Erik Chisholm 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. He brought Bartok, Hindemith and Casella to Scotland, rescued Walton in a performance of Facade; and it was for him Sorabji deigned to perform his Opus Clavicembalisticum. He was a founder of the Celtic Ballet.
In his compositions, his knowledge and use of Scottish traditional music 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 Bartok in its depth of understanding and its daring.
His imaginative fertility and idiomatic adventure chased a restless muse whether in Scotland, the Far East or South Africa.
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. 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 and entrepreneur has never been properly presented, never mind assessed.
Music literally poured out of Erik Chisholm. Certainly we have been left with an enormous and excitingly varied legacy. Murray McLachlan, The Piano 2003.
He’s been called MacBartok. MacLiszt would fit too. But Chisholm is his own man. Geoff Brown, The Times 2002.
Erik Chisholm was a musician of rare capabilities. He was a pianist and organist, a conductor, a composer, a lecturer on music, an entrepreneur and administrator and to all these he brought a unique blend of originality, flair and energy. After an early start as a performing pianist, Chisholm established himself in Glasgow as an important influence on the progress of music in Scotland and Scottish music in general. He founded the Active Society for the Propagation of Contemporary Music and through this and the Glasgow Grand Opera Society; he brought many first performances to that city. Berlioz’ Les Troyens, for example, was first heard in the UK under his baton, as was Beatrice and Benedict and Mozart’s Idomeneo. He formed many other organisations including the Scottish Ballet Society and in the meantime composed prolifically. Chisholm’s passion for traditional Scottish music should also be noted.
Chisholm’s time in South Africa, notably as Principal of the South Africa College of Music and Professor of Music in Cape Town University, was equally productive. Here he focussed on the promotion of opera (including some of his own fascinating works) and introduced much new music to South Africa.
‘The most progressive composer that Scotland has produced.’ – Sir Arnold Bax.
‘The most brilliant of Scottish musicians.’ –Sir Hugh S Roberton.
‘The forgotten man of 20th Century Scottish Music.’– Kenneth Walton
‘Erik Chisholm (1904 – 1965) is the most interesting 20th-century Scots musician you’ve never heard of.’ – Grant Covell