The following piece has been drawn from 16 lectures presented by Erik Chisholm at the 1964 University of Cape Town Summer School
1930s Glasgow: gangs and razor-slashing, slums and children stunted by rickets, the tenements and the shipyards, the dole and the slow shuffling queues of the unemployed. That's the usual picture. But there's another side, now little-known or remembered. Foreshadowing the European City of Culture of the 1990s, Glasgow in the 1930s led the promotion of new and avant-garde music. Under the auspices of the cumbersomely named Glasgow Active Society for the Propagation of Contemporary Music, the heroes of modern music came to the city.
This was the initiative of the 24-year-old Erik Chisholm. Born in 1904 in Cathcart, he left school at 13 but enrolled in the Atheneum (later the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama). In 1928, he was appointed organist of the then St Matthew's Church in Bath Street at the Charing Cross end, moving a few years later in 1933 to the Barony Church (now the Graduation Hall of Strathclyde University) which he used as his launching-pad.
He started off with organ recitals. Apart from standard Bach, he also – with impish intention to épater les bourgeois
? – included transcriptions of orchestral pieces not yet in the programmes of the Scottish Orchestra, such as Stravinsky's Rite of Spring
and Richard Strauss' Don Quixote
In an unpublished memoir written 30 years later when he was Professor of Music in Cape Town, Chisholm gives the 'inside' story of these organ recitals:
I asked a bright young student friend of mine, Patrick Shannon, to assist me in these orchestral transcriptions, to the extent of placing himself inside the organ case, and banging cymbals, side drums, triangles, castanets and so on, at appropriate places in the score. Of course, nobody knew he was there, and I didn't fail to make a flowery gesture with my hand or foot to show the audience it was all my own work.
The music-liking Glaswegians ('it would be an exaggeration ever to call them music-lovers') began to sit up and take notice.
So next, the Chisholm-Shannon partnership launched a series of National Musical Recitals, Pat playing the orchestral parts on the organ and Erik the solo piano parts. Programmes included Bartok's First Piano Concerto
and Medtner's Second Piano Concerto
. To keep up the reputation of the organ itself, a new recruit had to be found to play percussion in the organ case. Unfortunately, he 'couldn't count rests properly' and 'clashed his cymbals fortissimo in a quiet bit in a slow movement'. That was the end of the unique orchestral organ.
And maybe the beginning of the end, too, of the 'harum-scarum' Pat's musical career. 'A gifted and versatile young musician, playing piano for a sketchy living in bioscope, cafe, pub, and music hall', he soon after turned his talents in a different direction and in 1934 took Holy Orders, rising to become Provost of St Andrew's (Episcopal) Cathedral, Aberdeen.
Meanwhile, Chisholm got the church choir to perform a notably difficult work, Kodaly's Psalmus Hungaricus
, written only a few years before in 1923. The solo tenor part was sung by Logan Annand, 'one of our own boys', who 'had a habit of cupping his right hand in his ear as though trying to sell coal in the Cowcaddens' – a now obscure allusion explicated by John Purser in his critical biography, Erik Chisholm, Scottish Modernist 1904-1965
In Chisholm's day the Cowcaddens area of the city contained some of its oldest and most characterful, as well as poverty-stricken, housing. Coalmen ... would project their melancholy cries of 'COOOAAAL' towards the top floors of five-storey tenements, and then cup their ears to hear the reply from hastily-raised sash windows. If coal were needed, these same men would carry hundred-weight sacks up five flights, day after day.
Next towards the advancement of contemporary music, Chisholm invited the rising young Scots musician, Ian Whyte (composer, conductor, founder of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra), to give a full recital of his compositions. 'We saw at once the possibilities of having guest artists' and 'big names' to increase the range of the concerts and attract a wider public.
The problem was finance. Pat and Erik were two ambitious young men who 'desperately wanted to promote contemporary music' but had nothing in their pockets, and the silver collection taken at the church 'just about paid for the printing of the programme'. The difficulty was got round by inviting the public to subscribe in advance to the proposed first series of 12 concerts at an all-in subscription of 21/-.
'We gave all our distinguished visitors as large a fee as we could afford', but in the 10 years of the Society's existence 'none of our local performers ever got a penny for their services – there just wasn't any money left'. Nor did Chisholm himself ever earn anything from the concerts:
The contemporary music concerts I ran and financed almost single-handed for about the years in Glasgow... brought me no income. On the contrary, they resulted in well nigh wrecking my own private practice as a music teacher, it being whispered around – 'if we send our children to Chisholm for music, they will get nothing but the music of Bartok and Schonberg to play'.
The venue for the concerts was moved to the Stevenson Hall in the Atheneum in Buchanan Street but a few of the bigger concerts were given in the St Andrew's Berkeley Hall. 'At no time did we have more than 200 people in the audience – which I thought pretty skimpy until a member of the Schonberg group later told me that 200 was for them a maximum audience for their Vienna Contemporary Music Concerts.'
With the optimism of youth, Chisholm invited leading international composers to take part and perform, and 'quite a number… did accept our invitation' including Bartok, Casella, Hindemith, Shostakovich, and Sorabji.
Thus was born the Glasgow Active Society for the Propagation of Contemporary Music – 'probably founded around June 1930', suggests John Purser, 'but not formally constituted until 13 October 1930 in the showrooms of Chisholm Decorators [the family firm of painters and decorator] at 63 Berkeley Street'.
'We wrote to a number of top musicians all over the world telling them what we proposed doing, and asking them if they would become office-bearers of our Society.' Nobody refused. The Honorary Vice-Presidents included Bartok, Bax, Lord Berners, Bliss, Casella, Delius, Van Dieren, Hindemith, Medtner, Sibelius and Walton. 'The concerts, which ran from 1930 to 1937, were impressive in their scope', declares John Purser, 'showing breadth of taste and an ability to attract some of Europe's most significant composers and performers'.
No less a figure than Hugh Roberton (from 1932 'Sir' Hugh Roberton), founder and conductor of the Glasgow Orpheus Choir, hailed the formation of the Active Society:
I see in this a young man's revolt... a revolt against the innate conservatism of musical bodies; the cry of the children of liberty to express themselves... A brilliant start is being made, such a start as could only be made by young men. Glasgow is thereby honoured. Will Glasgow rise to the occasion?
That remains to be seen.
Sheila Chisholm is the daughter of Erik Chisholm. Having trained as a ballet dancer, she was a teacher and headed the one and only ballet department in education in the House of Representatives. She has been ballet, drama and musical theatre critic for the 'Cape Times' and 'weekendspecial', Cape Town's digital arts magazine