Monday, 22 June 2009

The extraordinary Mr Chisholm

One of the joys of publishing books on classical music is that, in order to forge an identity for the list, one explores paths that are less well-trodden. It is remarkable, for example, that John Purser’s new biography of the Scottish composer and performer, Erik Chisholm, is the first since his death over 40 years ago.

As Sir Charles Mackerras points out in his foreword, 'Erik Chisholm was a musician of rare capabilities. He was a pianist and organist, a conductor, a composer, a lecturer on music, an entrepreneur and administrator, and to all these he brought a unique blend of originality, flair and energy. After an early start as a performing pianist, Chisholm established himself in Glasgow as an important influence on the progress of music in Scotland and Scottish music in general.' The two men had met in Cape Town, where they 'got on very well, partly because of a common interest in Janáček at a time when there were not so many experts on this composer as there are now.'

Anyone interested in twentieth century music will find much to engage them in this biography. Chisholm’s circle of acquaintances included Bartók, Sorabji, Hindemith, Walton, Bax and many others. Here is an extract from the book’s final chapter which gives some sense of the range of his achievement:

Of all the composers Scotland has produced, Chisholm has perhaps come closest to ‘finding a nation’s soul’, as Vaughan Williams put it, for the Scots are adventurers as well as traditionalists. They have planted their seed, and their music with it, all over the globe, and they have embraced the new while honouring the old – historically most obviously in the field of technological development, but also in the arts. When Chisholm was born, Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Glasgow Art School was five years from completion. Building upon a profound knowledge of Scottish vernacular architecture, it none the less remains one of the world’s great modernist structures.

In many respects, Chisholm’s is a parallel achievement. His study of his own Scottish inheritance led him well beyond its traditional boundaries, while from childhood he was conversant with a vast repertoire of European music through the centuries. That repertoire he actively expanded through concert promotion and opera production, but it is as a composer that he should chiefly be remembered.

Looking at Chisholm’s compositional development, it is easy to identify an increasing freedom with his handling of source material such as piobaireachd, in which both virtuosity and dissonance become more prevalent. From the Sonatine Écossaise to the sonata An Rioban Dearg is no great stylistic leap: the techniques applied in the former are simply taken a stage further. Nor is there any great distance between An Rioban Dearg and Night Song of the Bards, which picks up on the virtuosity and the complexity of texture but still retains something of the mood of Scotland in its more static passages. From Night Song of the Bards to the Hindustani works is scarcely a move at all, for all are based upon râgas of similar character, at least to Western ears.

From the Hindustani works to the modernist operas such as Dark Sonnet and Simoon is also a logical move, for the choice of chromatic râgas had already dictated a degree of movement away from tonal centres towards a freer and more dissonant style. The Inland Woman shares material with Night Song of the Bards, and Simoon is heavily influenced by Hindustani styles, although it is, to a fair degree, a dodecaphonic work.

In his last years, Chisholm turned to a style informed by older musical traditions, notably in the Chaucer operas, with their strong medieval characteristics. This was not a new departure. The sonatinas of E Praeterita had already explored the Renaissance, and the second movement of Pictures from Dante is thoroughly medieval in character, as befits its subject-matter.

It is a considerable and varied output. In Chisholm’s case, the extraordinary catholicity of his taste, and the vast extent of his knowledge as performer, conductor, concert, ballet and opera promoter, teacher and dean of a faculty of music offered him many models. He was not shy of indicating the music, composers and individual works which had influenced him, and these influences have been traced throughout the book. Not to be overlooked is the significance of his having acted as secondo pianist for Casella and page-turner for Bartók, or of his performing Szymanowski in the presence of Szymanowski. In this, 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 – for he did not only sit beside them: they too sat beside him. They too heard how he played and what he had experienced, both in his native music and with the rest of that extraordinary mix of composers, who did not necessarily know each other or each other’s work. The connecting factor was Chisholm himself, chasing his restless muse, that he might embrace her loveliness once again, no matter what, if anything, she wore.

Erik Chisholm, Scottish Modernist (1904-1965): Chasing a Restless Muse was published on June 18th by the Boydell Press in association with the Erik Chisholm Trust. Author John Purser is, like his subject, a man of many parts: a Research Fellow at the Gaelic College on the Isle of Skye, an award-winning poet, composer, dramatist, broadcaster, historian of the BBC Scottish SO - and crofter. A later post will outline how he came to discover the work of Erik Chisholm.

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