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by Fiona McKnight

The discovery of a small collection of correspondence between Erik Chisholm and Serge Prokofiev came about quite by accident. The Serge Prokofiev Archive at Goldsmiths, University of London, holds a substantial collection of letters (in the region of 16,000 pages) written by and received by Prokofiev during the years he spent outside the Soviet Union (1918-1936). Filling some 45 folders, these pages shed fascinating light not only on the daily life and work of Prokofiev, but on his many and illustrious correspondents, including Stravinsky, Miaskovsky and Diaghilev.

Until 2006, the Prokofiev correspondence was accessible only by browsing through the letters chronologically, a fascinating but time-consuming process. However, following the completion of a project to index the letters by correspondent name, date, address and language, quick and efficient searching of the collection is now possible at the Archive.  The index reveals that Prokofiev corresponded with a number of figures from the world of British music in the 1920s and early 1930s, including Albert Coates, Henry Wood, M. Montagu-Nathan and Frank Merrick, and it was during  a search for any Prokofiev correspondence linked with Scotland, that the name of Erik Chisholm appeared several times.

The Prokofiev-Chisholm correspondence spans a period of nearly five years, from January 1931 to September 1935 (almost at the end of the collection held at the Serge Prokofiev Archive). Whether the two stayed in touch after Prokofiev’s return to Russia in early 1936 remains unclear – while the final letter here does not seem to be the end of their conversation, any extant correspondence after 1936 would be in archives in Russia.[1]

Though Erik Chisholm focused his considerable energies in a number of directions – composing, teaching, performing, writing – it was in his capacity as an indefatigable promoter of contemporary music that he came into contact with Prokofiev. In his home city of Glasgow, Chisholm founded the Active Society for the Propagation of Contemporary Music in 1930, with a friend, Patrick Shannon. The mission of the Society was to bring to Glasgow (and occasionally Edinburgh) musicians of international standing, and to secure performances of works otherwise infrequently programmed.

Chisholm was the ideal man for such a task – his persistence and unfailing enthusiasm for such projects (which shines through in his correspondence) resulted in some notable events: it was he who organised and directed the first performance in Britain of Mozart’s Idomeneo in 1934, and of Berlioz’s Les Troyens  in 1935 through his work with the Glasgow Grand Opera Society. Turning his attention to contemporary music, Chisholm’s speculative invitations (with the offer of an extremely modest fee) led to performances in the 1930s in Glasgow by figures such as Hindemith, Casella, Szymanowski and Bartok.

In January 1931, Chisholm approached Prokofiev for the first time, proposing that he perform in Glasgow, since Chisholm had heard that the Russian (who was at this time still resident in Paris) would be playing in London the following week. The short notice of the request meant that Prokofiev received the letter too late, but he suggested that Chisholm correspond with his Paris agent Marcel de Valmalète, as he would certainly be interested for the future.

A similar invitation followed from Chisholm in August 1931, and it was at this point that confusion arose between Prokofiev, Valmalète and Chisholm; Valmalète replied to Chisholm mistakenly quoting Prokofiev’s fee as £80. This horrified the Active Society since, as Chisholm repeatedly told Prokofiev “like all Contemporary Music Societies I have ever heard of we have only very small financial reserves”[2] – and the plan was shelved.

However, subsequent exchanges between Prokofiev and Chisholm clarified that Prokofiev would be prepared to consider a lower fee if the engagement could be arranged to coincide with a visit to London, though by this time it was too late for the 1931 season.

By 1932, the Active Society’s funds were even more restricted since the Scotto-Russian Society, who had previously been relied upon to supplement performer fees, had been disbanded. Chisholm therefore tried other methods of encouraging Prokofiev: suggesting he perform in Glasgow while in Britain for engagements in London (his suggestion was the trip in June 1932 during which Prokofiev made his well-known recording of his Piano Concert No. 3 with the London Symphony Orchestra and Piero Coppola). He also proposed additional recitals in Edinburgh and St Andrew’s to make the journey north more worthwhile, or collaborative events with chamber musicians, and he even wrote to the committee of the Scottish Orchestra[3] to suggest that they engage Prokofiev to perform one of his concertos, but warned that

    “this committee consists of the older generation of people who are very conservative in their outlook – however we shall see!”[4]

However, none of Chisholm’s considerable efforts yielded any result. A rather disconcerted letter of September 1932 to Prokofiev summed up the position to date:

   “It is more than two years since we first wrote to you to arrange a concert, and we will be very sad if it is not possible to arrange something. You are one of the greatest living composers, and we believe that a programme of the nature offered by the Active Society will not be complete without the honour of a personal visit.”[5]

Prokofiev’s greatly hoped-for trip to Scotland never took place. By the early 1930s, Prokofiev had begun to move the centre of his activities from Paris to Moscow, and  was spending increasingly lengthy periods in the Soviet Union. Despite apparent willingness on both sides, and great enthusiasm on Chisholm’s part, the two men could not make the trip materialise. However, this was not the end for Prokofiev and Chisholm.

In November 1932, Prokofiev wrote to Chisholm to say that he was sorry that their long correspondence had not resulted in a concert, but also that he had a proposal. He writes (in French):

I leave shortly for a tour of concerts and, among other cities, I will visit Moscow and Leningrad. A new Parisian contemporary chamber music society, called Le Triton, suggested to me that I use the opportunity of this trip to arrange the performance in Moscow of some chamber pieces by modern French composers. In exchange, Le Triton will arrange performances in Paris of pieces by Russian composers which the society in Moscow recommends to them.
The idea came to me to ask you if a similar exchange wouldn’t interest the Active Society. If it does, I can suggest some English pieces in exchange for the same number of Russian pieces which the Active Society would include in their programmes.
[As I leave Paris tomorrow, I ask you to send your response so that I can receive it between the 16th and 19th November in Warsaw, Hotel Europejski]. The only thing that I ask is that your proposal is made in precise terms, so that my conversation with the chamber music societies in Moscow can take place without any misunderstanding. A half-hour of music will be, in my opinion, sufficient for the first time.”[6]

Chisholm responded in typically enthusiastic fashion, although he slightly misunderstood, thinking that Prokofiev was proposing a link with Le Triton. This society, of whose ‘Active Committee’ Prokofiev was a member, had been established earlier that year with a similar mission to that proposed by Prokofiev to Chisholm, though its circle spread wider than solely the Soviet Union.

However, on this occasion, Prokofiev was operating independently, and as he wrote to Chisholm, his idea came from:

“a desire to make Scottish music better known in Russia and to do the same in exchange with Russian music in Glasgow.”[7]

and so clearly went beyond his involvement with the society in Paris. This is not a lone instance of Prokofiev’s interest in contemporary music both in the Soviet Union and in Western Europe; in numerous letters to cultural figures he mentions young composers and or performers whose work or interpretation has impressed him. From a man who was so single-minded about his own music and was direct (to say the least), when something failed to impress, this may seem a little incongruous, but it seems that Prokofiev strongly and genuinely felt the possibility and perhaps responsibility to really bring about cultural exchange from his rather unique position, based in Paris, but touring extensively in the Soviet Union and building a career in that very different cultural world.

The problems and opportunities of his position between these two musical worlds had in fact long occupied Prokofiev’s mind. Following the warm reception he received on his first return visit to the Soviet Union in 1927, his links were strengthened, both personally, with more frequent correspondence with his friends back in Russia, and professionally, with concerts, productions of staged works, and finally, in 1933, a commission (the score for the film Lieutenant Kijé). It was in this context that Prokofiev, as David Nice states, “took it upon himself to act as musical ambassador for the exchange of chamber music”[8] – reflected in his proposal for Erik Chisholm.

The arrangements with Chisholm for an exchange of Russian and Scottish music proceeded. Chisholm recommended to Prokofiev the vocal music of Francis George Scott, as well as his own Double Trio. By February 1933, Prokofiev was able to report that his suggestion had met with approval in Moscow, and that he would take the music when he returned there in April. However, the parcel of music did not reach Paris in time for Prokofiev to take the scores, and delivery was re-scheduled for October. In return, he had initially suggested the 2nd String Quartet by Miaskovsky, but when this was turned down by Chisholm, he wrote in August 1933:

“I brought from Moscow several new chamber music compositions which I hold at your disposal. As I remember, you would not like to have large ensembles nor string quartets. Would you be interested in a quartet for flute, oboe, clarinet and bassoon, by D. Melkikh? In the affirmative, I can send you the score for study. In the negative, let me know what kind of ensembles you would prefer.”[9]

It was at this point that the arrangement seems to have unravelled a little – there is nothing in the correspondence to indicate what Chisholm thought of Melkikh’s quartet (which was sent to Glasgow), despite numerous enquiries from Prokofiev and from his secretary Mikhail Astroff. There is no evidence in any programmes or reviews of the Active Society’s concerts of the work having been performed, so the question remains sadly unanswered.

From the Russian side, Prokofiev told Chisholm in December 1933 that

    “The melodies by Scott have been announced in the series of the chamber music concerts of the Union of Composers, Moscow. As soon as they will be performed, I will send you the program.”[10]

There is no neat ending to this story – it is unknown whether any performances materialised from Prokofiev and Chisholm’s efforts. However, it does highlight certain themes: Prokofiev’s interest in, and altruistic efforts to promote contemporary music have received relatively little attention in discussion about his life and work. Furthermore, his correspondence with Chisholm highlights Prokofiev’s unusual position in the early 1930s, hovering between East and West. From Chisholm’s side, connections were later developed with the Soviet Union – he was invited to serve on a jury in a composition competition in Moscow in 1952, where Shostakovich was the chairman, and met Shostakovich again in Moscow and also in Edinburgh in 1962. It was Shostakovich who suggested that Chisholm’s folk songs were published by the State Music Publishers, and a collection of 49 of these were published in 1964, shortly before Chisholm’s death.

Fiona McKnight

Thanks to Dr John Purser (whose Erik Chisholm, Scottish Modernist (1904-1965), Chasing a Restless Muse will be published by Boydell and Brewer in June 2009), Lesley Hart of University of Cape Town Libraries, and to Erik Chisholm’s daughter and grand-daughter Morag Chisholm and Fiona Wright, for information on Erik Chisholm.

Fiona McKnight is Archivist of the Serge Prokofiev Archive at Goldsmiths, University of London.


[1] In addition to the Serge Prokofiev Archive in London, there are two major collections of Prokofiev papers in Moscow, held at RGALI (the State Archive of Literature and Art) and the Glinka Museum of Musical Culture. These cover his early years in Imperial Russia, and the period between his permanent return to the Soviet Union in 1936 and his death in 1953. For more information on the collections, see Noëlle Mann, “An Unlikely Alliance: Prokofiev and London” in Three Oranges, the journal of the Serge Prokofiev Foundation, No. 2 (2001), 34-37.

[2] Letter from Erik Chisholm to Serge Prokofiev, 5 August 1933 (Serge Prokofiev Archive).

[3] Now the Royal Scottish National Orchestra.

[4] Letter from Erik Chisholm to Serge Prokofiev, 19 June 1932 (Serge Prokofiev Archive).

[5] Letter from Erik Chisholm and Diana Brodie to Serge Prokofiev, 3 September 1932 (Serge Prokofiev Archive).

[6] Letter from Serge Prokofiev to Erik Chisholm, 10 November 1932 (Serge Prokofiev Archive).

[7] Letter from Serge Prokofiev to Erik Chisholm, 19 November 1932 (Serge Prokofiev Archive).

[8] David Nice, Prokofiev: From Russia to the West 1891-1935 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2003), 303.

[9] Letter from Serge Prokofiev to Erik Chisholm, 16 August 1933 (Serge Prokofiev Archive).

[10] Letter from Serge Prokofiev to Erik Chisholm, 18 December 1933 (Serge Prokofiev Archive). There is no programme of a Moscow concert among the Erik Chisholm papers held at the University of Cape Town.


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