Erik Chisholm, Scottish Modernist (1904 - 1965)

Chasing A Restless Muse by Dr John Purser

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Chisholm’s astonishing legacy as composer and entrepreneur has never been properly presented, never mind assessed. Published by Boydell and Brewer, the biography by the author of ‘Scotland’s Music’ is the first full study of the man and his music.

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Foreword by Sir Charles Mackerras

I am delighted to be able to write this introduction to a long-overdue biography of a remarkable composer, performer and musical polymath. I met Erik Chisholm in Cape Town during a four-month stint there with the Cape Town Municipal Orchestra. We got on very well, partly because of a common interest in Janáček at a time when there were not so many experts on this composer as there are now. Ever since then I have held Erik Chisholm in high esteem and am very happy that through this volume his creativity and individuality will become better known.

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.

John Purser’s biography is written with great affection for Chisholm the man and musician. He takes us through an exciting journey from his early Scottish and Probaireachd influenced works to his Hindustani influences, his interests in Russian music and his vital essays in modernism. John Purser’s title refers to a restless nature and this, together with Chisholm’s extraordinary passion and originality, is truly captured in a biography of great quality.

I recommend this work wholeheartedly.



  • Foreword by Sir Charles Mackerras
  • Acknowledgments
  • Glasgow, Kailyard or Coal Yard?
  • The Active Society – Bringing the Heroes of Modernism to Glasgow
  • Chisholm’s Scottish Inheritance
  • Interlude: The Love of Sorabji
  • A Trojan Horse in Glasgow - Berlioz, Mozart and Gluck
  • The Ballet and the Baton as Weapons of War
  • Centrepiece: Pictures from Dante and Night Song of the Bards – A Journey from West to East
  • From Italy to India and Singapore
  • Under Table Mountain
  • On Tour in the USA and Europe
  • Soviet Ambassador – Chisholm Behind the Iron Curtain
  • Interlude: The Love of Janacek
  • Chasing a Restless Muse – The Heart’s Betrayal
  • Envoi
  • Appendix 1: The Active Society for the Propagation of Contemporary Music
  • Appendix 2: Patrick Macdonald Sources for Chisholm's Piano Works
  • List of Plates and Colour Plates
  • Select Bibliography
  • Discography
  • Selected Compositions

Thank you, Boydell and Brewer for the excellent publication of Erik Chisholm's Biography. Heartfelt thanks go to the extraordinary John Purser who researched and wrote the book in just one year. My advance copy arrived by chance on the 15th June 2009, which would have been my mother’s 98th birthday. How she would have enjoyed her gift!

The opening paragraph of any book should set the scene for what will follow (213 pages in this case). Let me whet your appetite….

To have been born in Glasgow in the early Twentieth century is not seen as a recommendation for a budding musician. Paris would carry weight, or Dublin, in the midst of a great literary revival. But much of the literature of Scotland at the time is described uncharitably as of 'the Kailyard School,' the kale yard being where coarse greens were grown at the back of small, self-satisfied homes, where folk were 'douce' and 'couthy', humour was 'pawky'; sentiment rules over realism, and the parochial over the international. In this school, J. M. Barrie has been unfairly cast as the leading dominie, when in reality, the bulk of the 'kailyard' publications were produced for the English, not the Scottish market.

The Author

Picture of Dr John Purser

Dr John Purser is a leading Scottish musicologist. He is the author of 'Is The Red Light On?' - a history of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, commissioned by BBC Scotland.

The first edition of Scotland’s Music won the prestigious McVitie Scottish Writer of the Year Award for 1992, and his eponymous radio series won a Sony Gold Medal. The second edition published 0ctober 2007, is now available in main book stores.

He is a contributor to the New Grove, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, the Collins Encyclopaedia of Scotland and the Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Women and has provided chapters and articles on Scottish music for many other books and periodicals.

He has lectured and broadcast worldwide on all aspects of Scottish music, and is himself known as a composer, poet and dramatist.

He was commissioned to write the Erik Chisholm Biography by The Conservator of Music Birmingham City University and the Erik Chisholm Trust.

Listen to Audio Recording: "John Purser interviewed on Fine Music Radio 101.3FM Cape Town South Africa, 14th July 2010" 8 minutes

Biography Reviews

Chisholm’s contribution has been crying out for this reassessment-that it’s as readable as this is a real bonus. - Living Scotsman

As the pre-eminent composer in Scottish classical music in the first half of the 20th century, Chisholm’s long-term reputation will rely not on his administrative skills, or on his Janacek book but on his compositions which have been unjustly neglected. Purser’s welcome book will help to acquaint contemporary readers with the significant and fascinating musician who was Erik Chisholm. John Robert Brown, Classical Music, p41, 20 July 2009.

A superb publication, it is a massive investigation into the life and music of one of Scotland’s great, but massively underrated composers. It will provide the biographical and musical reference material for all interested parties for years to come. John France, British Music Society News, 124, 2009, p220-221.

And now a full-length study of Chisholm’s life and music, written by Scottish composer John Purser with considerable insight has been published- a high quality volume of the standard we have come to expect from Boydell. This excellent study with several reasonably extended music illustrations opens up a kaleidoscope tapestry of the work of a fascinating character- composer, teacher, virtuoso pianist administrator, quasi-academic and eccentric- whose neglect over the years by the Scottish musical establishment seems indefensible.

Has Chisholm "Found a Nation's Soul?" John Purser in this first ground-breaking study of a creative intellect of major importance, has produced a powerful argument in favour - and it is to be hoped that further exploration of the rest of his music will gradually emerge. Colin Scott-Sutherland June 2010

The author paints a beguilingly honest portrait of the indomitable Chisholm, buck teeth and all, but equally does not shirk at detailed analyses of his works along the way even at the risk of losing our patience in describing what, shamefully, in many cases has neither been performed much less published until now. That is, until we find ourselves carried away with the high tides of Purser’s poetry and passion in defence of his hero’s musical message to us.

This admirable biography will have accomplished its mission well, as will these recordings, if they but clear the way for a long-delayed recognition of this giant of a man whom we were seldom privileged to harbour for long in our midst.
Reproduced with kind permission of the author. Malcolm Troup - Piano Journal Issue 90 2010

For many readers the name Erik Chisholm will mean little. On the basis of a number of recently issued records, and an outstanding recent book by John Purser ¬ Erik Chisholm, Scottish Modernist 1904-1965: Chasing a restless muse (Boydell and Brewer; 2009) - we have opportunities to investigate Chisholm’s work in a way denied to earlier generations.

Despite Chisholm’s qualities in other areas, it is as a composer that we assess him today, and there can be no doubt, on the evidence of those recent recordings, that he was the most significant Scottish composer (possibly the most significant all-round Scottish musician) of the first half of the twentieth-century ¬ and even, in some respects, the most important Scottish composer of all. International Record Review - Robert Matthew-Walker Jan 2011