One event you won’t find recorded in the CV of this composer, conductor, writer, administrator and teacher, who for 19 years was the impulsive professor at the head of UCT’s College of Music, was how he tried to take his ageing spaniel into a City Hall concert to hear the noted Johannesburg pianist Adolph Hallis play the Rachmaninov-Paganini rhapsody.
Now this happened to be one of Towser’s favourite piano pieces and, like many other regular concert-goers (for he went to all college concerts and opera rehearsals at the Little Theatre with his master), no sooner had he settled down at his feet, than he shut his eyes.But his entry had been spotted by a “granite-jawed, beady-eyed, lofty usher” who marched up to my dad and in a stage whisper that reached far beyond the stage, told him that NO DOGS WERE ALLOWED in the City Hall and he must be removed forthwith.
By this time the audience was showing a lively interest in the scene. Rather than hold up the concert, Chisholm’s wife Diana ("mad as hell" he later claimed) rose from her seat, took Towser by the lead and led him out.
Subsequently my dad wrote a letter of complaint to the Town Clerk, the late Jan Luyt, on December 19, 1960, requesting that this irritating usher “who pushes around, holds back and commands with masterly authority and offensive efficiency” be replaced by someone more friendly. Luckily Luyt had a sense of humour. Replying on December 29, 1960, he wrote that it was impossible to make exceptions to the no-dog rule “however well-trained and musical Towser may be” and that the usher to whom Chisholm had referred “in rather uncomplimentary terms” was only doing his duty. But his letter ended warmly. “I hope by now that your temper, as well as Towser’s dignity, has been restored and that your good lady is no longer as mad as hell. If this is so, perhaps we may regard the matter as closed as I would not like anything to mar the good relationship which exists between us.”
A rumpus which created a good deal of amusement in Cape Town was when the UCT authorities ordered several large “alien” pines in the College grounds to be cut down. Chisholm erupted. He loved these trees and on his daily walk to work would leave under one tree an imperial mint for the local ants and a slice of toast for Ronnie the Rat. He retaliated by announcing that he would not conduct the college orchestra for the annual graduation ceremony. A silent graduation procession? How ghastly. The pressure to yield was enormous. Eventually he did, but on his own terms. He opened the programme with Trees and every item that followed was about forests and tree-planting ceremonies.
Probably his most famous controversy was over “The Bloemfontein Boneheads”. This was my father’s rude term for the executive members of the 1960 Union Festival Committee who turned down a unanimous suggestion from its advisory committee of musicians to stage the premiere of John Joubert’s opera Silas Marner. Instead they chose a tried and tested opera. My father roared into battle with his usual white-hot enthusiasm. He called the committee a bunch of “operatic boneheads” and because they were in Bloemfontein, well, they soon became known as the “Bloemfontein Boneheads”. In an article in the Sunday Times on July 5, 1959, he had another crack at the “BBs” (as they then were called) blaming them for being unable to distinguish between creative work and re-creative work. “Thus they are selecting operas merely to give big fancy parts to over-publicised South African singers such as Mimi Coertse.” He further suggested that the opera by Joubert (who lived in England) had been turned down because he was not “100% Afrikaner” and the opera was not about those “crushing Voortrekker bores”. He got away with the slight on Onse [Afrikaans for “Our”] Mimi but was forced to apologise for his remarks about the “worthy Voortrekkers.” “I mean of course,” he hurriedly explained, “that so diffuse a movement as the Voortrekkers is not a suitable subject for concentrated operatic treatment”. Eventually Silas Marner was given its world premiere in Cape Town by the UCT Opera School, with Albie Louw in the title role and my father conducting.
In his youth in Glasgow he was a virtuoso pianist and celebrated concert organist and an unsparing and witty music critic. He could have been a full-time writer but at the age of seven had a life-changing experience, which directed his course towards music. He heard Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata played on a pianola. His major works include two piano concertos, a violin concerto, a concerto for orchestra, two symphonies, six ballet suites, orchestral suites, much for solo piano, much vocal music and 10 operas. But both the man and his music have been largely forgotten for the past 40 years since his premature death in 1965 aged 61.
Hopefully this year of his centenary, which is being marked with events in London, Glasgow and Cape Town, may bring about the change and “Scotland’s forgotten composer” remains forgotten no more.
My father, Erik Chisholm, whose birth in Glasgow 100 years ago was celebrated in 2004, over two weeks by UCT’s Opera School, loved controversy.