Biography - Music International

Erik Chisholm conducting the U.S.S.R. State Orchestra in the Tchaikovsky Hall, Moscow June 1957

By now a leading figure in Cape town, Chisholm not only toured with his opera productions over much of South Africa, but took them to Europe, putting on the first performance of Bartók's Bluebeard's Castle in the British Isles, and seeing Dark Sonnet televised by the BBC - a rare privilege for any modern opera.

In 1953 Erik and Diana had toured music departments in America. Erik was reassured to realise that his standards in Cape Town were high, and boasted that at University of Cape Town they performed opera with an orchestra, whereas at Columbia they were only using pianos. Returning home on the Queen Mary, Chisholm composed the opera Black Roses. It was put on with Dark Sonnet in New York as part of his trilogy Murder in Three Keys. He had always had a taste for the Grand Giugnol stimulated by his early interest in German expressionist cinema. He ran a film club in Cape Town, echoing childhood days when his brother cranked the handle on the home movie projector.

In 1957 Chisholm was again on tour - captured in performance and playing with a cat in Glasgow by the pencil of a female admirer, of which he had not a few.

The same year, he and Diana were féted in Russia, and in Moscow Erik conducted his Hindustani Piano Concerto, throwing the score down in a rage when Agnes Walker ill-advisedly played the solo part by memory.

But Shostakovitch was impressed enough to support the publication of a volume of Chisholm's Celtic Folk Song Book complete with translations, though they asked him to tone down the dissonance in one or two of the settings.

Sadly, Diana and Erik were going their separate ways. Erik found new love with the daughter of his fellow-composer, F. G. Scott. Lillias Scott sang and later published two books of her poems. Erik set some of these in the first glow of romance, composing Hert's Sang with the instruction that it was to be performed "With Joy". Both poems and music are in Scots.

But Chisholm's hectic life was taking its toll. To be a Dean and Principal, professor and teacher, composer, conductor and pianist, and author of a seminal book on Janacek, was more than even his phenomenal energies could sustain. Following a heart attack in the spring of 1965 he was advised to take a break. He took a short one and paid the price, dying of heart failure. It is really only in this, his centenary year, that his true worth is being re-established, not only as a prime mover in the 20th-Century-music-making, but as an outstanding composer in his own inimitable right.

Erik Chisholm with Shostakovitch
The Celtic Folk Song Book
Cover of The Celtic Folk Song Book
published in Moscow 1957
Lillias Scott with Erik on voyage to South Africa 1963
Cover of Lillia's book of poems