon, Chisholm forces the singer to change voice by singing with clenched teeth.

As the pre-eminent composer in Scottish classical music in the first half of the 20th century, Chisholm's long-term reputation will rely not on his administrative skills, or on his Janácek book, but on his compositions, which have been unjustly neglected. Though at times prolix (a tough sub-editor could improve the narrative), Purser's welcome book will help to acquaint contemporary readers with the significant and fascinating musician who was Erik Chisholm.

John Robert Brown

First published in Classical Music, 18th July, 2009. Reproduced by kind permission.
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