EXCITING events in London, Glasgow and Cape Town to mark the centenary on January 4, 2004 of the birth of Erik Chisholm, composer, conductor, writer, critic, administrator, brilliant lecturer, teacher, humanitarian, protagonist of the new or unusual, are lifting the veil on Scotland's forgotten composer.
Scottish pianist Murray McLachlan’s Wigmore Hall concert in London of Chisholm's piano music (January 4), a six-hour study day on the campus of Glasgow University (January 10) devoted to a kaleidoscope of Chisholm’s music and life, articles in the Scotsman and the Times, are all creating a new awareness of the multi-talented musician.
Still to come in Cape Town on January 26-30 at the Baxter Concert Hall at 8pm are five UCT Summer School lectures by the erudite and entertaining Prof Angelo Gobbato on Chisholm's contribution to the UCT Opera School. Gobbato, the director of the Opera School, will also stage a short season of two of Chisholm's one-act operas "Dark Sonnet" and "The Pardoner's Tale" at the Little Theatre on Feburary 5,6,7.
Restlessly energetic and with an eclectic range of interests encompassing literature, astronomy, Celtic songs, art, writing, cinematography and politics, Erik Chisholm packed about three lives into one.
His activities can be divided into three phases. His early triumphs in Glasgow from his birth there in 1904 to 1939 and the war years on tour with the Anglo-Polish Ballet Company in Britain and Italy, before joining ENSA and going to India and Singapore to establish orchestras and entertain the troops.
The final phase was his 19 fulfilled years in Cape Town as Dean and Director of the South African College of Music at the University of Cape Town. This post he held from 1946 until his premature death from heart failure on June 8, 1965 at the age of 61.
The "delicate" second son of a Glasgow master house painter, Chisholm was in his youth a virtuoso concert pianist, a notable recital organist, and an unsparing and witty music critic for Glasgow newspapers. Blessed with the gift of sight-reading that enabled him instantly to condense a 60-stave orchestral score to a two-hand piano arrangement, he was drawn to the classics but became progressively interested in the new music of other young composers trying to find their own voice.
This led to his forming in 1930, together with a madcap Irishman Pat Shannon, The Active Society for the Propagation of Contemporary Music. During its 10 active years it gave first performances of about 200 new compositions and brought to Glasgow in recitals of their own works a list of composers whose names read like a musical Who's Who.
A young William Walton conducted his famous entertainment "Façade". The shy genius Bela Bartok with wrists of steel came twice to give piano recitals and stayed in Chisholm's Glasgow home. Reclusive Khaikhosru Sorabji gave his one and only performance of his notoriously long "Opus Clavicembalisticum" in mauve pyjamas. Paul Hindemith, fresh from an appearance at the Queen's Hall in London, played sonatas for viola d'amore with Chisholm as his accompanist.
While organising these concerts, Erik Chisholm also taught music privately, played the organ for concerts and church services at the famous Barony Church in central Glasgow and somehow found time to study for his D Mus (1935) at Edinburgh University under his friend and mentor, the renowned musicologist Sir Donald Tovey. He also formed the Scottish Ballet Society, the Glasgow Cine Club and was musical director of the Celtic Ballet Society for whom he wrote several ballets.
As conductor of the Glasgow Grand Opera Society he gave the first British productions of Mozart's "Idomeneo" (1933) and Berlioz's "Les Troyens" on March 23, 1935. Such was the public interest over the event that a special coach was attached to the London train to bring music lovers and critics to Glasgow for the first complete performance with only an hour's break for tea.
In spite of his reputation in Scotland, Chisholm was never offered the posts that would have kept him where his roots, both personal and musical, were so deep. He was to find the ideal home for his talents and interests at the SA College of Music and flew to Cape Town in 1946 directly from Singapore where he had conducted about 50 concerts within six months of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra. This had earned him the reputation of being the hardest working man in Singapore.
Arriving at UCT he turned this energy into upgrading the College which had slumped to little more than a piano school. By widening the courses, placing the emphasis on practical musicianship and engaging teaching staff members who were specialists in their field, he raised it to a fully-fledged faculty of music with an international reputation. His model was Edinburgh University.
One of his biggest achievements was to revitalise the UCT Opera School. Not only did it provide Cape Town with most of its opera productions for years, but as the UCT Opera Company toured its full-scale productions and cutting edge new works to opera-starved towns all over South Africa and as far afield as Zambia.
In the winter of 1956-57 Chisholm's ambitious festival of SA Music and Musicians took London by storm with a programme of Wigmore Hall concerts and the London premiere at the Rudolf Steiner Theatre of Bela Bartok's opera Duke Bluebeard's Castle. The company also performed Menotti's The Consul as well as Chisholm's own-act opera "The Inland Woman", based on a drama of the sea by Irish author Mary Lavin.
Throughout his life Erik Chisholm composed endlessly. He wrote every kind of music, usually in an old dressing gown in his home with a beloved dog at his feet under the piano. His earliest music was strongly Scottish, that in later life influenced by his time spent in India. At the end of his life he concentrated on operas and wrote 12.
Highlights were to hear Syzmon Goldberg premiere his violin concerto at the 1952 Van Riebeeck Music Festival in Cape Town: to have his opera trilogy "Murder in Three Keys" enjoy a six-week season in New York in 1954 and in 1956 to be invited to Moscow to conduct his second piano concerto "The Hindustani" with Agnes Walker as soloist.
His sudden death left his vast collection of music, fascinating correspondence with celebrities, cuttings and programmes in disarray and forgotten for many years. In the past decade much has been done to bring about order. The Manuscripts and Archives Library at UCT holds the Chisholm collection of papers and manuscripts; his published scores are in the College of Music library and many copies have now been sent to the Scottish Music Information Centre in Glasgow. His biography by Scottish musicologist and poet John Purser is eagerly awaited.
Finally in his centenary year it looks as though the title of "Scotland’s forgotten composer" will no longer apply and Erik Chisholm’s life and music will be given the recognition he deserves.
Text by Fiona Chisholm, January 2004