A Selection of Articles About Erik Chisholm

Watch the Beat - Musical Memoirs of Patrick Shannon

The Active Society

In 1929 my friend Erik Chisholm, who was a first class pianist and musician and a very avant garde composer-later Professor of Music at Cape Town University - suggested that we should get together and produce some concerts of contemporary music.

So we founded The Active Society for the propagation of Contemporary music-what a title- and it was a point of honour with us that everything we did was a first performance in Scotland. We began with the two of us giving joint recitals in his church which had a fine three manual organ with many orchestral stops. He played the solo parts in many piano concertos and I played the orchestral parts on the organ. We did the first Scottish performances of Manuel da Falla’s Nights in the Garden of Spain, Bartók's Piano Concerto No 2, the Delius Piano Concerto, the Second Piano Concerto along with his church choir and an excellent amateur tenor called Logan Annand we did the first performance in Scotland of Kodaly’s Psalmus Hungaricus”.

Erik did one quite staggering recital when he played on the organ both Strauss’s ‘Don Quixote” and Elgar’s “Falstaff”-playing both from the full score. Each of these works had vital percussion parts which could not be reproduced on the organ, so I found space just beside the swell box where there was enough space for me to creep in with a drum kit and do the needful.

In the Strauss work there is a vital tambourine part in the Dulcinella variation, and in the Elgar there were many places where percussion was absolutely essential. For instance in the section describing Falstaff’s march through Gloucester on a recruiting drive, there is a marching theme-quite a short thing-played always three times, first on the horns, then by the trumpets and lastly by the percussion itself.

Tovey in his analysis of the work says “I know of nothing more gravity-removing than the effect of this theme when it is delivered timidly in musical dumb-crambo by the various thumpers and tinklers” known as the 'kitchen department' of the orchestra”. I did this bit by using a tom-tom, a bass drum and a side drum. In the Interlude in Shallow’s Orchard in Gloucestershire there is an absolutely vital tambourine bit when the lower strings play a very peaceful little motif and on the first beat of each bar there is a vital gentle roll on the tambourine all by itself.

At the end of the work at the time of Falstaff’s death when Mistress Quickly describes how he babbled of green fields”, this same figure returns very quietly on the lower strings but instead of the tambourine on the first beat of the bar there is a sharp harmonic on the note C. The only way I could think of doing this was to have a guitar with me with one string tuned to C and at the vital "moments" I pinged on it. At the actual moment of Falstaff’s death there is a prolonged roll on a muffled drum which again was essential and impossible to do on the organ, so I did it.

After the recital several of the organists present gathered around the console and one of them. Purcell James Mansfield, who was one of the best known Glasgow organists,after fiddling with various stops, turned to Erik and said” Chisholm , where the devil are the drums?” and Erik, without batting an eyelid, said ”Oh I managed it”, and to this day nobody was let into the secret.

Erik’s girlfriend Diana, and my girlfriend Margaret, both supported us loyally on these occasions. They always sat in the front row of the gallery but they secreted in with them their library books which they hid beneath the front desk and quietly read during the concerts hoping we would think they were listening intently!