A Series of Essays by Erik's Daughters

The Oxford Years ~ by Morag Chisholm

Leaving South Africa

In 1962 my husband Ralph and I decided to immigrate to England for our further education and a safer life for our children. South Africa was in turmoil and the notorious Shooting at Sharpeville massacre had just taken place.

Our four years in Durban working at King Edward V111 Hospital had been fruitful. We now had three daughters, a broad postgraduate training in medicine and jobs waiting for us in Oxford. In September1960, we sailed from Durban for Southampton on the Pendennis Castle calling at Cape Town on the way.

Picture of Ralph and Morag with 3 daughters on board the Pendennis Castle
Shown here are Ralph and Morag with
3 daughters on board the "Pendennis Castle"

While in Cape Town Ralph had a viva for his MD thesis on 'The treatment of Tetanus' and I connected with friends and family. On our last night, my father conducted the Cape Town Municipal Orchestra. To this day, tears well up whenever I hear Bruckner’s 7th Symphony, the last piece I ever heard Erik conduct.

It was two years before I was to see Father again. In 1962 he came to Oxford to live with us while on a year’s sabbatical leave from the College of Music, University of Cape Town. The dining room in our small West Oxford house was converted into his bedroom cum music room.

He set me the task of lining up suitable pianos for him to vet on his arrival. Quality, not price, mattered, and soon after he arrived we set out on our piano hunt. There were six to look at and at the fourth house, after playing a few bars, he stood up saying 'This will do' It cost £8 and remains in the family to this day, his granddaughters and great-grandchildren having learnt to play on it.

Picture of great-grandson Blake having a go at Chisholm’s 'Scottish Airs for the Children', a graded collection of XXII pieces Erik composed for the family.
Great-grandson Blake having a go at
Chisholm’s 'Scottish Airs for the Children',
a graded collection of XXII pieces
Erik composed for the family.

The Winter of 1962/63

I have mixed memories of that sabbatical year, beset by the coldest winter ever recorded. The Thames froze; deep snow lay on the ground for months. We learnt to skate, toboggan down near-by hillocks and throw snowballs, all very exciting for a family from sub-tropical Durban.

One major problem was finding shoes for father. He was a committed vegetarian, a fanatical animal lover. No animal product ever passed his lips (except eggs) and none graced his feet. Papier-mâché evening shoes with rubber over-shoes were all he had. I spent many an hour unsuccessfully trotting with him around shoe shops looking for something stronger to combat the deep slushy snow.

Picture of Morag and her three daughters walking in the deep snow in front of the Oxford house
Morag and her three daughters walking in the deep snow
in front of the Oxford house

Despite the harsh weather conditions it was a joy to have him stay. Ralph who had never known his father loved his father-in-law: and vice versa. Many evenings at the end of a working day, they would sit together at the kitchen table sharing a bottle of wine & discussing world events, both having similar strong socialist views.

Father enjoyed his grandchildren, made a great fuss of them. He was as great a storyteller for them as he had been for his daughters

Picture of Morag and Erik
I treasure this last picture of us at peace together in a
place we both loved…the world of books

While at Oxford he composed two of his 12 operas-The Wife of Bath’s Tale, 3rd in his Canterbury Tales trilogy and The Life and Loves of Robert Burns. Neither was performed in his lifetime (nor has been since, for that matter). He did, however, have the pleasure of seeing his earlier Chaucer opera, The Pardoner’s Tale, performed in Cape Town in 1961.

I too have seen this opera and it is great theatre! It was performed along with Dark Sonnet in Cape Town 2004 as part of the University’s Chisholm Centenary celebration.

These two operas, both in his Murder in Three Keys series, can be viewed here.

Various other events took Father away from Oxford, including several trips to Scotland. On one occasion he was joined by my sister Fiona who has written an account of their visit and of 'The Great Glasgow Welcome' he received at his brother Jack’s home.

The Glasgow welcome accorded him at the home of Lillias Scott was very different. A long-standing colleague of her father Francis George Scott, who had died in 1958 Chisholm, had met Lillias many times over the years. Some weeks after his arrival in the UK he paid a visit to the Scott family home where he met Mrs Scott and Lillias, known as Lovey, who was living there with her mother.

Lillias was single and employed as a teacher, a job she hated. Also an accomplished singer and poetess, she missed the musical life she had enjoyed with her father. Not long after they met in 1962 Chisholm made a piano arrangement of seven of her poems, four of which they performed together at the University of Manchester. Music brought Erik and Lillias together but it was soon to be more than that.

My father fell in love with Lillias and asked her to return with him to Cape Town. A copious correspondence of over forty letters between him and Diana continued over many months while Lillias was deciding what to do. In the end she agreed to Erik’s proposal; in January 1963 they sailed to Cape Town together.

Picture of Lillias and Erik at a railway station soon after arriving in South Africa
Lillias and Erik at a railway station
soon after arriving in South Africa

Within 3 months of their return my mother agreed to a divorce and left Cape Town for England, where she lived for the rest of her days. It was the end of a full and happy life for Diana whose love of her husband overrode her love of self. She was a remarkable woman whose influence and contribution to Erik Chisholm’s success was never given the recognition it deserved.

Erik and Lillias soon married but it was a short-lived relationship, ending with his death in 1965 and Lillias’ return to Scotland. One year later, Lillias published her first volume of poetry ‘Poems of Love” writing "to my husband, Erik Chisholm, Scottish composer, died 8th June 1965 these poems are dedicated. May the rare genius of his love yet find echo in their lines”.

The ECT published the vocal score of the seven 'Poems of Love' in two volumes, one for the original high voice and one for medium voice. These are for sale on the website. Although the songs have been performed many times in concert, a quality CD is still awaited. This is original Chisholm music in contrast to the USSR published Chisholm's Celtic Folk Songs which are based on the Patrick Macdonald Airs, …just as lovely but different!

I never saw Dad again. I have the many letters he wrote to me, which occasionally included a request for me to send him copies of reviews etc in the British press. It still saddens me that by then, blessed with four daughters, plus a full time job, I was too occupied to reply. The last letter I posted to him was written about 4 weeks before his forthcoming visit to the UK in mid June 1965. In it I wrote of carrots I was growing in my garden for him and the excitement we all felt at the prospect of seeing him again.

Sadly, he died at his home in Cape Town on 8th June from heart failure following on from a heart attack some months before. Had he received appropriate treatment in Groote Schuur Hospital, one of the top cardiology units in the world at that time, this would not have happened.

Ken Wright, editor of Chisholm's The Operas of Leos Janacek published 5 years after his death, writes in his Tribute:

Erik was full of plans for sailing on 18th June for England, where the eldest of his three daughters, Morag, a doctor, could have ensured his rest and treatment. But it was too late; while the ambulance was on its way to take him to hospital, he slipped away - so unlike his turbulent, unruly life.

He is sorely missed. Music rarely has had so utterly devoted a servant, a practitioner, as Erik Chisholm. He literally gave his life to, and for, music.


I have described here the all-too-brief interaction of my father's life and mine in the Oxford years 1960 to 1965. It took me two years to get over his death and accept what had happened. Those five Oxford years until his death certainly had a great impact on my life. but all those happy times that came before were very influential too.

Family Health Issues

Feeling so strongly that had I been there, I could have prevented his early death, I have tried over the 50 years of my life since then to be, whenever possible, with my immediate family at times of illness, times of childbirth. I know of at least two occasions when my daughters ran into difficulties, and my being at hand positively influenced treatment.

Music and work ethos Influence

Though not an accomplished musician myself, music brought a great richness to my life through father's influence. I have ensured that my daughters and grandchildren be given every opportunity to develop their musical talents. Three daughters gained Grade 8 in a variety of instruments - piano (2), cello, double bass and bassoon. Only one, Erika, the youngest, began a career in music though now is a producer in Health programmes on BBC Radio 4! Three others followed us, their parents, into medical careers, but love of music is strong in all of them.

Other characteristics of Erik Chisholm - dedication to one’s chosen career, to hard work & long hours is there in all of them. Ralph and I, both strongly influenced by my father - and by our mothers too it must be said - have in turn passed on these characteristics.

The Erik Chisholm Trust

The most permanent evidence of how Father shaped my life must be the Erik Chisholm Trust which I set up in 2001, three years after I retired from Medicine. At the time of my father's death in 1965 he was planning to return to live and work in the UK. I am sure that had he done so, the neglect of his own contribution to music and his compositions would not have happened. I have done everything in my power over the last 13 years - with much help from fellow Trustees - to set the record straight. In 2015, with the coming 50th anniversary of his death many events are planned which will highlight the life, music and achievements of this outstanding composer and man.

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