The words of Erik Chisholm: writings, lectures, libretti and broadcasts

Chisholm wrote in the “Wonder of English” of “its cornerstone of unrivalled literature”. Running a close second to his love of music, was his love of the written word, the spoken word, dramatic words of song and opera… and poetry, which he wrote from an early age. In later years, he searched far and wide to find the right verses to fit the Patrick McDonald collection of Highland Airs, composing his own if needs be, as he did the librettos, extraordinarily, for many of his operas.

He read widely, all the way down to Billy Bunter novels. He was a past master of the art of punning; either you laughed out loud or you groaned as did many but you couldn’t ignore them. He wrote to newspapers, often over contentious matters, many of these letters being returned by the editor. He had a field day (months actually) when he was stationed in Bombay, in the last stages of the war, when the orchestra he was sent there to conduct, didn’t materialise. He acquired a large following of readers who delighted in his frequent criticisms of local music-making, always knowledgeable, often amusing, sometimes cruel.

He enjoyed lecturing, broadcasting, his Glasgow accent broadening as he spoke. Very few of his lectures were recorded, and of these only one, made in 1949, on "Contemporary Music” still exists. The text of many of his lectures has likewise disappeared, but enough remains to give the flavour of the man.

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Where To Get His Writings

The Chisholm Papers

Almost all the Chisholm papers are housed in the Manuscript and Archive Library at the UCT. Click for Chisholm Papers Database. The collection contains biographical documents, reviews, letters, articles about and by Erik Chisholm and his musical ventures from the early days in Scotland when the Active Society for the Propagation of Contemporary Music was bringing international figures to Glasgow, to his final years in South Africa.

Michael Tuffin, UCT Musicologist, completed the classification of the collection in 2009. The designated University of Cape Town website will be shortly available on line. The resulting Catalogue Raisonne will be available later this year.

Occasional Writings are listed below. This is by no means a complete list. A number were published in his lifetime and are referenced; those that are not, are only to be found in the UCT Archives. A start has been made to scan all articles with the aim eventually to publish “Chisholm’s Occasional Writings’.

Men and Music

An introductory note

In 1964 Chisholm gave a series of lectures on Men and Music, illustrated with music and slides (over 100 still to hand), at the UCT Summer School. In his own words Men and Music wasn’t “going to be a serious business. It will consist mainly of light hearted reminiscences about some important figures in 20th Century music, from which it will be possible to gain insight into their characters and personalities.”

Many distinguished composers came to Glasgow in the 1930’s to give concerts of their works for the Active Society for the Propagation of Contemporary Music (a bit of a mouthful, known colloquially as The Active Society).

The 18 composers he talks about are William Walton, Cyril Scott, Percy Grainger, Eugene Goosens, Bela Bartok, Donald Tovey, Florent Schmitt, John Ireland, Yvonne Arnaud, Frederick Lamond, Adolph Busch, Alfredo Casella, Arnold Bax, Paul Hindemith, Dmitri Shostakovich (Chisholm cheated here- Shostakovich didn’t actually appear but they were friends and the Active Society “played quite a lot of his music”), Kaikoshru Sorabji, Bernard van Dieren and Medtner.

It is clear Chisholm planned to publish the lectures but he ran out of time, out of life.

They are fun to read; several serious musicians have found them hard to put down once started, and have read them into the small hours of the night. The Trust hopes that soon an enterprising musicologist will come along to edit and publish them.

Erik Chisholm (Lt) with Shostakovich

Men and Music; in John Purser's biography he writes;

"The doings of the Active Society are of such interest and so well written up by Chisholm and his wife Diana, they constitute a unique document and their publication is long overdue."

The ECT would welcome enquiries from interested parties who might undertake the considerable task of editing these lectures, with intent to their publication.

Men & Music - Béla Bartók

Introductory note by Morag Chisholm

On BBC Radio 3's Classical Collection, on the 30th September 2009, I heard Lili Kraus, a pupil of Béla Bartók, play his 15 Hungarian Peasant Songs. My father, a personal friend of Lili Kraus was able to entice her to Cape Town's College of Music to teach piano there for 2 years and I remember her well. Chisholms' writing on Béla Bartók in his lecture series Of Men and Music describes my meeting him when he visited Glasgow, but only being 6 months old, I can't say I remember him well.

Both Bartók and Chisholm were ardent collectors of folk music of their respective countries. How Chisholm introduced Bartók to Scotland's ancient Piobaireachd music is amusingly described in his Men and Music article which follows.

Preface to Celtic Song Book by Erik Chisholm

Reprinted from Celtic Folk Songs (Moscow: State Publishers Music, 1964)

The earliest Scottish tunes are to be found in the Rowallen MSS (1612-28), the Straloch MSS (1627-29) and the Skene MSS (the exact date of which is unknown, but around the first half of the 17th Century). The Rowallen and Straloch are in lute tablature on a 6-line stave; the Skene on a 4-line stave. None of these MSS are exclusively Scottish tunes. There were many other folk-song collections, made both in England and in Scotland between 1612 and 1784, in which Scottish folk-songs appeared; the Macdonald brothers' collection of the Vocal Airs of the Scottish Highlands and Islands (noted during the later half of the 18th Century and published in 1784) remain, however, the first published collection of tunes sung to Scottish-Gaelic words.