Tuesday 10 August 2021

Rooted in Scottish soil: an exploration of the songs by Scotland's woefully ignored son, Erik Chisholm

Erik Chisholm songs; Mhairi Lawson, Nicky Spence, Michael Mofidian, Iain Burnside; Delphian

Erik Chisholm songs; Mhairi Lawson, Nicky Spence, Michael Mofidian, Iain Burnside; Delphian

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 30 July 2021 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
An exploration of Erik Chisholm's songs proves a richly rewarding experience with three Scottish singers relishing both music and text

Scotland is still in the process of making musical restitution to its woefully ignored son, Erik Chisholm. Whilst much is available on disc, including his opera Simoon [see my review], there is plenty which is unrecorded (there are nine operas in total). A disc from Delphian gives us a chance to explore Erik Chisholm's songs performed by Mhairi Lawson (soprano), Nicky Spence (tenor), Michael Mofidian (bass-baritone) and Iain Burnside (piano).

The songs prove to be something of a surprise for anyone expecting a contemporary 20th century take on the song genre. It is worth whilst bearing in mind the comparison of Chisholm to Bartok, for their way of absorbing folk-idioms into their style with understanding and daring. The disc has a small group of songs setting English poetry, but the majority are Scots ranging from William Soutar, to Chisholm's own versions of older texts to a set of poems by Lillias Scott (daughter of the Scottish composer Francis George Scott) who became his second wife. This perhaps gives a hint why the songs have not been explored more until now; all three singers are Scottish and their use of the Scots tongue is fearless in these songs. And I have to confess that the comic songs setting William Soutar sent me scurrying to the texts (and the glossaries) to work out what was going on. 

Many of the Soutar settings and other Scots texts use melodies which Chisholm culled from Patrick MacDonald's A Collection of Scottish Airs, which was published in 1784 and a copy of which was given to Chisholm when he was a boy.

There is no Gaelic used in the songs, Chisholm's approach is firmly lowlands using the Scots tongue, but he contributes his own modern versions of some older Gaelic texts. Evidently the music came first, and it was his intention to find a text suitable for the song, and the online catalogue of Chisholm's work includes an admirable page which makes it clear quite how the songs from the MacDonald collection were an integral part of Chisholm's inspiration.

The fascinating thing is that when combining these Scots poems and Celtic tunes, Chisholm seems to have felt a licence to make the piano work harder. Whether the songs are comic, melancholy or serious, the piano parts have a distinctly 20th century feel to them, yet they fit the songs without calling too much attention to themselves. It is worth bearing in mind Chisholm's age and era, he was only nine years older than Britten and just a year older than Tippett, yet because his mature years were spent in South Africa he feels as if he belongs to a different musical culture. And in a way he does, Chisholm seems to be deeply rooted in Scotland, but its texts and its traditional music, yet like Bartok could re-work it for his own ends.

He could be equally innovative with English texts, as the characterful setting of GK Chesterton's The Donkey shows whilst his AE Housman setting, The Offending Eye, owes nothing to the English pastoral tradition of setting this poet. But he also hauls non-Scots texts into Scotland, so that his terrific setting of Randall Swingler's political ballad Sixty Cubic Feet has a distinctly Scots folk feel to it without blunting any of Swingler's point (the poet was a regular collaborator with composer Alan Bush). Similarly, the Thomas Wyatt setting To his Love whom he has Kissed against her Will has a tune that sounds pure Scots (whether invented or no), yet a complex piano part.

In the centre of the disc are the seven settings of poems by Lillias Scott. These are again in Scots, by turns lyric, melancholy, intense and characterful, but with melodies by Chisholm himself and piano parts which seem to retire somewhat, allowing words to step forward.

The fascinating thing about the music is that whether Chisholm was re-using an original Gaelic melody or inventing something of his own, the music of Scotland seems never far away. Even the full-invented pieces seem rooted in Scottish soil, somehow, which is profoundly ironic given that from 1940 he was working for ENSA, touring Italy, working in South-East Asia and India, and from 1946 he moved to South Africa to take up the post of professor of music at the University of Cape Town and director of the South African College of Music. John Purser's admirable introduction to the songs in the CD booklet is sparse with dates, but it is tempting to feel that many of these works are the music of exile.

The three singers on the disc have very different voices, but each grasps their songs with a strength and character which bespeaks strong identification with the music. Whether singing in English or Scots or Russian (we are treated to a Russian version of one song!), all three are vividly communicative and seem to particularly relish the Scots numbers, making the language really count and whether the songs are serious or comic, the performers seem to be having fun. Iain Burnside provides a sympathetic accompanist whether adding discreet support or weaving a more complex web of sound.

The Russian song on the disc arises from Chisholm's 1960 visit to Russia, when he showed his collection of Scots songs to Shostakovich who suggested publication by the USSR State Publishers. This eventually resulted in the book Celtic Folk Songs, limited to 49 songs, with text in English and Russian, published in 1964. It is currently available from the Erik Chisholm website.

This disc is a superb foray into Erik Chisholm's song writing and makes you want to listen to more. There are plenty more, the Erik Chisholm website includes a catalogue which lists them all [http://www.erikchisholm.com/catalogueraisonne/index.php], I do hope other singers feel up to exploring.

We need to hear more of Chisholm's music to put these into context, but the disc itself makes for a satisfying and bracing recital, and I love the way the songs move quickly from the evocative, serious or sentimental to the characterful and bleakly comic. 

Erik Chisholm (1904-1965)
Twelve Songs: No. 11, The Donkey
2 Twelve Songs: No. 9, The Bee
3 Snail, Snail, Shoot Out Your Horn
4 The Fairies
5 Cradle-Croon
6 The Prodigy
7 Summer Song
8 The Braw Plum
9 The Three Worthies
10 Dirge for Summer
11 Poems of Love: No. 1, Love's Reward
12 Poems of Love: No. 2, Johnnie Logie
13 Poems of Love: No. 3, Skreigh o' Day
14 Poems of Love: No. 4, Fragment. Lament
15 Poems of Love: No. 5, Prayer
16 Poems of Love: No. 6, Innocence
17 Poems of Love: No. 7, Hert's Sang
18 Oisean’s Song
19 Glances
20 Sixty Cubic Feet
21 The Offending Eye
22 Another Incitement for the Gales
23 Diarmait's Sleep
24 Fiddler's Bidding
25 The Barnyards o' Delgaty
26 Lament
27 There's a Fine Braw Thistle
28 The Chailleach: My Spiteful Old Woman
29 Regrets
30 Dan Liughair
31 Hame
32 Cock-Robin
33 The Chailleach: Шейла, моя злая жена
34 The Mermaid’s Song
35 To His Love Whom He Has Kissed Against Her Will
36 Home Sickness 

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