Overview of Chisholm's Music

I believe that Chisholm at his best is an outstanding composer. Instrumental works such as the two piano concertos, the 'Pictures from Dante', the sonata 'An Rioban Dearg' and 'Night Song of the Bards' are full of excitement and beauty, quite apart from the fact that each breaks new ground technically, stylistically or formally. Among the stage works, 'Simoon', 'Dark Sonnet' and the three Chaucer operas cover an amazing range of dramatic style with richly inventive music, well written for voices and with vividly coloured orchestration. In the neglected area of children’s music, 'Adventures of Babar' should be a winner at children’s concerts, and the 'Scottish Airs for Children' are miniature masterpieces of keyboard instruction married to originality and beauty of treatment of traditional music.

His style was varied, eclectic, and challenging. The modernist style was declaredly eclectic. The term is often used as a kind of accusation – but it is an accusation based upon an aesthetic standpoint which has no sure validity, least of all in connection with the modernist movement of which Chisholm was undoubtedly a part and (in terms of Scottish music) the leading light.

That similar accusations could be thrown at James Joyce, Hugh MacDiarmid, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Poulenc and a host of others, is undeniable.

Was Chisholm, then, too eclectic for his own good? I do not believe so. Given the depth and breadth of his experience, it is proper to think of him as a composer of his time. He was not outside a movement and learning from it; he was in it and creating it along with some of the greatest of his contemporaries – for he did not only sit beside them: they too sat beside him.

John Purser