The independent – Tuesday 13 May 2003
Arthur Oldham – Founder of the Edinburgh Festival Chorus
Arthur Oldham created the Edinburgh Festival Chorus in 1965 for one of the earliest British performances of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony. He nurtured his singers for a further 12 years, giving them a distinctive musical personality. He later returned to the chorus in 1987, where one of highlights of his time was a performance of Schoenberg’s
Moses und Aron at the 1992 festival. He also founded choruses for Daniel Barenboim at the Orchestre de Paris and Bernard Haitink at the Royal Concertgebow in Amsterdam.
Arthur William Oldham, composer and director of music: born London 6 September 1926; twice married (two sons, two daughters); died Villejuif, France 4 May 2003.
Arthur Oldham created the Edinburgh Festival Chorus in 1965 for one of the earliest British performances of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony. He nurtured his singers for a further 12 years, giving them a distinctive musical personality. He later returned to the chorus in 1987, where one of highlights of his time was a performance of Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron at the 1992 festival. He also founded choruses for Daniel Barenboim at the Orchestre de Paris and Bernard Haitink at the Royal Concertgebow in Amsterdam.
All of which should not overshadow Oldham’s early success as a composer. His ballet Mr Punch (1946) attracted attention when it was first performed by the Ballet Rambert at Sadler’s Wells. He had been appointed musical director of the Rambert the previous year at the age of just 19. Mr Punch was taken on the Rambert’s 1947-48 tour of Australia and New Zealand. Another important work was Psalms in Time of War, which he wrote as a tribute to the Edinburgh Festival Chorus, and was performed at the Edinburgh International Festival in 1977. Oldham continued to compose all his life, mainly religious settings.
Mahler’s Eighth Symphony (“Symphony of a Thousand”) is scored for – and occasionally performed by – 1,029 musicians. It is one of the most demanding works in the repertoire. In a letter to Willem Mengelberg, Mahler wrote of his epic work:
Imagine that the Universe bursts into song. We hear no longer human voices, but those of planets and suns which revolve.
It was the Earl of Harewood, then Director of the Edinburgh International Festival, who suggested the idea of a festival chorus. At the time Oldham was director of music at St Mary’s Cathedral, Edinburgh. He brought together a choir of 240 adults and 100 boys for the event, which he later recalled: “The music was so glorious, so incredibly well written for the voices and so original, that the enthusiasm of my vast army of singers carried all before it.”
Arthur Oldham was born in London in 1926. He was orphaned at 14 when he awoke one morning to find his mother had gassed herself in the kitchen oven. It was a trauma that returned to haunt him in the 1950s, and from which he only recovered after recuperating in a Dominican priory.
Penniless, at the age of 16 he won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music. There he studied with composition with Herbert Howells. After presenting some first-year compositions to Benjamin Britten after a concert, Oldham became a frequent visitor to the composer’s Suffolk home. However, his attempts to write accessible choral music brought the two into conflict. They were later reconciled at Edinburgh, where they worked together on Voices for Today and the War Requiem.
After working for the Ballet Rambert and recovering from his breakdown, Oldham became director of music at St Mary’s, the Roman Catholic Cathedral in Edinburgh, in 1956. He later added the position of chorus master at Scottish Opera and the London Symphony Chorus to his portfolio. He moved to France in the mid-1970s, but retained his links with Edinburgh, returning as chorus master in 1987 after an absence of 10 years. He retired from the festival chorus in 1994.
In 1976, having auditioned 1,700 applicants, Oldham presented the 200-strong Chorus of the Orchestre de Paris in what Le Monde described as “a baptism of fire” in Berlioz’s Te Deum under the direction of Barenboim. In 1976 he marked his 20th anniversary with the chorus with a new work entitled The Will of Villon before retiring last year.
Oldham reputedly once said to his singers: “You have given me your voices, you have given me your music. Now give me your hearts.” Heart was perhaps the secret of his success.