There are many beautiful Scottish songs which we rarely hear, if ever. Some were the work of Erik Chisholm, who was born in the Southside of Glasgow on 4 January 1904 and who died aged 61 on 8 June 1965. His death occurred in Cape Town, South Africa, where he had been professor of music at the city's university. The job was a great success for him professionally, but it was troublesome for him politically; he was working in South Africa during the apartheid régime and, as a man of the left, he received unwelcome attention from the state authorities.
There is a certain poignancy in the fact that his life ended so far from Europe, as he was an artist who was close to the continent's innovations in music during the 20th century. Coming from a Scotland which had been thoroughly provincialised during the previous century, he was a key figure in the struggle to re-Europeanise, culturally, his native Scotland. In 1930, Chisholm was the driving force behind the new Active Society for the Propagation of Contemporary Music, which invited mainland European composers of the avant-garde to visit Scotland where their work would be performed. Among their number were the Hungarian Béla Bartók and the Pole Karol Szymanowski. Like these two, Chisholm in his own music went back to his country's ancient musical traditions and reconfigured them for a modern cosmopolitan world: this was very much an open-minded cultural nationalism at ease in its internationalism.
The 1930s were a testing time for cultural activists like Erik Chisholm, intent as they were on challenging the prevailing aesthetic conservatism of the backwater which Scotland was at that time. True, the so-called Scottish Renaissance, propelled by such literary figures as the poet Hugh MacDiarmid and his peers, was well underway, but again progress was not without its hitches, to put it mildly. Take the visual arts during this decade: the Society of Scottish Artists was in many ways the equivalent of Chisholm's Active Society for the Propagation of Contemporary Music, but its path of true love for the European avant-garde did not run smoothly.
In 1931, the Society of Scottish Artists organised the first exhibition in Britain, let alone Scotland, of work by the Norwegian Edvard Munch. It was in genteel, repressed Edinburgh that the public were exposed to a European artist whose images were intensely erotic in content and intensely expressionistic in form. A letter to an Edinburgh newspaper complained that we should just stick with our comforting home-grown Scottish artists rather 'than bring any more of Munch's type to Edinburgh to vitiate the tastes of our youth'.
I suspect that if the Czech composer Leoš Janáček had been alive and able to travel, he'd have been invited to Scotland by Chisholm and his colleagues in the Active Society. But Janáček had died in 1928. Nevertheless, Erik Chisholm went on to write a highly readable and idiosyncratic monograph on Janáček’s operas; sadly, Chisholm died before he could revise it, however it was edited by Ken Wright and posthumously published in 1971.
John Purser's critical biography of 2006, Erik Chisholm: Scottish Modernist 1904-65: Chasing a Restless Muse
, is a book which should be in every Scottish library. Dr Purser is not only one of Scotland's finest musicologists, he is himself a notable composer and also a poet. He is therefore very well placed to comment on the often literary nature of Chisholm's book on Janáček. Chisholm delighted in language as well as in music – and this is most appropriate for his subject, whose music is based on the speech cadences of Moravian Czech – not, as Dr Purser points out, that Chisholm possessed any significant command of Czech. He didn't.
Erik Chisholm's book is a very writerly production, that's to say it's a book composed by someone who loves to communicate by means of an imaginative use of English, and it's no wonder that he was impelled to make song-settings of Scottish poetry. Dr Purser argues that Chisholm's book does not always conform to the objective, technical nature of musical analysis: as an example of this, he cites Chisholm's commentary on the opening bars of Jenůfa
, where the Scot writes of 'the dry crackling, cricket-like timbre […] somehow the resulting effect is sinister, even threatening […]'. Dr Purser commends such writing for its vividness, but he also remarks that Chisholm backs up his 'writerly' remarks with due technical knowledge.
Erik Chisholm is strongly responsive to the literary works on which Janáček based his operas, and he writes illuminatingly on how these sources, novels and plays, are transmuted into a different artistic form. There is evidence in the book of Chisholm's knowledge of Russian literature, and this enriches his discussion of From the House of the Dead
, which Janáček had based on Dostoevsky's autobiographical novel on incarceration in Siberia, and also Kát'a Kabanová
, which owes its existence to Aleksander Ostrovsky's play The Storm
Chisholm as literary critic is aware that the leading protagonist of a novel, however much he may have in common with the author himself, is still an artistic construct and must not be confused with his creator. Chisholm refers to 'the fictitious build-up Dostoevsky gives his hero, so it would be as well to accept the character as given by the novelist, rather than try – as some surely misguided producers of the opera have done – to make Petrovič [the novel's main character] look like Dostoevsky'.
In his chapter on Kát'a Kabanová
, Chisholm has regard to the literary sociology of 19th-century Russia: 'The novels of Tolstoy and Turgenev dealt mainly with the lives of the nobility and the peasants: it was left to Ostrovsky to reveal the shortcomings and the strong points of the merchant class'. (By way of a comic footnote, let me add that when Tchaikovsky met Andrew Carnegie in New York, he noted that the Scottish industrialist bore a distinct facial resemblance to Ostrovsky.)
Chisholm's chapter on Janáček's opera, The Excursions of Mr Brouček
, is the longest chapter in the book. That's because it's dealing with an opera in two parts, as based on a sequence of two novels, and each part could be considered an opera in itself. Part One is Mr Brouček's Excursion to the Moon
; Part Two is Mr Brouček's Excursion to the Fifteenth Century
. Brouček's name means 'beetle' in Czech, and he is the archetypal petty-bourgeois philistine, complacent, vulgar, crass, devoted only to his bodily needs, chiefly of beer. He has no interest in the arts or in any kind of cultural idealism.
In the first part, Mr Brouček lurches out of the pub – the Vikárka, just opposite St Vitus Cathedral in Prague – and finds himself on a proto-surrealist journey to the moon, where he encounters characters who are his complete opposite – ultra-refined aesthetes, and including a young lady with the name of Etherea.
Chisholm discusses Janáček's literary source, the 1880s novel-series, The Excursion of Mr Brouček
, by the poet and satirist Svatopluk Čech; he argues that though both Čech and Janáček intend to mock Mr Brouček for his philistinism, his opposites – the lunar aesthetes – are not really the ideal antidote to him: they are too ethereal, quite literally not down-to-earth enough (well, they are lunar), far too absorbed in their precious sensibilities. So the satire misses the point, and in contrast to these over-sophisticated beings who would hardly deign to get their hands dirty, Mr Brouček can actually come across as a more sympathetic fellow than we'd have expected: he has common sense, he is ordinary, unpretentious Joe Public with his only-too-human failings, what the French would call l'homme moyen sensuel
, the average sensual man.
As ever, Chisholm pays careful attention to an opera's literary promptings, and indeed makes a striking comparison with another work of both literary and operatic significance – W S Gilbert's Patience
, the basis for the comic opera with music by Arthur Sullivan. Chisholm notes that Čech's novel and Gilbert's drama appeared within a few years of each other in the 1880s.
was first performed in 1881 as an opera, but Gilbert's text has maintained its status in its own right as poetry: it's proved eminently quotable, as in those lines which sharply criticise the effete aesthete Bunthorne as he 'walk[s] down Piccadilly with a poppy or a lily in [his] medieval hand', his unhealthy complexion described as 'greenery-yallery' – greenish-yellow – which is the colour of that favourite strong drink – absinthe – of the fin-de-siècle
decadents who were the successors of the most over-the-top aficionados of the Aesthetic Movement.
Chisholm points out that unlike Svatopluk Čech and Janáček, Gilbert was not at all intending to satirise the philistines: he was basically on their side, rather, when he mocked the aesthetes; after all, he was writing for a solid Victorian bourgeoisie who wanted lowbrow entertainment at the expense of the highbrows. Čech's and Janáček's anti-philistine intentions have somewhat backfired, and the supposed superiority of the aesthetes is undermined.
Erik Chisholm hasn't been the only Scot to write at length about Mr Brouček and his shenanigans. Jessie Scott was born in Edinburgh in 1914, married a Czech airman, and settled in Brno and its university as Professor Jessie Kocmanová. Her article on Čech's Brouček
appeared in the journal Brno Studies in English
and it is she who has introduced the second Brouček
novel to speakers of English. She demonstrates that the anti-philistine thrust of the second book is stronger than it is in the first, as we have our Mr Brouček time-travelling to the 15th century and the era of the Hussites with their self-sacrificing, idealistic commitment to the Czech nation.
Jessie Kocmanová notes Mr Brouček's hostility to the struggle for Czech culture, language and literature – he prefers the German language of the ruling powers. As a bachelor, he doesn't see why he should pay taxes for other people's kids to be educated in the indigenous culture – he'd rather spend his money on booze. We have no shortage of Mr Broučeks in Scotland.
Jessie Kocmanová wrote on the Scots language in another article in Brno Studies in English
. Her regard for both Czech and Scots was shared by her fellow-Scot Erik Chisholm – one difference is that Kocmanová became fluent in Czech. In the course of his chapter on Janáček's The Cunning Little Vixen
, Chisholm tells us that the libretto is written in a Brno dialect called Líšeň, and that this can baffle Prague singers and audiences, 'in much the same way', he continues, 'as the poems of Robert Burns in the Ayrshire dialect are puzzling to many English readers. In both cases there is a picturesque attraction, once the characteristic cadences of the language are appreciated'.
A strong leitmotif in Chisholm's book on Janáček is his reference to the composer's debt to Moravian folk music. Chisholm does not ignore those early operas which Janáček composed before he found his unique style. Indeed, the Scot is full of praise for the rarely-heard opera Počatek romanu / The Beginning of a Romance
, which Janáček wrote in 1891. Chisholm detects the influence of Dvořák on this opera, and we should note here that Erik Chisholm was a recipient of the Dvořák Medal. He challenges those who have dismissed the work, and records his enjoyment of 'this bright little opera' when it was performed at the 1958 Brno Janáček Music Festival.
Chisholm even questions Janáček's own reservations about The Beginning of a Romance
: 'Janáček larer expressed regret at having introduced a number of folk-songs into his score, but to a foreign audience this is probably an attraction rather than otherwise'. Such a Scottish appreciation of Czech folk idiom in a sense reciprocates the interest of Czech cultural activists, during the 19th century and after, in the Scottish ballads. Naděžda Skřivánková's Charles University dissertation on the Scottish ballads emphasises their influence on their Czech counterparts.
Some of the loveliest of Erik Chisholm's own compositions are the song-settings he made of poems by his second wife, Lillias Scott (1918-2013). She was the daughter of the composer Francis George Scott, mentor of Hugh MacDiarmid. Lillias came from the Scottish Borders country, the home of many of the classic Scottish ballads. Those of her own poems set by Erik Chisholm are mostly short lyrics, but one of them – recorded on the CD Songs for a Year and a Day
– is the more ballad-like The White Blood of Innocence
. This poem's theme of a man's seductive power over a young girl might recall the betrayals suffered by the heroines of Jenůfa
and Kát'a Kabanová
; it should not surprise us that the Scottish ballad, The Demon Lover
, has been translated into Czech. However, Lillias's poem concludes in a tender manner of which the girl's ex-lover seems undeserving:
But tho' in lust ye saired me ill
My filit blude shone whiter still
In baith oor een reflectit fair –
For a' oor innocence wis there!
This article is based on a talk given at the Masaryk University, Brno, in 2018.
Dr Tom Hubbard is a Scottish poet, novelist and retired professor who has worked in France, the USA, Hungary and Ireland. His most recent book is 'The Devil and Michael Scot: a Gallimaufry of Fife and Beyond' (Grace Note Publications, 2020)