Conrad Wilson


Arthur Oldham

Founder of the Edinburgh Festival Chorus, he mastered the most complex works
If Wilhelm Pitz, who simultaneously trained the Bayreuth Festival Chorus in Germany and the Philharmonia Chorus in London, was the first of the great flying chorusmasters, Arthur Oldham, who has died in Paris aged 76, was undoubtedly the second. His work with the Edinburgh Festival Chorus, which he founded in 1965, was a career in itself. But the opportunity to found the Choeur de l’Orchestre de Paris (1975), which later prompted a move from Scotland to France, proved irresistible, as did the creation of the Concertgebouw Orchestra Chorus in Amsterdam (1979), the directorship of the London Symphony Orchestra Chorus from 1969 to 1976, and the polishing of the Scottish Opera Chorus, from 1966 to 1974.

Not even Oldham could have sustained all five appointments. There was never a period when his choruses were simultaneously dependent on his ability to teach them. In Scotland alone, he had weekly rehearsals in Edinburgh and Glasgow before the two main contingents of the Festival Chorus (there was also an Aberdeen offshoot) finally pieced together whatever masterpieces were to be performed under whatever great conductors at the Edinburgh Festival each year. When, as happened in 1992, Schoenberg’s Moses Und Aron was chosen, the complexity of Oldham’s task spoke for itself.

Yet the opportunity to rehearse a notoriously intractable work for a whole year formed part of the quest for perfection which had begun when Lord Harewood, the festival’s then director, and Alexander Gibson, conductor of the Scottish National Orchestra, invited Oldham to found a great Scottish chorus capable of singing the most difficult pieces. On that occasion, the objective was the Scottish premiere of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, which Harewood wanted to present not as a freakish « Symphony of a Thousand », but simply as the masterpiece it is.

Oldham responded enthusiastically, travelling Scotland in search of choristers (finding « a voice like Fischer-Dieskau’s here, a perfect Verdi tenor there »), and training them to a standard which won instant international acclaim.

What might have been a one-off performance led in succeeding years to Verdi’s Requiem under Carlo Maria Giulini, Prokofiev’s Seven, They Are Seven under Gennady Rozhdestvensky, Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony under Leonard Bernstein, Brahms’s German Requiem under Daniel Barenboim, and Stravinsky’s Symphony Of Psalms under Claudio Abbado. All of these performances were notable for the punchiness which became an Oldham hallmark.

Yet to become a chorusmaster had never been his ambition. Born in London, he studied composition at the Royal College of Music under Herbert Howells, before moving to Aldeburgh as Benjamin Britten’s only private pupil. The resultant opera, Love In A Village (1952), was staged by the English Opera Group, but dismissed by one London newspaper as « once Britten, twice shy ».

It took time, plus a nervous breakdown and a period working as a messenger in the BBC’s newsroom, to recover from such slights, but Oldham’s move to Edinburgh and conversion to Roman Catholicism provided the cure. As a teacher at Scotus Academy and choirmaster at St Mary’s Roman Catholic Cathedral, Edinburgh, he found his way back into music. Giulini, attending mass during the Edinburgh Festival, noted the « continental » sound of the choirboys, very different from the traditional English coo.

True, Georg Solti, employing Oldham’s boys in Berlioz’s Damnation Of Faust, hissed afterwards that they had been out of tune. But there were no more breakdowns. Oldham’s career was heading elsewhere, and Solti was a conductor with whom he later worked productively.

Before Oldham’s move to Paris in 1977, he said farewell to the Festival Chorus with Psalms In Times Of War, a substantial new work written in his by then characteristically direct style. In 1987 he would return to his old chorus, commuting weekly from France and training a new generation of choristers with fresh vigour.

When he decided to retire to Paris in 1994, some of his French singers flew to Edinburgh to take part in his final Scottish performances. Deep-voiced and bearded, he could look and sound ferocious. In fact, he was warm and humorous, and was worshipped by all who worked with him.

He was twice married and is survived by two sons and two daughters.

· Arthur William Oldham, chorusmaster and composer, born September 6 1926; died May 4 2003