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Erik Chisholm

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Erik Chisholm
Born 4 January 1904
Died 8 June 1965
Cape Town, South Africa
Occupation Composer and conductor
Spouse(s) Diana Brodie (1st) and Lillias Scott (2nd)
Parent(s) John Chisholm and Elizabeth Macleod

Erik William Chisholm (4 January 1904 – 8 June 1965) was a Scottish composer, pianist, organist and conductor often known as "Scotland's forgotten composer". According to his biographer, Chisholm "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",[1] which led to his nickname of "MacBartók".[2] He was also a founder of the Celtic Ballet and, together with Margaret Morris, created the first full-length Scottish ballet, The Forsaken Mermaid.[1] He was also the dean and director of the South African College of Music at the University of Cape Town for 19 years. Chisholm founded the South African College of Music opera company in Cape Town and was a vital force in bringing new operas to Scotland, England and South Africa. By the time of his death in 1965, he had composed over a hundred works.

Early life and education[edit]

Erik Chisholm was the son of John Chisholm, master house painter, and his wife, Elizabeth McGeachy Macleod.[3] He left Queen's Park School at the early age of 13 due to ill-health but showed a talent for music composition and some of his pieces were published during his childhood.[3] He had piano lessons with Philip Halstead at the Athenaeum School of Music, now the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, and later studied the organ under Herbert Walton, the organist at Glasgow Cathedral.[4] By the time he was 12 he was giving organ recitals including an important one in Kingston upon Hull.[5] The pianist Leff Pouishnoff then became his principal teacher and mentor. In 1927 he travelled to Nova Scotia, Canada, where he was appointed the organist and choirmaster at the Westminster Presbyterian Church, New Glasgow, and director of music at Pictou Academy.

A year later he returned to Scotland and became the organist at Barony Church; however, as he had no School Leaving Certificate, he could not study at a university. Due to the influence of his future wife, Diana Brodie, he approached several influential music friends for letters of support for an exemption to enter university.[6] In 1928, he was accepted to study music at the University of Edinburgh, under his friend and mentor, the renowned musicologist Sir Donald Tovey. Chisholm graduated with a Bachelor of Music in 1931 and a Doctor of Music in 1934. While at university, he had formed the Scottish Ballet Society in 1928 and the Active Society for the Propagation of Contemporary Music in 1929 with fellow composers Francis George Scott and Pat Shannon. In 1930 to 1934 he also worked as a music critic for the Glasgow Weekly Herald and the Scottish Daily Express.[3]

Scottish career and World War II[edit]

After his education, Chisholm's work was described as "daring and original", according to Sir Hugh Roberton,[7] while also displaying a strong Scottish character in works such as his Piano Concerto No. 1, subtitled Pibroch (1930), the Straloch Suite for Orchestra (1933) and the Sonata An Riobhan Dearg (1939). In 1933 he was the soloist at the première of his Pibroch Concerto in Amsterdam. He also played the Scottish premieres of Bartók's Piano Concerto No. 1 and Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3. From 1930 he was the musical director of the Glasgow Grand Opera Society[8] which performed in the city's Theatre Royal, conducting the British premières of Mozart's Idomeneo in 1934 and Berlioz's Les Troyens and Béatrice et Bénédict in 1935 and 1936, respectively.[3] He was also the founding conductor of both the Barony Opera Society, the Scottish Ballet Society, the Professional Organists' Association, and in 1938 he was appointed music director of the Celtic Ballet. As director he composed four works in collaboration with Margaret Morris, the most famous being The Forsaken Mermaid; the first full-length Scottish ballet. Chisholm had many friends in the music world, including composers like Bartók, Hindemith, Delius, Bax, Medtner, Szymanowski, Ireland and Bush, and invited many of them to Scotland to perform their works.[9]

At the outbreak of World War II, Chisholm, a conscientious objector, was declared unfit for military service on the basis of poor eyesight and a crooked arm.[10] During the war he conducted performances with the Carl Rosa Opera Company in 1940, and later joined the Entertainments National Service Association as a colonel touring Italy with the Anglo-Polish Ballet in 1943 and served as musical director to the South East Asia Command between 1943 and 1945. He first formed a multi-racial orchestra in India, however after arguments with his superior, Col. Jack Hawkins, he was removed to Singapore.[5] Here in 1945 he founded the Singapore Symphony Orchestra.[3] Many of the musicians were ex-prisoners of War, and from them Chisholm recruited Szymon Goldberg as leader. Goldberg had successfully hidden his Stradivarius violin up a chimney in the prison camp for three and a half years.[11] Chisholm created a truly cosmopolitan orchestra of fifteen nationalities from East and West,[5] which gave 50 concerts in Malaya within six months.[12] After returning to Scotland, Chisholm married his second wife, Lillias, the daughter of Scottish composer Francis George Scott. In 1946 he was appointed professor of music at the University of Cape Town and director of the South African College of Music.[3]

South African career[edit]

Strubenholm, the home of the SA College of Music.

Chisholm's obituary in The Edinburgh Tatler recalled that "the three highlights of his life were in hearing at age seven Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata played by Frederic Lamond on a piano roll; becoming acquainted with the music of India and lastly being offered the chair of music at Cape Town University in 1947."[13]

That year, Chisholm revived the South African College of Music where he eventually would teach composer Stefans Grové and singer Désirée Talbot. Using Edinburgh University as his model, Chisholm appointed new staff, extended the number of courses, and introduced new degrees and diplomas. In order to encourage budding South African musicians he founded the South African National Music Press in 1948. With the assistance of the Italian baritone Gregorio Fiasconaro, Chisholm also established the college's opera company in 1951 and opera school in 1954.[13] In addition, Chisholm founded the South African section of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) in 1948, assisted in the founding of the Maynardville Open-Air Theatre on 1 December 1950, and pursued an international conducting career.[14][15]

The South African College of Music's opera company became a national success and toured Zambia and the United Kingdom. In the winter of 1956, Chisholm's ambitious festival of South African Music and Musicians achieved popular success in London with a programme of Wigmore Hall concerts and the London première at the Rudolf Steiner Theatre of Bartók's opera Bluebeard's Castle. The company also performed Menotti's The Consul as well as Chisholm's own opera The Inland Woman, based on a drama by Irish author Mary Lavin. In 1952 Szymon Goldberg premièred his violin concerto at the Van Riebeeck Music Festival in Cape Town. His opera trilogy Murder in Three Keys enjoyed a six-week season in New York City in 1954,[16] and two years later he was invited to Moscow to conduct the Moscow State Orchestra in his second piano concerto The Hindustani. In 1961, his company premièred South African composer John Joubert's first opera, Silas Marner.[3]

Chisholm did not support the South African policy of apartheid and had socialist leanings. Chisholm convinced Ronald Stevenson, a fellow Scot, to perform at the University of Cape Town. During a performance of Stevenson's Passacaglia, the programme made references to Lenin's slogan of peace, bread and land and also in salute of the "emergent Africa". The following day, South African police searched Chisholm's study in a failed attempt to link him with working for the USSR.[17][18]

Later years and legacy[edit]

Composing at his Petrof piano with Towser, his concert-going Spaniel, at his feet.

Sir Arnold Bax called Erik Chisholm "the most progressive composer that Scotland has ever produced."[19] After 19 years at the South African College of Music, Dr. Chisholm composed an additional twelve operas drawing inspiration from "sources as varied as Hindustan, the Outer Hebrides, the neo-classical and baroque, pibroch, astrology and literature".[20]

Chisholm died of a heart attack at age 61 and left all his music to the University of Cape Town.[3] Although he composed over 100 works, only 17 were published, of which 14 were issued in printed score.[21] As Scottish composers are few and the quality of his music is often good, his apologists have argued that his works should be heard more regularly.[3] His style was called varied, eclectic, and challenging,[22] but his music was also known to be harsh and often unattractive to audiences.[3] Even so, a number of his works, including his pieces for piano and voice, have been revived and recorded.

He had a lifelong interest in Scottish music and published a collection of Celtic folk-songs in 1964. He was also interested in Czech music, and completed his book The Operas of Leoš Janáček shortly before his death. His services to Czech music were formally recognized in 1956, when he became one of the few non-Czech musicians to be awarded the Dvořák medal.[23] The Manuscripts and Archives Library at the University of Cape Town 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. In his memory, the South African College of Music offers a memorial scholarship in his name and the Scottish International Piano Competition hosts the Erik Chisholm Memorial Prize.[24]

The biography of Erik Chisholm, written by John Purser with the foreword by Sir Charles Mackerras, Chasing A Restless Muse: Erik Chisholm, Scottish Modernist (1904–1965), was published on 19 June 2009.[25] An official launch was held at the Conservatoire of Music, Birmingham City University on 22 October 2009 which was attended by his widow, his daughter Morag, two of his granddaughters and great-grandsons.[25] His widow, Lillias, married the clarinettist John Forbes.[26] Many of his works have been released on CD, performed by pianist Murray McLachlan.


Erik Chisholm wrote well over 100 works, including 35 orchestral works, 7 concertante works (including a violin concerto and two piano concertos), 7 works for orchestra and voice or chorus, 54 piano works, 3 organ works, 43 songs, 8 choral part-songs, 7 ballets, and 9 operas including one on Robert Burns. He also made several interesting arrangements by composers such as Handel and Mozart. He arranged a string orchestra version of the Symphony for Solo Piano, Op. 39 Nos. 4–7 by Charles-Valentin Alkan, a composer still largely unknown at that time, the original of which has been said to surpass even the Transcendental Études of Franz Liszt in scale and difficulty.[21]

Pianist Murray McLachlan divided Chisholm's works into four periods: the Early Period, the "Scottish" Period, the Neoclassical Period and the "Hindustani" Period.[27] The "Early Period" is extremely large, beginning with teenage efforts including a Sonatina in G minor, written at 18, and clearly showing something of the influence of John Blackwood McEwen.[27]

The "Scottish" Period began in the early 1930s where all his works were tinged with a remarkable Scottish nationalistic colouring, indicating most persuasively the ambitions of the composer like contemporary Béla Bartók, to nourish his style on the music of his ancestors and countrymen.[27] Chisholm's Sonatine Ecossaise, 4 Elegies, Scottish Airs, and Piano Concerto no. 1 "Piobaireachd" display a style of percussive bite and energy which made much use of dissonances, note clusters and pounding rhythms in the "Bartók manner" along with material derived from Scottish Folksong and rhythmic dance figurations.[27] His style is so similar that Chisholm's critics have repeatedly referred to Chisholm as "MacBartók".[2]

Chisholm's Neoclassical Period refers to several of his works which were inspired by ancient and obscure motifs from the pre-Classical era. His Sonatina no. 3, evidently based on several ricercare motifs originally written by Dalza, fuses Brittenesque harmonies and gentle dissonances in quintessentially pianistic textures.[27]

His "Hindustani" Period reflects Chisholm's love of the East, the occult and his friendship with Sorabji.[27] Important examples of this period are his 2nd "Hindustani" Piano Concerto and the Six Nocturnes, Night Song of the Bards. These compositions display luscious textures, transcendental technical demands and intensity that are comparable to other piano works by Busoni, Szymanowski, Medtner, and Sorabji.[27]

Chisholm's two piano concertos have been recorded by Danny Driver.


Chisholm, E. (1971) The Operas of Leoš Janáček ISBN 0-08-012854-8.


  1. ^ a b "Erik Chisholm: Home Page". Retrieved 2007-08-15. [permanent dead link]
  2. ^ a b Norris, Geoffrey (6 January 2004). "The drone of bagpipes and Bartok's ghost". London: The Telegraph. Retrieved 2012-08-06. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j "Raymond Holden, 'Chisholm, Erik William (1904–1965)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2004". Retrieved 2007-08-15. 
  4. ^ "Overview of Erik Chisholm". Gazetteer for Scotland. Retrieved 2007-08-15. 
  5. ^ a b c Wright, Ken (tribute to Erik Chisholm); Chisholm, Erik (1971). "The Operas of Leos Janáček". Pergamon Press. Retrieved 2008-06-08. 
  6. ^ Chisholm, Fiona (17 February 2004). "Feisty dean once barred from university education". 23 (1). Monday Paper. Retrieved 2007-08-15. [dead link]
  7. ^ "Full biography of Erik Chisholm". Scottish Music Centre. Retrieved 2007-09-28. 
  8. ^ "Obituary". 106 (1470). The Musical Times. August 1965: 623. JSTOR 00274666. 
  9. ^ McLellan, William; McQuaid, John (1952). "Scottish Composers". Con Brio. Retrieved 2008-06-05. [permanent dead link]
  10. ^ "My Job in Wartime (From a radio broadcast in Features Programmes and Topical talks).". Retrieved 2007-11-14. [permanent dead link]
  11. ^ "Scotland's Music" (PDF). BBC. 21 October 2007. Retrieved 2008-06-07. 
  12. ^ "Erik Chisholm: Songs for a Year and a Day". Scottish Music Centre. 2003. Retrieved 2008-06-08. 
  13. ^ a b Walker, Agnes (1965). "Dr Erik Chisholm: an appreciation". The Edinburgh Tatler. Retrieved 2008-06-05. [permanent dead link]
  14. ^ Maynardville - History Archived 8 March 2016 at the Wayback Machine.
  15. ^ Mears, Caroline; May, James. "'Chisholm, Erik'". Grove Music Online. Retrieved 2008-06-05. 
  16. ^ Willoughby, Guy. "Erik Chisholm And The Future Of South African Opera". Retrieved 2007-11-14. [permanent dead link]
  17. ^ "Composer in Interview: Ronald Stevenson - a Scot in 'emergent Africa'" (PDF). Retrieved 2007-09-28. 
  18. ^ Gasser, M., "Ronald Stevenson, Composer-Pianist : An Exegetical Critique from a Pianistic Perspective" (Edith Cowan University Press, Western Australia, 2013)
  19. ^ "Chisholm remembered in centenary competition". 23 (36). Monday Paper. 22 November 2004. Archived from the original on 14 July 2014. Retrieved 2007-09-28. 
  20. ^ Sutherland, Colin Scott. "Review of Erik Chisholm, Piano music". Retrieved 2007-09-28. 
  21. ^ a b Jones, Michael (2000). "A lecture given by Michael Jones at the Ronald Stevenson Symposium". Retrieved 2007-08-15. [permanent dead link]
  22. ^ Purser, John. "Overview of Chisholm". Retrieved 2008-06-05. [permanent dead link]
  23. ^ Tyrrell, John (January 1972). "Janáček's 'Fate'". The Musical Times. The Musical Times. 113 (1547): 34–37. doi:10.2307/957619. JSTOR 957619. 
  24. ^ "Scottish International Piano Competition". Archived from the original on 29 January 2008. Retrieved 2007-09-28. 
  25. ^ a b "Biography Launch Event". Retrieved 2010-06-12. [permanent dead link]
  26. ^ "Inventory of Ronald Stevenson's Musicological correspondence" (PDF). National Library of Scotland: Manuscripts Division. 2000. p. 32. Retrieved 2008-06-07. 
  27. ^ a b c d e f g McLachlan, Murray (2003). "Unsung heroes, Making Time". Piano. Retrieved 2008-03-24. [permanent dead link]


Further reading[edit]

  • Chisholm, Morag, 'Erik Chisholm and The Trojans', Musicweb, 2003.
  • Galloway, D., 'Dr Erik Chisholm: a retrospective profile', Opus, Vol. 1, No. 1 (1966).
  • Glasser, S., 'Professor Erik Chisholm', Res Musicae, Vol. 6, No. 4 (1960), 5–6.
  • Hinton, Alistair, 'Kaikhosru Sorabji and Erik Chisholm', Jagger Journal, 10 (1989/90), 20-35.
  • Pulvermacher, G., 'Chaucer into opera', Opera, Vol. 13 (1962), 187–8.
  • Saunders, W., 'Erik Chisholm', MT, Vol. 73 (1932), 508–9.
  • Saunders, W., 'Scottish chiefs, no. XV: a chief composer', Scots Magazine, Vol. 19 (1933), 17–20.
  • Scott-Sutherland, C., 'A peek into Erik Chisholm's archives', British Music, Vol. 21 (1999), 67–71.
  • Shephard, D., 'Erik Chisholm's new piano concerto', Scottish Music and Drama (1949), 25.
  • Walker, A., 'Erik Chisholm', Stretto, Vol. 6, No. 1 (summer 1986).
  • Wright, K., 'Erik Chisholm: a Tribute', Composer, Vol. 17 (Oct 1965), 34–5.