Erik Chisholm’s was a precocious talent. Graduating top of his class at the Glasgow Athenaeum School of Music, one of the youngest in his year, he continued his studies on the east coast, completing a PhD under musicologist Sir Donald Francis Tovey at Edinburgh University.
Chisholm was a keen proponent of traditional Scottish music in the wider performing arts; he co-founded the Celtic Ballet with Margaret Morris (wife of the Scottish Colourist J. D. Fergusson) and was the first composer to incorporate the Scottish idiom, and particularly the tropes and motifs found in traditional Gaelic folk tunes, into classical music.
His first piano concerto, an orchestral work in four movements (completed while he was still a student), incorporates many of the evolutions and figures associated with highland bagpipe music (ceòl mòr), which led to it becoming known as the Piobaireachd Concerto.
Early in his career, alongside friends and fellow composers Francis George Scott and Pat Shannon, Chisholm founded the Active Society for the Propagation of Contemporary Music. Despite its vaguely botanical sounding name, the Active Society brought internationally renowned composers such as Béla Bartók, Paul Hindemith, Arnold Bax, William Walton and Kaikhosru Sorabji to Glasgow to conduct and perform their own works, including many UK and some world premières.
An archive of Chisholm-related ephemera was donated to the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland’s Archives & Collections by his oldest daughter, Morag Chisholm, in 2016. It included an extensive run of correspondence between Chisholm and the avant-garde pianist / composer Sorabji, beginning around the same time as the formation of the Active Society, and continuing until Chisholm’s death in 1965.
After formal enough correspondence on musical matters, the letters grow ever more personal, and reading them makes clear that over the years Sorabji grew to fall in love with Chisholm. It’s important to remember that in the 1930s homosexuality was illegal in the United Kingdom, and at the time these letters were being exchanged their contents could have been actionable.
Sorabji’s love was unrequited; Chisholm was straight, but obviously held no objection to Sorabji’s protestations of his feelings. The correspondence includes two love poems dedicated to Chisholm, a number of highly personal exchanges, and a lock of Sorabji’s hair.
It speaks to Chisholm’s open mind (he was a vegetarian, anti-apartheid campaigner and pacifist) that their friendship clearly meant a lot to him, and the record of it all survives in beautiful – if somewhat tragic – detail in our archives.
View the catalogue of the Chisholm Archive.