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Erik Chisholm

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Erik Chisholm

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)
Parents John Chisholm and Elizabeth Macleod

Erik William Chisholm (4 January 1904 – 8 June 1965) was a Scottish 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

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 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 [3]

Scottish career and World War II

After his education, Chishom'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 Hindemith, Delius, Bax, Medtner, Szymanowski, Ireland and Bush, and invited many of them to Scotland to perform their works.[9]

At the outbreak of [3]

South African career

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 in 1950, and pursued an international conducting career.[14]

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 in 1954,[15] 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.[16][17]

Later years and legacy

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."[18] 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".[19]

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.[20] 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,[21] 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.[22] 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.[23]

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.[24] 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.[24] His widow, Lillias, married the clarinettist John Forbes.[25] 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 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.[20]

Pianist Murray McLachlan divided Chisholm's works into four periods: the Early Period, the "Scottish" Period, the Neoclassical Period and the "Hindustani" Period.[26] 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.[26]

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.[26] 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.[26] 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.[26]

His "Hindustani" Period reflects Chisholm's love of the East, the occult and his friendship with Sorabji.[26] 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.[26]

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. 
  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. 
  7. ^ "Full biography of Erik Chisholm". Scottish Music Centre. Retrieved 2007-09-28. 
  8. ^ "Obituary" 106 (1470). The Musical Times. August 1965. p. 623.  
  9. ^ McLellan, William; McQuaid, John (1952). "Scottish Composers". Con Brio. Retrieved 2008-06-05. 
  10. ^ "My Job in Wartime (From a radio broadcast in Features Programmes and Topical talks).". Retrieved 2007-11-14. 
  11. ^ "Scotland's Music". 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. 
  14. ^ Mears, Caroline; May, James. "'Chisholm, Erik'". Grove Music Online. Retrieved 2008-06-05. 
  15. ^ Willoughby, Guy. "Erik Chisholm And The Future Of South African Opera". Retrieved 2007-11-14. 
  16. ^ "'"Composer in Interview: Ronald Stevenson - a Scot in 'emergent Africa. Retrieved 2007-09-28. 
  17. ^ Gasser, M., "Ronald Stevenson, Composer-Pianist : An Exegetical Critique from a Pianistic Perspective" (Edith Cowan University Press, Western Australia, 2013)
  18. ^ "Chisholm remembered in centenary competition" 23 (36). Monday Paper. 22 November 2004. Retrieved 2007-09-28. 
  19. ^ Sutherland, Colin Scott. "Erik Chisholm, Piano music"Review of . Retrieved 2007-09-28. 
  20. ^ a b Jones, Michael (2000). "A lecture given by Michael Jones at the Ronald Stevenson Symposium". Retrieved 2007-08-15. 
  21. ^ Purser, John. "Overview of Chisholm". Retrieved 2008-06-05. 
  22. ^ Tyrrell, John (January 1972). "Janáček's 'Fate'". The Musical Times (The Musical Times) 113 (1547): 34–37.  
  23. ^ "Scottish International Piano Competition". Archived from the original on 29 January 2008. Retrieved 2007-09-28. 
  24. ^ a b "Biography Launch Event". Retrieved 2010-06-12. 
  25. ^ "Inventory of Ronald Stevenson's Musicological correspondence" (PDF). National Library of Scotland: Manuscripts Division. 2000. p. 32. Retrieved 2008-06-07. 
  26. ^ a b c d e f g McLachlan, Murray (2003). "Unsung heroes, Making Time". Piano. Retrieved 2008-03-24. 


  • Biography of Sheila Chisholm on FMR
  • Newspaper Articles on Erik Chisholm
  • Erik Chisholm
  • Review of a CD of Erik Chisholm's works by Philip Scowcroft
  • Review of the CD of Songs for a Year and a Day by David Hackbridge Johnson
  • , Vol. 73, No. 1072. (1 June 1932), pp. 508-509.The Musical TimesWilliam Saunders, "Erik Chishom",

Further reading

  • 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.
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