A Selection of Articles About Erik Chisholm

View From The Bench

Lillias Scott Forbes, daughter of Francis George Scott and Chisholm's second wife, is a Scottish poet of considerable renown. Her most recent book View from the Bench published in 2011, is subtitled My life in Poetry.

We publish here an unpublished appraisal of her first husband, Erik Chisholm.

I suppose I was only ten years old or so and my sister, Francise fourteen when I first became aware of the presence of Erik Chisholm leaping up our tenement stairs in Woodville Gardens, Langside, Glasgow probably two steps at a time, his agility not far removed from that of a ballet dancer, or perhaps more in character with the pirouettes of a Dervish friar.

Erik's father, who had a well-established painter and decorator's business at Charing Cross, Glasgow would appear to have handed down to his children, more especially to Erik, his zeal for precise and essential time-keeping: when he arrived at our 'new' house at Jordan hill with his squad of painter-men to restore the faded colour scheme on the dining-room walls he had no intention of permitting any time- wasters to be let loose on the job, this rule applying as much to himself as to the employees. 'Slap it on, boys — slap it on!' I can hear him yet, not unlike my image of Erik, my dear husband-to-be, baton in hand whipping along strings, woods, brass and percussion in those most thrilling early bars in the 'Bartered Bride' overture — the opera he conducted and directed, one of several premières including Berlioz' 'Les Troyens' in the early forties — these for Glasgow Grand Opera Society.

Of course, some years earlier he was already on the way to mastering his piano technique to the extent of giving recitals both in Glasgow and other Scottish venues and later widening his audience territory with recital tours in Nova Scotia, Canada. In the later twenties and early thirties our family became more acquainted both with Erik and his wife, Diana and family, while Erik himself delighted in bringing his portable cine equipment to show a range of early films of note, including, 'Dr Caligari', 'Kameradschaff' and a few of the current 'excesses' (Erik's word) of the Marx Brothers, of which he was particularly fond.

From the start, Erik believed in 'success', so much so that one could not imagine 'failure' in any degree beleaguering his efforts to play, compose, conduct, teach or direct the most ambitious productions from the days of his early musical activities in Glasgow, notably as the driving force behind 'The Active Society for the Propagation of Contemporary Music' founded in 1929, through his years as Professor and Dean of the Faculty of Music at Cape Town, culminating in his outstanding success as conductor/director of Cape Town University Opera in the far-reaching venues of Bloemfontein, Durban and Windhoek with brilliant productions of 'Othello', 'Don’ Giovanni', 'Turandot' and 'Tosca'.

His range of musical scores is nothing less than astonishing: including four symphonies, six ballets, twelve operas, several successfully mounted in Cape Town and the U.K., together with numerous works for concerto together with choral pieces. It was solely due to his energies and dedication that under the auspices of the Active Society the music of Berlioz, Bartok, Sorabji and Medtner was introduced to the British public.

In addition to appraising these rare achievements we might be tempted to inquire into the psychological make-up of this 'fireball of energy', as one of his former students was to describe him, who succeeded in pushing forward the boundaries of musical perceptions through the earlier decades of the twentieth century. His endeavours continued unabated from his activities on the Glasgow musical scene all the way through to his academic years in Cape Town introducing to public notice the influence of Shostakovich, Bartok, Webern, Sorabji and other innovators in the field of post-war musical composition.

Having gained his doctorate from Edinburgh he was to find considerable difficulty in landing a post to suit his outstanding capabilities. The next move took him to the post of Professor of Music at Cape Town, where he became Dean of the Faculty. On arrival there he lost no time in exercising his talent for organising musical events — his was no run-of-the-mill gift. With Dr Chisholm on the rostrum the occasional hold-up might occur during rehearsal — no time must be lost — confrontation between singer and conductor or of course instrumentalist would be brought smartly to a brisk conclusion — silence reigning for some heart-stopping moments as combatants faced one another — then came the fractious rat-a-tat of the baton on the conductor's stand followed by a scarcely audible sigh of relief from the ranks — now the conductor raised his baton — peace reigned once more while the music was restored to its rightful place — into the heights!

But what of my own attitude to all this charivari, this whirligig of music- making amidst a repletion of musical sounds escaping from the rehearsal rooms to drift and echo along the austere corridors of the College of Music (formerly known as 'Strubenholm' with its own echoes of Empire days)?

As a child I had failed dismally in my efforts to master the piano, the only one of F.G.'s four children to have been sent to piano lessons. Miss Dalziel who lived nearby did her utmost, I am convinced, to bring on her backward pupil. (My sister Francise succeeded in playing with a natural musical talent under instruction from our mother.) However my own unsuccessful attempts at least did not lessen the fascination that music already held for me from the age of about seven. I was daily listening to my father producing delightful sounds which I was later to recognise as characteristic snatches of Mozart, Beethoven, Wagner, etc. and again I knew the thrill of hearing my mother's voice adding her fine mezzo tones to my father's accompaniment. In due time I was recognising the style of Faure, Mussorgsky, Hugo Wolf, Schumann or Tchaikovsky and of course new chromatic colours leaping from the keys as my father sought out the preferred harmonies for his own requirements.

I suppose that by my early teens (or perhaps even earlier) I had an inkling of the contrasting natures of these two, my father and the other undeniable musician who lived down the road!: indeed not only of their natures but also of their conflicting points of view and approach to what constituted those elements that were integral to the greatest of musical works.

Very rarely did these two musicians get together for lengthy discussion on almost any subject (being much too busy with their own separate activities). Noticeably lacking were the sessions on musical matters which my father indulged in whole-heartedly with so many of his intimate friends. F.G.'s protagonists in discussion did not necessarily spring from a musical background. Into this category falls Christopher Grieve who, despite the musical content obviously essential in his early lyric poetry still had little or no ear for music per se. The story goes that while my father and Christopher were seeing poet George Bruce off on the bus for Dundee (where at that time Bruce held a teaching post) F.G. suddenly fired off the question to Bruce: 'D'you know who the greatest music-critic in the world is?' 'No', replied Bruce. 'Chris, here', said Scott, 'he's tone deaf!' Be that as it may, it was a characteristic dagger-thrust from Scott who knew his man! It should be understood that the two enjoyed a relationship of which the main ingredient would be a generous measure of banter, evidence of their Border background, both men being totally immune to taking offence with a deep understanding of one another with little if any link to their pupil / teacher relationship of early years. I mention Grieve as one example of non-musician with whom my father could talk endlessly on the subject of music — its links with poetry providing a fascinating subject which held their attention spell-bound for composer and poet.

Other examples come to mind amongst my father's circle: philosopher George Elder Davie, F.G.'s cousin, the artist and principal of London Central School of Arts and Crafts William Johnstone, Benno Schotz, sculptor, George Campbell Hay, poet, to name but a few: none of these were musicians by profession but music found an essential place in many of their discursive meetings.

This could not be said of my father's relations with Erik Chisholm, who, unlike F.G., although enlivened by many subjects out with music, still found satisfaction precisely in music composition, the chief object of his concentration. In the case of F.G. he was engaged solely in the process of composition.

In contrast Erik, who of course also shared a burning interest in musical composition, still derived much satisfaction in organising events such as the production of operas, conducting works of particular interest for him, while teaching every aspect of musical knowledge, work requiring not only immense physical energy (which Erik possessed in plenty) but a deep acumen and insight not only into the interpretation of say, opera but into business aspects of mounting musical events including an understanding of financial requirements — in these matters Erik was nothing short of expert. Obviously my father had neither inclination nor zeal for such tasks.

But of course F.G. was well aware of the difficulties facing the presentation of new music in the concert hall. A poet's work can appear in print for all to read, likewise the artist can display his work (not always easy to find space!) but the composer has to find interpreter, accompanist, singer, etc., etc. — a formidable task in face of a public yearning for the 'auld sangs' of yesteryear and already resenting intrusions of the 'enfants terrible' from the world of new art forms.

Erik Chisholm was uniquely the champion to take on these challenges; we have already covered his progress and astonishing achievements. F.G. Scott was too much of a realist not to realise this and acknowledge Erik's efforts to bring his (F.G.'s) songs to a wider audience. Despite difference of outlook they each were masters in their own field.

Another of Erik's remarkable gifts was his ability to instil belief in a student's potential talent, that’ s to say giving the student a confidence in his own powers. Several instances of this I recall. A dilatory student with little to do being confronted by his professor as he left the practice room: 'You see this trumpet', queries the professor. 'Yes.' 'Right, you see it has a bash in it. Do you play trumpet?' 'No, sir.' 'Then take it home, get the dent in it sorted out and turn up with it for Monday's orchestral rehearsal.' Like most of his kind the student did as directed: this one hint of action was enough, a spark had been lit — 'perhaps I could make a go of this!' And like many another apprentice tottering on the door-sill of indecision he was to find an awakening zeal for self-improvement. Positive thinking indeed!

The death of my father in 1958 was to leave the family in an unusual situation of uncertainty. By now my brothers, George and Malcolm had married: Malcolm and Mary had moved to Milngavie in the north of the city, our older brother, George and his wife Norma had taken up residence in St Andrews, while my sister, Francise enjoyed family life in Harrogate, Yorkshire.

My mother and I continued in the family home in Jordan Hill, the quiet daily routine being broken by welcome visits from family and friends. However, a career in teaching for which I had trained at University and Jordan Hill College was never going to be a suitable occupation for me. When I ultimately took up a teaching post I was exhausted most days on returning from work, with fearful thoughts of future years in the profession looming ahead. I had no energy for seeking more attractive pursuits while my mother ran the risk of losing all contact with things musical — such was the change that came about with my father's death.

In 1962 Erik arrived in Scotland on sabbatical leave from Cape Town. After much consideration I agreed to accompany him back to South Africa and in 1963 my mother joined us for a month's stay. Meantime I was studying singing with Madame Adelphi Armholdt at the College of Music: Erik had obtained a divorce and we married in June of that year. Erik of course never knew the meaning of a 'break' from work, not being adjusted to enjoying leisure moments: his mind was firmly set on making best use of available time. Both my mother and I were impressed with this indication of resolve in Erik.

The musical scene in Cape Town was of course quite different from the set-up at home in Glasgow. The new order of things rescued me from a stifling inertia which never started to feed my natural talents (such as I had). My demands were few — to sit silently in the same room at the same table sharing rare moments with a composer was for me always a singular delight. After all I had served my apprenticeship in my father's company during so many evenings sitting beside him as he penned so carefully his latest work, I was already well groomed for my role as composer's aide: my mother knew that when she waved me off to my new home in South Africa. And I believed that my mother's world of music was still as alive as ever.

It should be said that F.G.S. and Erik had entirely separate and diverse outlooks on the subject of music. I don't remember ever questioning any view held by my father — on any subject! I never needed persuasion to accept his ideas — truth was I felt in tune with his cast of mind, our enthusiasms sparked off by the same few bars of music or so often the same line or lines of poetry. In other words we thought alike, especially on music or poetry, and the link between these two. It was a question of an unhindered movement of the spirit. Only at the most precious moment in a musical phrase or poetic idea do the eyes prick and the tears rise. I was never to experience this feeling with Erik.

I shall never forget my astonishment on hearing of Erik's hope and expectation of asking Christopher to supply him with words suitable for him to set to music. He had apparently had this arrangement in mind and was meaning to approach Christopher and suggest he might write the libretti for one or more operas. I was certain that Christopher would never take on such a commitment. There was also the question of another project to be entitled: 'Robert Burns, his life, his loves, his songs' for which Erik declared he would enlist Christopher to arrange the text. I was left speechless at this idea on thinking of my father's settings of Burns' lyrics which the Scottish public already viewed with suspicion as they resented any new versions potentially taking the place of the well-established traditional airs which in their view must not be unseated at all costs. Christopher and Erik were worlds away from each other.

My father's character was rooted in integrity, a quality that Chris Grieve ascribed to my own work in the writing of poetry. Integrity — a quality I inherited from my father, himself born to compose songs, each one a manifestation of that same quality.