This is an all-or-nothing project. I can hardly imagine anyone wanting just a single CD of this collection of piano music. I know that I am pained at only having four of the projected six volumes of this fascinating but virtually unknown music to review! If I were to put my cards on the table and give a ‘heads up’ overview of my thoughts on this cycle it would be as follows: this is possibly one of the most important single contributions to British piano music alongside that of Bax, Ireland, Sorabji, Hoddinott and Cyril Scott. It is fair to say that the ‘unknown-ness’ of this music will mean that it is a very long time before it takes its rightful place in the recognised canons. My prime concern is simply this – I fear that these CDs will not be bought by the general musical public – they are hardly likely to be played on Classic FM, for example. So I guess the buying public will be those who know something of Chisholm’s music – a precious few, I imagine – or those lucky enough to have come under the influence of those ‘precious few’ and have been introduced to this music.
In spite of a number of ‘picturesque’ Scottish and Celtic titles to many of these works, Chisholm’s music is no crass ‘tartanry.’ This is not pastiche highlan’ music that is meant to evoke a sentimental view of the land north of the border. And as a Scot I have heard plenty of that kind. Chisholm’s art is obviously influenced by his native musical sounds and rhythms, but the result can only be defined as a part of the Western tradition of both Schoenberg and Bartók. A note on the Chisholm Website explains this well – “He is also alone in his attempt to infuse into symphonic structure the forms of Celtic music-lore (e.g. the pibroch) as distinct from the introduction into present-day forms of merely discursive Celtic atmosphere.”
First of all a few biographical notes about Chisholm. I should preface my remarks by noting the excellent Website that is managed by his daughter, Morag and also the forthcoming biography, Chasing A Restless Muse: Erik Chisholm, Scottish Modernist (1904-1965) by Dr John Purser.
Erik Chisholm was born in the Cathcart suburb of Glasgow on 4 January 1904. Apparently he was a kind of ‘wunderkind’ who was composing music before he could read and also writing poems and ‘novels’ whilst still in junior school. He studied with Herbert Walton, the erstwhile organist at Glasgow Cathedral and Lev Pouishnoff and then at the Scottish Academy of Music between 1918 and 1920. After this, he toured the United States and Canada before returning to Edinburgh and studying under the great Sir Donald Tovey. He received his Doctorate of Music from Edinburgh in 1934. During this time he was also the conductor of the Glasgow Grand Opera Society which gave under his direction a number of first British performances, including Mozart’s Idomeneo , Berlioz’s The Trojans (still remembered by the older generation when I was a young man in the early 1970s in Glasgow), Dvorák’s Jakobin and Moonies’ Weird of Colbar . Chisholm did seem to have a penchant for setting up groups and societies – but these were all means to an end for his enthusiasm for new music. He founded the Active Society for the Propagation of Contemporary Music in 1929; this was followed by the Barony Opera Society in 1936. During the Second World War he was the conductor of the Carl Rosa Opera Company and was a director of ENSA in South East Asia. After the war Chisholm was appointed as Director of the South African College of Music at Cape Town. Once again he was instrumental in promoting both new music and opera and set up the University Opera Company and the University Opera School. Erik Chisholm died in Cape Town on 8 June 1965, aged only 60 years.
Apart from his massive corpus of piano music, Chisholm’s works include an opera, based on The Canterbury Tales , two ballets, The Forsaken Merman and The Pied Piper of Hamelin , two symphonies, two piano concertos, and a violin concerto. There is a huge catalogue of other music, including tone poems, chamber pieces, songs and choral works.
Interestingly the author of the Grove article suggests that “It was as an opera composer that he produced his best work: this is particularly evident in the trilogy Murder in Three Keys and in the three acts that constitute Canterbury Tales . The latter is arguably his best stage work and a good example of his dramatic flair.”
Yet for the majority of listeners and enthusiasts of British music the only work that is known is the fine Second Symphony ‘Ossian’ recently released on Dutton Records.
There are three things that make this review a rather tentative one. Firstly, as noted above, only the first four of six CDs have been released. As they are not issued chronologically, it is difficult to build up a picture of the composer’s development. Secondly, still on chronology, there are a number of works on these CDs that do not have dates of composition in the text and furthermore I was unable to find another source of a dating. The Chisholm WebPages do not yet show this information. And thirdly, the biography is not yet available, and there is little else about Erik Chisholm in the literature – either online or in ‘textbooks’ or journals. Any reviewer is entirely dependent on John Purser’s text in the CD cover notes.
I guess that a full review of these works will not be possible for at least another year or so.
In a top-line overview, it is fair to say that there appear to be two key divisions of Erik Chisholm’s piano music – those works with an obvious Scottish or at least Celtic influence. And secondly, there are works that appear to be more universal. For example the Sonatinas and the Cameos . Although I believe that this is in many ways an ‘academic’ divide.
It is important to note that Chisholm was the first ‘serous’ composer to devote time to the study of the Highland bagpipe tunes known as Piobaireachd. This systematic study of these works has resulted in well over a hundred piano pieces based on these tunes. William Saunders, writing in The Musical Times in 1932 suggests that these Piobaireachd are “curiously rhythmical works, with enormous potentialities for the expression of every phrase … of what to a Scottish Highlander must ever sound as the artistic manifestation of what he regards as the noblest of all emotional experiences.”
I feel that the best place to begin a consideration of Chisholm’s piano music may well be with the Straloch Suite . This was completed in 1933 in a number of incarnations – including arrangements for full orchestra and also for string orchestra. There is a somewhat convoluted compositional history, but the present Suite has three movements that are based on tunes from Robert Gordon of Straloch’s lute book of 1627.
The opening ‘grave’ of the first movement certainly seems a million miles away from Scottish music until the composer introduces a tune called ‘Ostende’ and makes contrapuntal and fugal play with it. There is certainly a balance here between the serious and the humorous. The second movement is a working out of three tunes from the lute book – including an attractive love song based on An thou wert my own thing . The last movement appears to nod to Bartók. However John Purser points out that the ‘off-beat’ chords are actually in the original Straloch version.
The interesting thing about this Suite is that the material used by the composer does not overwhelm. It is obvious that he is using ‘Scottish’ tunes – but they do not detract from the logical and often quite involved structures and constructions that are fundamentally beholden to those of twentieth-century music. The listeners need not concern themselves with identifying tunes – in fact I believe that this may detract from enjoyment of this piece.
I agree with David Hackbridge Johnson writing in MusicWeb that it would be good to hear the other incarnation of this Suite – perhaps on another CD of his orchestral music from Dutton Epoch?
Another good entry point to Chisholm’s piano music are the three Sonatinas . In fact he composed six examples of this genre: presumably the other three will be presented on succeeding CD issues. They are undated and were given a group title of E Praeterita , which means ‘From the Past’. The melodic material used by Chisholm in these works are from mainland Europe rather than from the Highlands of Scotland. For example, the three movements of the First Sonatina are effectively contrapuntal variations on O Gloriosa Domina by the 16th century Spanish composer Luis de Narvaez. The first movement of the Second Sonatina is derived from a lute Fantasia by Luis de Milan. The Third is slightly different being based on four ‘ricercars’. The word ‘ricercare’ means ‘to research’ but is applied to musical forms that are largely contrapuntal and often academic in nature. However, in this case there is nothing dry and dusty about this music. One last thought about these Sonatinas . Many pianists were brought up playing these ‘small sonatas’, such as those by Clementi and Kuhlau and are therefore associated with didactic music and perhaps are regarded as being ‘easy’. It is best to see these short works in the terms of the Ravel and Ireland Sonatinas : there is nothing simple or technically naïve about this music. They are miniature masterpieces.
One of the most fascinating collections of pieces on these four CDs are the Cameos: Portraits . These are amongst the earliest pieces presented here. They were published around 1926 but are only a selection from a greater number of Cameos that remain unpublished or in draft form. Each of these is given a somewhat picturesque title – for example the first is called A Jewel from the Sidereal Casket , the fourth, The Companion to Sirius and the penultimate is called The Sweating Infantry – which is based on some words from Walt Whitman. These eight pieces are truly original, do not rely on any published melodies or tunes and exploit the piano to the full. The sixth cameo is interesting. It is called the Procession of the Crabs . John Purser suggests that the image for this work may have come to Chisholm whilst on holiday at that playground of Glaswegians – Millport on the Isle of Cumbrae in the Clyde Estuary. This piece “marches determinedly, using [a] variety of harmonic density to help punctuate the rhythm”. These eight pieces are entertaining, sophisticated and technically competent pieces that surely deserve their place in the repertoire.
Another work that does not appear to involve ‘quoted’ Scottish tunes as such are the enigmatic Portraits . However, the influence of native music is never too far away – often presented in a distorted light, but revealing themselves to the careful listener. These six pieces were written over a five year period between 1924 and 1929. The first, an Epitaphe for “a little child who left this world just as soon as he had entered it” is absolutely full of despair. Chisholm fills this music with dissonances that resolve themselves into Debussy-like parallel triads.
The composer noted that the second Portrait , Melodie Chiaroscura , was “from some strangely foreign parts. Here Nature revels in colour. There are bright liquid blues tapering to an infinity of ether; scarlet towers bursting violently into blazes of … purple: yellow parts scored symmetrically with jet black parallels side by side with webs of high-pitched undulation in pink. There is no unity of colour …” The listener can ignore the density of this text and just enjoy the impressionistic sounds that seem to unite the Far East, France and Scotland.
Porgy is quite short: it is based on a passage from Du Bose Heyward’s eponymous novel on which Gershwin based his great opera. The piece is dedicated to Hugh S. Roberton, the conductor of the famous Glasgow Orpheus Choir. It is really a musical description of a procession of African-American ‘Repent ye saith the Lorders’ on their annual parade. It is a tremendous tour de force .
Agnes and the Maultasch is another bleak and quite dissonant piece that the composer instructs to be played ‘hauntingly’. It is based on ‘fairy tale’ called ‘The Ugly Duchess’ which is full of death and ghosts.
Suss communes with Maimi would appear to be the last of the Portraits to be completed. It is dedicated to Lion Feuchtwänger who was the author of a novel called Jud Suss – published in English as ‘Power’. As a novel it was intended to expose the racist policies of the Nazis. The ‘plot’ of the music is really a meditation on Suss, in the form of a ghost. He is in prison and is a man “who has never yet felt an emotion except hardness of heart and hate is overwhelmed with tenderness and his house of cards crumples to the ground”. All because Suss has been visited by his beautiful daughter Maimi.
The last Portrait is exactly that: A Portrait of a Fashionable Gentlewoman . This is another complex piece that explores two separate musical strands. Firstly there is the pastiche waltz and secondly the growing complexity of the musical language. The latter moves it far away from being simply a parody of contemporary salon music. It is a fine conclusion to a difficult but rewarding set of pieces.
The first of the two Sonatas presented on these discs does not have a Scottish theme, but was inspired by a landscape no less Celtic – that of Cornwall. The Sonata was written around 1926 and was composed after a holiday with his piano teacher Lev Pouishnoff in a cottage in the north of the county. There is no doubt that this is a late romantic work – that owes more to Rachmaninov, than to his teacher, who is reputed to have hated the work. Pouishnoff felt that it was not in tune with the ‘modernism’ of the day. Furthermore he did not approve of, what to him, were naïve subtitles to each movement: The Wet Scythes, Blown Spume, Chin and Tongue Waggle and With Clogs On . To take an example: the last movement is a little bit of a misnomer. This is no Percy Grainger concert show-stopper. This is not Handel walking down the Strand – but is really a huge rhapsody very much in Chisholm’s own extravagant style. John Purser is correct in suggesting that we regard this as “a youthful show-piece rather than a major work …” and notes that “The work is of interest as a kind of compositional groundwork for later developments of Scottish traditional material-notably in the tremendous Sonata in A minor . Its only fault is being a little too massive for its own good, and maybe there is a lack of light and shade and technical contrast?
I enjoyed this work, in spite of it not being fully in the Chisholm style. But surely, this work has “moments of beauty and mystery” that raise it above the mundane. It may not be a masterpiece – yet it surely deserves its place as a part of this exploration of Chisholm’s music. And one last thought, the composer himself thought well of the piece – he re-worked two of its movements in his First Symphony – surely another candidate for revival?
An integral part of these four CDs, and I suspect the subsequent releases too, is the group of works which are by and large arrangements of Scottish tunes. For example, there are the ten pieces from the 24 Preludes from the True Edge of the Great World , which refer to the Hebrides. John Purser sums up these preludes by pointing out that they are much more than “simple settings of traditional melodies. As the title ‘ Preludes ‘ implies, they are more in the form of meditations or improvisations on some aspect of a melody which may only appear in full once in the whole piece.” All these pieces have colourful titles, such as Sea Sorrow , The Sheiling and Sea Tangle . I would suggest that the listener play Track 9 Rudha Ba-eon to get flavour of this cycle of Preludes . This is mood music and certainly manages to create a dreamlike impression of seascape on the Isles at Edge of the World. One hopes that the other 14 Preludes will feature in the next issues in this collection. Interestingly some nine of these Preludes were orchestrated by the composer.
As an excellent example of the numerous collections of Scottish tunes I want to consider the The Scottish Airs for Children which are based on a certain Patrick MacDonald’s A Collection of Highland Vocal Airs . However, there is a difficulty here. How does a listener approach some 25 pieces – the shortest being some twenty one seconds long, the longest being just over two minutes? I guess that one could just let them wash over you whilst staring out the window or enjoying a glass of Glenfiddich. But that would be to do these well crafted pieces a disservice. I think that there is a need for a little effort on the listener’s part here. I would suggest a study of the programme notes – reading the brief descriptions of each piece and then deciding to listen to perhaps half a dozen. I give one example – my favourite. This is No. 7 based on the tune Loch Bhraoin , or Loch Broom to non-Gaelic speakers! Purser writes that this loch, which is “on the north-west coast of Scotland, [is] here coloured with chromatic harmonies, as seen through a rainbow prism”.
Furthermore it is useful to note the raison d’être of these pieces. They were dedicated ‘For the Children’ and therefore represent a gift to his three daughters. However, the important thing to recall is that he had the intention of publishing them in three graded volumes. John Purser notes that these “are settings of great beauty, their sensitivities enhanced rather than diminished by the directness and simplicity of treatment required for children.” I agree with him that these are superb and that their neglect is incomprehensible. I hope that it will soon be possible to purchase the sheet music for these delightful and deserving works.
Other collections of ‘folk-music’ include the Airs from the Patrick MacDonald Collection which was published in 1784. Chisholm had found a copy of this work as a boy and it remained with him throughout his life. He also used this book as a source for the Petite Suite . Once again these are all short pieces that need to be explored slowly rather than just listened to from end to end.
Finally there are a number of Piobaireachd which are effectively bagpipe tunes integrated into a fully twentieth-century pianistic language. These tunes are gathered from traditional sources and may well be battle songs, songs of welcome and laments. All these arrangements, realisations, re-workings and inventions are worthy of our attention, but I must confess that they need to be explored in bite-size chunks, else I think the effect would pall and the listener would lose a lot of the charm, the wit and sheer magic. It would be hard to listen to all Rachmaninov’s Preludes at one sitting. Chisholm’s Piobaireachd needs similar attention.
Lastly I want to consider the Sonata in A ‘An Riobain Dearg ‘ (The Red Ribbon) which was composed in 1939. It is important to realise that this present version is in fact an abridged edition made by Murray McLachlan. It is not stated in the programme notes as to whether these are the pianist’s suggestions or whether they are based on suggested cuts in the score by Chisholm. However, the unabridged version is available on DRD 0219, so a comparison can made. I have not heard this disc. For me, this Sonata is my abiding memory amongst all the works on these CDs. This is an undoubted masterpiece.
I understand that the Sonata was never published and was lost for a number of years. As it stands in this recording it is a massive work although the original was some six minutes longer. I guess that John Purser is not wrong in suggesting that “nothing like this extraordinary adventure in pianism has been penned before or since …” He mentions the “extravagances of Sorabji” and the “bravura textures of Busoni” as possible comparisons. But this is to do the work a disservice. I remember the old story about Elvis Presley being asked who he sings like. He replied, “I don’t sing like no-one.” And this is surely the watch-word for this piece – there is nothing like it in the repertoire. This is a work that is largely derived from Scottish sources, but never lapses into a sentimental type of Brigadoon musical landscape.
The opening movement is based on a Piobaireachd which is in effect a set of variations on an original bagpipe theme. Chisholm presents the tune in exact transcription at the start of the work. This is a complex movement that owes little to the classical idea of theme and variations. It is a journey outwards – it does not return to the source, save with a few tentative reminiscences.
The scherzo is a stunning example of Chisholm’s pianism – a driving irregular rhythm is maintained throughout only relieved by quotations from another bagpipe tune – The Prince’s Salute . It is exhausting music to listen to – but totally satisfying.
The slow movement is a ‘lament.’ In fact, it commemorates the loss of the submarine Thetis which sank during her diving trials just before the outbreak of the Second World War. There were only four survivors out of a crew of 103. This is a ‘watery’ piece that sometimes tips it hat to Debussy – especially with Chisholm’s use of the whole-tone scale. It’s heart-achingly beautiful music. John Purser suggests that it closes with a sense of pity rather than consolation: this sums up a deep and tragic movement.
Yet all this sadness is put to flight with an extrovert and highly dramatic ‘allegro moderato’. In this movement tunes tumble over each other. These are the effusions of a confident man who, to quote the programme notes, celebrates “Chisholm as a Scot, Chisholm as a composer and Chisholm as a virtuoso pianist.” But one last addition to this list – lest we exaggerate the Scottish influence – this is music that stands its own ground in the corpus of European piano music from the Twentieth and any and every other century.
It is clear to see that Murray McLachlan had made an important contribution to the literature of British Music. He has decided to make, as Colin Scott-Sutherland notes, Chisholm’s music his own. And that is what was surely needed – a champion of this great catalogue of excellent but virtually unknown music. Moreover, McLachlan has been well served by the fine recording made at Chetham’s School that presents this music with the highest sound quality. Finally the learned programme notes are a joy to read. In fact, they are absolutely necessary, due to the lack of information about and criticism of Chisholm’s music. John Purser certainly gives the listener a fine preview of his up and coming biography. This will surely be a remarkable and important musical study.
Lastly I look forward to hearing the subsequent CDs in this eye-opening cycle with great anticipation and enthusiasm. It is one of the musical discoveries and revelations of the Twenty-First century.
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