Monday, 20 July 2009

Looking for Erik

Recently we posted a short excerpt from John Purser’s new biography of Erik Chisholm. Here John explains how he came to write the book:

I never meant to write this book. Someone else was supposed to do it but, half way through the money and time allotted for the task, the arrangement with the Erik Chisholm Trust fell through. I sat there looking at my fellow Trustees, each one of them looking directly at me with alarmingly clear intent. What could I do? I was fascinated by the man, loved what little of his music I knew, was incapable of denying his eldest daughter (who was chairing the meeting), and wasn’t quick enough to think of any excuse save that as a Trustee I could not employ myself.

“Resign!” came the happy chorus. “Resign!” So I did.

I snuck out of the meeting and when I was called back subsequently, like some naughty schoolboy, found myself committed to writing a critical biography of a man whose doings had left an amazingly copious musical trail, much of which was housed in the Archives in Cape Town. Well, sometimes there are perks! On the other hand, the time scale was terrifying. One year was all that was left, and Erik Chisholm was prolific. The man had made a massive impression on three continents (Europe, Asia and Africa) and had by no means gone unnoticed on a fourth (North America). But he was also a full-blooded Scot and had done particular honour to his native music, with unmatched insight and daring. As I had published a history of Scottish music from earliest times to the present day (Scotland’s Music Mainstream 1992 and 2007), and had even overlapped with him as a composer in Scotland, I had to admit a certain responsibility to accept the challenge.

What I eventually submitted to the Erik Chisholm Trustees and the University of Central England, Birmingham Conservatoire (joint commissioners of the book) is not quite the book that I hope you are going to buy. It has been re-arranged and shortened (always a good thing), and is well illustrated with music examples and photographs. Even some colour! Boydell & Brewer have done Erik Chisholm proud. But so they should.

Was it fun? Absolutely. To walk up through the flower-draped walls of the steep lane that led up to the magnificent University of Cape Town campus, with Table Mountain behind, in all its sunlit grandeur; to cross the first terrace with its rugby pitches and make the ascent of the broad steps that led upward from terrace to terrace until one faced the handsome portico of the main hall; and then to turn round and look across the plain to the haze of distant mountains – well, it made me feel like some great academic hero as I finally reached the welcoming Department of Manuscripts and Archives and settled down to work with the constantly kind and efficient help of the staff. There I would work through countless documents and scores, coming across memories of musicians I had known personally, and coming across music of stunning beauty and invention.

Many other pleasures were mine – notably meeting Erik’s daughters, his widow and his former colleagues, and especially working with his eldest daughter Morag, who has inherited her father’s drive and energy. But it is Erik Chisholm’s music that has given me the greatest return. I cannot now imagine life without the knowledge that I can listen once again to his powerful Night Song of the Bards; or the wonderful contrast of mediaeval terror and exquisite mediaeval bliss in his Pictures from Dante; or the desperate intensity of his opera Dark Sonnet which I saw performed in Cape Town along with The Pardoner’s Tale; or the ravishing sensuality of his Hindustani Piano Concerto; or the heart-breakingly lovely Scottish works, honouring a tradition which I have loved for so long.

If one loves one’s subject, there is a chance that one will infect the reader with one’s own enthusiasms. It does not mean that one is uncritical. Objectivity is a vital aspect of the scholar’s work, never mind the biographer’s, and this book aims to combine both. But music reaches out to the heart and the body as well as the mind. It makes us want to dance, to sing, to cry, for sorrow and for joy. One lives more fully because of it, and I have lived more fully because of Erik Chisholm. I hope this book will at least open the doors for you to share some of those same enrichments.

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