He led a modernist Renaissance in Scotland, premiering Bartók and Hindemith, but his own music has been overlooked.

Erik Chisholm (1904-1965) was the leading Scottish modernist composer and a promoter of modernist music of international significance. He was also a vital force in the revival of operas ranging from his first performances in the British Isles of Bluebeard’s Castle, Les Troyens and Idomeneo, to an astonishing range of productions in South Africa. He was himself a distinguished composer of operas, and the recent issue of his terrifying operatic setting of Strindberg’s Simoon has provoked an almost stunned response.

Chisholm brought Bartók, Hindemith, Schmitt, Casella, Szymanowski and Walton (amongst others) to Glasgow. A founder of the Celtic Ballet, Chisholm’s compositions convey a knowledge and use of Scottish traditional music that remains unsurpassed. He was the first composer to absorb Celtic idioms into his music in form as well as content, his achievement paralleling that of Bartók in its depth of understanding and its daring.

Erik ChisholmErik Chisholm (1904-1965)

Not averse to controversy, Chisholm also set about tackling Hindustani music, maintaining its essential homophony could be treated polyphonically. The Hindustani Piano Concerto demonstrates how remarkably successful he was. The new release of the Violin Concerto with three of the Preludes From the True Edge of the Great World and the Dance Suite, confirms his mastery of the Hindustani idiom and adds a generous offering of his work influenced by traditional Scottish forms and idioms. 

In mood and structure, Chisholm’s Violin Concerto is one of the most remarkable ever composed. Four-movement concertos are rare enough, but Chisholm’s blends complex counterpoint with haunting lyricism, Middle-Eastern sensuality with Western formality. The Hindustani sources for two of the movements are declared: the first, a Passacaglia Telescopico (in modo Vasantee), and the third, Aria in modo Sohani, based upon Rãg Sohani (which influences his profound solo piano work, Night Song of the Bards). The Scherzo is also based upon Rãg Vasantee and the final Fuga Senza Tema is influenced by all the preceding material. What is, however, most striking about this work is its sensuality and the subtlety and beauty of its scoring.

Hindustani culture is ancient, but so too is that of the Celts. When Chisholm composed his From The True Edge of the Great World, it was to signify an exploration of musical geography – a journey into the depths of a tradition. Each prelude is based upon a Highland tune, but as the title “Preludes” implies, they take the form of meditations or improvisations on some aspect of a melody which may only appear in full once in the whole piece.

The Song of the MavisOran na Smeoraich – imitates the thrush. The Ossianic Lay’s  repeated notes suggest incantation. These lays are rooted in ancient material which Chisholm treats with both daring and respect. Port a Beul literally means “mouth music” referring to sung dance music. Chisholm’s piece is in the form of a reel and enjoys the same breathless, relentless drive, the test of stamina being also part of the fun.

In 1933 Chisholm as piano soloist premiered part of the Dance Suite in Amsterdam while back home in Glasgow his wife Diana was giving birth to their first child, Morag, on the kitchen table. Not surprising then that this work was dedicated “To my dear wife”. The Allegro energico is a reel – music driven by dance. A Pìobaireachd follows. This is the music of the Highland bagpipes, also known as ceòl mòr – the big music. The 6/8 march which follows is wholly cheerful, and a concluding Reel takes on a character of its own, leaping from key to key, and allowing its triumphalism to verge on the threatening.

 At a personal level, Chisholm saw himself as a Scot and an internationalist. He had strong left-wing leanings and a mind open to quality, no matter where it was to be found, a matter of particular relevance in his later years as Professor of Music in Cape Town. He was reckless in his energies, ruthless in driving others towards achievements they scarcely thought possible, and he paid the price with his early death. His astonishing legacy as a composer has only recently been realised in a series of recordings and performances of which the latest issue from Hyperion is perhaps the most revealing of all. 


Hyperion’s Chisholm CD is out now.