In the spring of 1934, a nervous Erik Chisholm, then aged 30, presented himself at the Reid School of Music in Edinburgh to face a final oral examination for the degree of D Mus. 'There is no telling what they may ask you,' he had been warned by another candidate. One of the examiners, Sir Hugh P Allen, Professor of Music at Oxford, put this to him: 'What is your opinion of the music of the present English School: Bax, Ireland, Delius, Walton?' For Chisholm, a gift of a question. Three of the four he knew personally and had performed or conducted their music under the auspices of his Glasgow Active Society for the Propagation of Contemporary Music.
Walton had accepted an invitation to come to Glasgow in October 1930 – 'that is, if I can rake up enough money for the fare' – to direct and conduct his Façade
, in its original form a musical entertainment sui generis
. Eighteen intellectual nonsense poems by Edith Sitwell were read aloud over music which Walton had scored idiosyncratically for flute, clarinet, saxophone, trumpet, cello and percussion. The whole performance was hidden to view behind a curtain drawn across the stage. In the centre of the curtain was a painted mask with a megaphone attached for the reciter to speak through. In this case, the musically-limited reciter found it hard to fit the Sitwell words to the Walton rhythms.
Walton himself had little practical experience of conducting. Halfway through, things threatened to fall apart. The reciter 'got hopelessly out in the rhythms' and Walton, as Chisholm relates, 'turned a little pale, looked faint and made a feeble gesture in my direction which I interpreted as a wish that I should take over the stick from him'. Of course, 'we were all hidden behind the curtain so no-one in the audience was aware that conductors had changed mid-stream'.
Thirty years later, in a letter to Chisholm, Walton refers to this incident: 'I well recall the Façade
performance, but how or why it ended with the baton in your hand, I cannot remember'.
Chisholm had known John Ireland from the age of 16 when his father took him with some of his youthful compositions to meet the composer in Chelsea. Ireland, favourably impressed, was prepared to give the young Scot composition lessons if he came down to live in London. That was not to be. Twelve years later, in 1932, invited by Chisholm, Ireland came to Glasgow to give a concert of his works, opening with his Fantasie Trio
and concluding with his Second Violin Sonata
, and including along the way piano pieces such as Holy Boy
, Island Spell
, and Ragamuffin 'Rhapsody'
Reserved and standoffish, Ireland unbent sufficiently in Glasgow to tell the story of his encounter with Gershwin. 'I hear, Mr Ireland, that you too have written a rhapsody. May I ask you how many performances you get of it in a year?' 'Two or three,' Ireland replied. 'Two or three!' exclaimed Gershwin, 'Why, my Rhapsody
[in Blue] gets about 10 performances a day'.
Arnold Bax, the first mentioned of 'the present English School', was a 'special friend' of Chisholm's. His first Active Society concert in 1932 consisted of three of his sonatas: for violin, for viola, and for cello. Chisholm played piano in one, Bax in the other two. Staying with the Chisholms, he told them that when he really wished to concentrate he went to a little village on the West Coast of Scotland because there he felt in touch with life mystical, with fairies, good and bad, and with all things that have made the fairy folklore of Scotland so famous. Was it possible, Chisholm's wife Diana wondered, that this man really believed in fairies and had seen them? 'Yes.' Bax, a modernist composer away with the fairies...
Over the seven years or so of its existence, 1930 to 1937, the Active Society brought to Glasgow contemporary composers and music both from England and Europe. But alongside this, 1935 marked a musical milestone in the life of the city: the Glasgow Grand Opera Society under their conductor Erik Chisholm gave the first complete performance in the British Isles of Berlioz's huge opera Les Troyens
, the two parts on consecutive nights during the run of one week. It included all the ballet scenes and two brass bands and a hidden chorus for the moment when the wooden horse passed across the stage.
Sir Thomas Beecham was invited but refused to attend, replying: 'How does a little whipper-snapper like you think you can do The Trojans
? I am going to do The Trojans
'. Which indeed he did – many years later. A masterpiece neglected by opera houses the world over, or, ruthlessly cut, given only in concert performances, was triumphantly produced by amateurs in Glasgow.
From opera, Chisholm moved on to ballet, composing The Forsaken Mermaid
and sitting on the committee of the Scottish Ballet Society formed in 1937. Two years later, he was appointed musical director of the Celtic Ballet, newly founded by Margaret Morris who had recently returned to Scotland with her husband, the painter J D Fergusson.
Scotland and ballet – do they, or did they at that period, go together? No less an authority than Pavlova thought they did. On a visit to Glasgow, she demonstrated ballet movements and the corresponding movements in the Highland Fling. With a heritage like that, she said, the Scots ought to be good ballet dancers.
At the end of the decade, Chisholm turned his attention to the contemporary composers of his own country. Earlier concerts had featured the music of Ian Whyte and Cedric Thorpe Davie, and the songs of Francis George Scott – and also Erik Satie, half qualifying as a Scottish composer by virtue of his Scottish mother, Jeannie Anton. (Could it have been Satie who inspired Chisholm to change the spelling of his name from 'Eric' to 'Erik'?) Now he brought Frederic Lamond back to Glasgow to be toasted at a dinner held in his honour and to perform in his own piano trio.
Lamond had lived for many years in Germany and was regarded by the Germans as their outstanding interpreter of Beethoven. He had been a pupil of Liszt, along with another Glasgow-born pianist and composer, Eugene D'Albert (born in 1864 in Sauchiehall Street, Lamond four years later close by in Lynedoch Place). D'Albert also had his career in Germany, dying earlier in 1932.
Erik Chisholm's energies and the range of music on offer to the Glasgow public are astonishing. Here, surely, is a chapter of cultural history that ought to be better known. In his definitive biography Erik Chisholm: Scottish Modernist 1904-1965
(to which this article is indebted), John Purser puts the question: 'How many comparable cities in Britain, and perhaps even Europe, came close to this incredible variety?' Glaswegians in the 1930s were citizens of no mean city.
For Part 1: would Glasgow rise to the occasion? by Sheila Chisholm and James Patrick, Click here
For Part 2: success in Glasgow by Sheila Chisholm, Click here
The Rev Dr James Patrick, born in Kilsyth and a graduate of Glasgow and Edinburgh Universities, is a Presbyterian minister in Cape Town and an occasional classical music broadcaster