ARTHUR Oldham, the composer and choirmaster who founded the Edinburgh Festival Chorus, has died, aged 78.
Mr Oldham had been suffering from cancer for at least a year, but had only recently retired as chorus master of the Orchestre de Paris.
He was remembered yesterday as a major figure on the Scottish music scene who, in the 1950s and 1960s, inspired students at Edinburgh’s Scotus Academy and choristers at St Mary’s Cathedral, later helping to found both the Festival Chorus and Scottish Opera Chorus.
His first triumphant festival production in 1965 set a standard which he would meet continually in two spells in charge of the choir.
Sung in German, it was the British premiere of Mahler’s eighth symphony, featuring a choir of 240 adults and 100 boys alongside the orchestra.
“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,” he recalled.
Nearly 40 years later, Mr Oldham attended a version of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin performed at last year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
Composed by an ex-St Mary’s chorister, Mike Maran, the show was staged by Philip Contini, the managing director of the delicatessen Valvona and Crolla, who, at 11, had been the youngest member of the 1965 choir.
Their former teacher was thrilled with the result.
“It was so moving,” recalled Mr Contini. “At the end of the show, his arms were outstretched and he said, ‘My boys, these are my boys’. We had always been so desperate to please him – it was like we were children again.”
Born in London, Oldham was a penniless orphan of 16 when he won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music.
At a first-year college concert he handed some of his own compositions to the composer Benjamin Britten.
Impressed, Britten offered the student private tuition and the two met frequently at the composer’s Suffolk home. Through Britten, Mr Oldham was introduced to a wider musical circle, including the tenor Peter Pears and the horn-player Dennis Brain.
Though relations between master and pupil were soured by a bitter argument, Mr Oldham and Britten were later reconciled and collaborated on the Edinburgh International Festival productions of Voices for Today and War Requiem.
In 1945 – at just 19 – Mr Oldham was appointed musical director of Ballet Rambert, and went on to write works for London’s Royal Ballet.
However a period of intense work and heavy drinking was followed by a nervous breakdown. In a brief memoir, published in 2000, Mr Oldham revealed that the suicide of his mother when he was just 14 had haunted him.
After she had threatened to gas herself, he woke one morning to find her dead body in the kitchen. “I held myself responsible for my mother’s death,” he wrote.
It was only a spell of work and recuperation in a Dominican priory that enabled Mr Oldham to find music again, and led to his appointment at St Mary’s Cathedral.
In the years that followed, Mr Oldham prided himself on the quality of his choirs, including the Scottish Opera and London Symphony choruses and Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw Choir.
His reputation for hard work was underlined by his continuing commitment to the Edinburgh Festival Chorus long after his move to France in the 1970s.
Sir Brian McMaster, the director of the Edinburgh International Festival, said: “Arthur was loved; he was that sort of big personality.”
Recalling their first collaboration, Sir Brian went on: “I asked him to produce Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron, on the first night of the 1992 festival. No amateur chorus had sung it, it’s unbelievably difficult. But he did it, and everyone knew they had been part of something amazing.”
He is survived by his second wife, Annie, his first wife, Eileen, and four children.