Writings

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My Job in Wartime

From a radio broadcast in Features Programmes and Topical talks

Erik Chisholm in his Colonel's uniform and his daughter Sheila in her school uniform; 1943

Interlocuter

…Now schools, I expect you all know people who are doing something quite different from their normal jobs. Here is someone who is doing a very necessary wartime job and a job strangely contrasted with his peacetime work. We have in the studio this afternoon Dr Erik Chisholm, the Scottish composer and pianist, and here is to tell you what he is doing in wartime.

Dr Chisholm

I am sure all of you will have noticed large quantities of paint have been splashed about our streets and shops and windows since the war started. Those of you who are evacuated in the country can see miles and miles of white lines painted along the centre of roads, and you‘ve probably all noticed that a lot of black paint has been used as well- round the edges of windows-on roof lights, glass doors and so on, to prevent light from showing through the glass. Well, this is my wartime job- painting- and I think you’ll agree that in wartime, painting is very important. When we go home in the dark, we’re glad that things like lamp-posts and railings are painted white, for it helps us to see them and saves us always bumping into them.

Well, in this painting business I don’t think my musical training is altogether wasted. When painting lines on steps and along the edge of pavements I lay on a musical stave-in five lines with four spaces between- and this gives me an advantage over the man who lives, as it were, only from line to line, doing what must be one of the most monotonous jobs in the world. Look at this way; our gang must have ruled enough five lines and four spaces to write the complete works of Bach and Beethoven.

Note

Chisholm’s father and grandfather were both Craftsmen painters and the family firm Chisholm Decorators in Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow helped finance Erik’s career in its early stages.

He was a conscientious objector but that was never an issue. He failed his medical on the basis of poor eyesight and a crooked arm which prevented him from shooting straight.

His real wartime work was as a colonel in ENSA, bringing entertainment to the troops in the UK, Europe and the Far East.

The Music I like

Typescript of radio talk by Erik Chisholm, 1959

Music is organised sound; so I suppose that ever since there was air to carry vibrations, and apparatus of some sort to make the vibrations, there has existed music of some kind.

The music of insects must have been going on for an awfully long time; and before that, I suppose, there was music made by fish. You may tell me that fish cannot hear and that the sounds made by snapping shrimps, croakers, toad-fish, sea robins, and so on, are merely meaningless noises. But, if the sounds they make have a rhythm and employ one or more pitches, then, to me, that is sufficient to justify calling these sounds music – one or two dimensional music if you like – but still music.

You may not all be aware that the brilliant young French composer Pierre Boulez (Stravinsky has said that the music of Boulez interests him more than that of any living composer) consciously writes two-dimensional music, that is, his music is restricted to two of its elements – pitch and dynamics. This music of Boulez has no melody, no harmony, no counterpoint, no registering patterned rhythm, no design; only sounds of different height and depth of loudness and softness. So that fish or insect music that has rhythm seems indeed to be one step ahead of Mr. Boulez!

Before going any further, let’s settle the question of what is noise and what is music. The answer is quite simple.

Two or more noises make music. You can try a little experiment in your own house – right now – best if your floor is un-carpeted. As I speak to you, you are probably sitting on a chair, and maybe there is at least one other chair in the room. Stand up . . . now give the chair a push and let it fall over on the floor with a bang. That bang you heard was merely a noise – acoustical experts call this single noise the “Isolated Acoustical Phenomena”. Now do the same thing with another chair, knock it over too: it will make another bang, but unless both chairs are exactly the same in all respects, the second bang will be of a higher or lower pitch than the first bang. The ear observes this, immediately relates the two noises, and a musical interval is created: you only need add a pulsating or pattern rhythm and you have the two main essentials for music – pitch and rhythm.

Insects like grasshoppers, katyids, crickets, cicadas are nature’s instrumentalists. They make their sounds by scraping or rubbing one portion of their anatomy against another portion.

Insects are fully aware of one another (this is probably a gross understatement) and they may co-ordinate their songs into an ensemble. The songs of insects give pitch and rhythm – often too rapid for the human ear to distinguish. The most marvellous concert I ever heard in my life, was at the Ridgeway Hotel, Lusaka in Northern Rhodesia, where countless bull-frogs nightly put up a most amazing and colourful percussion programme – I could listen to it for hours.

Then – outwith men – birds are the supreme vocalists in nature. To many birds, singing is a true artistic expression, as it is to humanity. It’s a fallacy to tie bird-music down to the mating instinct and season: birds have been heard practising and improving their songs: birds have been seen lined-up along a telegraph wire singing in unison, with one of their number acting as a kind of presenter or conductor. In January of this year I, myself, took down a number of bird songs and playing them at half, quarter, or preferably an eighth of the original speed on my tape-recorder, I was able to note pretty accurately the pitch and rhythm of about a couple of dozen songs.

I came to several conclusions –

First, that the expert birds, the experienced birds, those high up the bird evolutionary scale, sing beautifully in tune and in recognisable musical scales and intervals.

Secondly, that like the insects, their songs are given out at so fast a tempo and at such a high pitch, that we can’t accurately follow their melodic and rhythmic patterns unless they are brought down several octaves, so that slow-witted, clod-hopping humanity can understand them.

Thirdly, that many of the songs are not just endless repetition of a few notes (this you find only in more primitive bird types), but on the contrary may consist of a number of musical figures, contrasted and alternated into a simple but, nevertheless, definite musical design.

I am too ignorant to tell you if honey bees are musicians, but nothing would surprise me in connection with these precocious little creatures. You may know that an Austrian professor, after thousands of experiments, found that a worker bee can tell her sister, by a very clear and complex series of signs, just exactly where an rich field of nectar is to be found: so I would not be surprised if, while engaged in air-conditioning the hive by fanning their wings, the honey-bees do not also indulge in some fancy music-making business.

Moving away from (notice I don’t say up from) the fascinating music of fish, insects and birds, we reach the comparable state of natural and spontaneous music-making which we call folk-song. A song implies words, and the songs of the folk in all parts of the world, as one would expect, deal with subjects common to all humanity. The mother singing to her child, children playing and singing together; love songs, work song, dance songs and funeral songs.

The sound of the Scottish bagpipes thrills me, and I love these never ending Themes – with increasingly intricate Variations called Piobaireachd, with their curiously hypnotic phrase and pattern repetitions. Even the titles of some Piobaireachd are exciting – “Squinting Patrick’s Flame of Wrath”, “The Red Head in the McDonalds Arms”, “A Salute to the Corrie of the Tiny Fall”, “The Unjust Incarceration”, “The Desperate Battle of the Birds”.

A year or so ago I got lots of fun taking the two hundred odd Gaelic Songs Without Words (which the McDonald brothers collected and published in 1784), fitting a suitable text in English from the Gaelic, and writing instrumental accompaniments.

Music of Hindustani gripped me from the first moment I arrived in Karachi: during my six months stay in India I was fortunate enough to make friends with some high-up Indians who allowed me to attend private concerts in homes, for public concerts, as we know them, hardly exist in that Continent. My ear soon became as familiar and fond of the Sitar, as of the violin: I love the sounds of the Veena, the Tambura, the Sarangi and their other beautiful and fascinating instruments. I got into some fierce arguments with their learned musicians and, to prove my point – that their music need not be one line of sound, but that they could develop harmonically and contrapuntally along their own individual musical concepts – I wrote three concertos, one for piano, one for violin and one for orchestra, all based on Hindustani themes and rhythms. But – let’s face it – the study of Hindustani music is a job for a lifetime, and most Western musicians really don’t know a thing about it.

Of course, our Western music took big strides ahead – it seems to us – when we started to use two and more sounds simultaneously, but it is as well to remember – in case we get big-headed about it – that the whole of Western culture – Art –Science – Religion – reached us from the East, and that the Indians and Chinese had a culture three or more thousand years ago when most of our Western races were just getting down from the tree-tops.

When I was a music student at Edinburgh University, working under Sir Donald Tovey, I spent the best part of a year studying and transcribing musical manuscripts of the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries, written in the old clefs and notations – the Neums and Tablature. Off my own bat, I made transcriptions and arrangements of 13th century Monophonic and 2-Voice dances, lute ricercars by Joanambrosio Dalza, and Francesio Spinaccini, two interesting Spanish composers of the early 16th century, whose music attracted me.

I remember well, being astonished at the American syncopations of a lute dance by Hans Neusiedler, a piece of brazen prophesy by a German composer 400 years ago. Neusiedler also wrote a lute dance where the upper stave is in the key of G Sharp Minor and the lower in E major, a device known as bi-tonality – which had to wait 4 centuries before coming into general practice among musicians.

I also enjoyed working ricercars for “Viola da gamba” by Silvestro Ganassi, and a long set of very mature variations for lute by the Spaniard, Luis de Narvaez.

I mention these facts because, if one is a professional musician practising music as a performer or a conductor or a composer, naturally one’s taste in musical fare depends to a large extent on the work in hand at any particular time. If one cannot feel enthusiastic about music one has to conduct or play or sing publicly, then it would be best to leave the performance to other people. In my own experience, in the field of opera, when I conducted works off the beaten track like Mozart’s “Idomeneo”, the three Berlioz operas – “Benvenuto Cellini”, “Les Troyens” and “Beatrice and Benedict”, I was wildly enthusiastic about all these works at the time and for a considerable time afterwards, but maybe not so enthusiastic about all of them now. This is understandable, for to live, one has to change: moreover, one takes up\ other works as jobs in hand, and these new works must necessarily become our new enthusiasms: life is so short, and there is such a quantity of interesting music all over the world to get to know. Incidentally, these works I have mentioned were all first performances in the U.K., but that doesn’t really mean so very much, for countries like Britain and the United States are not very important, operatically speaking.

In the late twenties, I did a year’s tour of Canada as a concert pianist – maybe not a particularly successful one, but it seemed grand enough to me at the time, and there I introduced works like the Schönberg Opus 11, the Bartok piano works, and other interesting contemporary composers; even introducing that most gorgeous of all gorgeous War-Horses, the B. Flat Minor Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto, in some lesser centres.

In English speaking circles, musical academicians generally considered the two quite unspeakable composers to be Tchaikovsky and Puccini- “Nothing could be any good that was all that popular – and, hence, vulgar” – seemed to be the chief objection advanced by these professorial snobs, highbrow critics and long-haired music lovers. I confess, unblushingly, I love Tchaikovsky, and adore Puccini. These are the two big emotional composers, but I like just as much – though in a very different way – the cool intellectuals like Bach, Schönberg and Hindemith. On the other hand I have no particular desire to hear cantatas and symphonies by certain English composers, particularly written by what the English affectionately, and affectedly, call their Grand-Old-Men of Music.

I like, too, a lot of modern Soviet music, the symphonies of Shostakovitch, and his opera “Lady Macbeth” in particular; but then I have conducted these works and had to get to know them pretty well for that purpose.

I am afraid I cannot feel very enthusiastic about most modern American composers: America is always telling us that she is a free nation: that very freedom can easily degenerate into lack of self-discipline and find expression in an artistic style concocted from that of different nations – sometimes a really horrible mixture.

I enjoy the music of the big 12-tone composers: Berg’s “Wozzeck” and “Lulu”: Schönberg’s “Moses”…and his String Quartets. I like the lush of Mahler – particularly his 2nd, 5th, 6th and 7th symphonies, and, of course, his masterpiece “Das Lied von der Erde”. Mahler, by the way, was another favourite target for my learned colleagues; in their eyes and ears – “very vulgar” (vulgarity being to them an unforgiveable sin). Of course, what they really meant was that Mahler wrote jolly good tunes, with big rousing emotional and instrumental effects, and, at his worst, was better than practically all English composers since the death of Purcell. When Sir Eugene Goossens visited me in Cape Town a few years ago, I happened to have the score of Mahler’s 6th Symphony on my desk. Even the sight of the score was enough to make Sir Eugene foam at the mouth.

Of the great classical composers I like Haydn best. To me, he is the greatest of all classical pioneers. He almost never does the same thing twice: his hundred odd symphonies – I know nearly all of them – are a mine of musical adventures – indeed, musicologist, two centuries after his death, are only now getting down to their analysis, and, therefore, to a just appreciation of his formal and inventive genius.

I love too, the 28 piano concertos of Mozart and I conducted the lot with staff and students at College during the Mozart Bi-centenary year. I don’t give out these facts boastfully, but merely a proof that my likes are conditioned by my job, and of course, the other way round. No one would attempt to deny the colossal genius of Beethoven, but there again, perhaps, because I have over-worked his symphonies with students for so many years – and the path of their discourse is so very well known to me, that – at least for the moment – I find myself getting bored and hardly able to sit through a performance. I even find myself longing for the days before Nikisch when only movements of symphonies, and not symphonies in their entirety, was the fashion at public concerts. I am also one of these chaps – Cecil Gray was another – who find the Brahms’s “Lieder” terrific, but the symphonies somewhat heavy, colourless and tiresome. Of course, Sir Donald Tovey rammed Brahms down our throats every week – to him Brahms was the God of the later classicists – and too often one’s professor’s over-enthusiasms can have an opposite re-action on his students.

The contemporary composers I like best are Bartok, Hindemith, Janacek, Schönberg and Sorabji: maybe because I knew personally three of these composers fairly well. I once gave concerts in the U.K. with Hindemith and Bartok, and had the honour of conducting the first performance in that country of the latter’s “Bluebeard’s Castle”.

Since getting to know Schönberg’s music really well with scores and records, for it is not easy to hear live performances – even in Europe – I look upon him as a great master who transcends any musical system of composition – including his own – by the extent of his musical invention and genius. He seems to me the pure fountainhead of atonality: the classicist Berg, and the miniaturist von Webern are easier to come to terms with: at first, like many others, I used to prefer the Schönberg pupils to their master – I now believe that this was simply because I didn’t know Schönberg’s works as I now know them.

Janacek is quite another type. He ignores the classical procedure of musical development and substitutes something of his own: repetition of small poreganant musical ideas treated with endless variations. Up till November of last year I knew most of his operas only from scores, although I had seen “Jenufa” – the most popular of them: it was only after seeing all nine operas on the stage of the Brno Janacek theatre in Czechoslovakia that I was, like most of the foreign visitors and critics present, completely captivated by the dramatic power, effectiveness and originality of this great modern Czechoslovakian composer, indeed the only great contemporary Czechoslovakian composer. I believe that, along with Strauss and Puccini, he represents the best for opera in this century.

Of course, I love the lush of the “Rosenkavalier” Waltzes, the “Ariadne” Polka, and other Strauss purple patches; the humourous “Til” and the wit and realistic humour of “Don Quixote”. One of my favourite pieces is the symphonic-poem “Phaeton” by Saint-Saens, and on the thousandth hearing I still live again the sensuous curves of his “Dying Swan”.

I prefer the operas of Gluck to those of Wagner. I think Wagner’s editing and rescoring of Gluck’s “Iphigenie in Aulis” a monstrosity: exceeded only by similar impertinance of Strauss on the corpus “Idomeneo” of Mozart. I like some of the specimens of Music Concrete I have heard.

A few minutes ago I mentioned a name which will be unfamiliar to all but a few of my listeners – Sorabji – his full name is Kaikhosru Shapurgi Sorabji, and he is a composer now living at Corfe Castle, Dorset, England whose father was a Parsi (Persian settlers in India of 1,000 years standing) and his mother a Spanish-Sicilian opera singer. Quite a unique blend of races you will agree! Most people who know anything about Sorabji at all, probably think him a madman. He probably is too, but also, in my opinion, a genius (we are always being told how akin the two conditions are). He seems to me to be a modern baroque composer of stupendous intellectual gifts who, by the complexity of his scores and the extravagance of his technical demands on performers, is an unrealistic idealist. For instance, he writes a single work intended to occupy an entire concert, and the music is beyond the keyboard technique of even a Horowitz, or a Michelangelo. His formal inspiration stems from that big piano work of Busoni his “Fantasia Contrapupuntistica” which is a series of fugues and interludes – itself hailing back to Bach. Sorabji once played at a series of concerts I was organising, his notorious “Opus Clavicembalisticum”, (which frightening title , by the way, means simply “a piece for piano”.) It lasted all of two and a half hours: its mastery of every known piano technical device, and all Baroque forms is undeniable – and in a personal manner – although the unique masterly – is more than a little alarming.

Sorabji’s music goes on, and on, and on.

When an incautious critic pointed this out in a press review, Sorabji, who is no modest violet or backward in coming forward in his own defence – although now-a-days he remains supremely indifferent as to what anyone, or everyone, thinks of him or his work – wrote back using his usual nitric acid ink, that for those soft-brained idiots who expected the Amazon River to flow through a bath tap, the only advice he could give such sub-humans was – “Get out of the way of the Amazon”.

I spent one or two holidays with this extraordinary man and so had the opportunity, given to few, of hearing his works played by himself until they became familiar to me. I concluded a long time ago that music such as his which combines essentially Eastern and essentially Western elements, (i.e. couples Eastern rhythms which are as far beyond those common in the West, as Western harmony, orchestral instrumentation, etc. is beyond that of the East), a combination of the two opposing artistic creeds, makes extraordinary difficult listening. Probably a new generation formed from persons capable of seeing and understanding both points of view must first come into being before Sorabji’s stupendous achievements may be justly assessed.

Conclusion:

Well, there it is!

If I thought on a bit longer I could find lots more music I like enormously, and quite a lot I don’t like at all, but I think I have covered a big enough field for the purpose of this little talk.

On the whole I pride myself that I am more tolerant than most music lovers. I have no patience with those persons who talk about ‘Only the best in art being good enough for them’, ‘The string quartet is the purest form of musical art’ and similar unoriginal clichés of affectation.

To me, music is one thing, and one thing only, organised sound: it has no meaning other than that: it has no message, it has no spiritual or anthropological qualities. I became a professional musician for the one reason that I think is the only reason anyone should become a professional musician – I loved music so much that I wanted to be with it all my life.