Arthur Oldham, composer and choirmaster
Born: 6 September, 1926, in London Died: 4 May, 2003, in Paris
ARTHUR Oldham, whose funeral takes place in Paris today, will be particularly remembered for establishing his worldwide reputation with the Edinburgh Festival Chorus.
He went on to found the choruses of the Orchestre de Paris, at the request of Daniel Barenboim, in 1976 and the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam in 1980, as well as enjoying successful spells with Scottish Opera and the London Symphony Orchestra chorus.
Oldham worked with most of the leading conductors – Solti, Previn, Kerestsz, Davis, Karajan, Barenboim, Bernstein, Abbado and Giulini among them – while continuing to compose, which he first did under his mentor, Benjamin Britten, as a student at the Royal College of Music.
However, it was when he came to Scotland to take up the post of choirmaster at St Mary’s Roman Catholic Cathedral in Edinburgh in 1956 that he was to discover his true mtier and develop into one of the world’s leading choir trainers.
Born in 1926, Oldham would later acknowledge that his childhood had had a profound impact on his life.
His father was 62 when Oldham was born, and he knew him only as an “elderly, rather withdrawn gentleman”. He said relations with his mother, who was a much younger and more extrovert person, were “inevitably strained”, and the death of his father when Arthur was 12 was to plunge her into depression and eventual suicide two years later.
However, with the encouragement of his teachers, Oldham won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music. At a first-year college concert, he handed some of his compositions to Benjamin Britten. Impressed, Britten offered the student private tuition and he became a frequent visitor to Snape, the composer’s Suffolk home. Through Britten, he was introduced to a wider musical circle, including the horn player Dennis Brain and the tenor Peter Pears.
Relations between master and pupil were soured for a while in the 1950s, for which Oldham blamed himself, but they were soon reconciled and collaborated on productions of Voices for Today and War Requiem for the Edinburgh International Festival in the 1960s.
Back in 1945, at the age of only 19, Oldham had been appointed musical director of Ballet Rambert, and he went on to compose for London’s Royal Ballet. He became a familiar figure in Soho’s bohemian milieu, mixing with the likes of Francis Bacon, Dylan Thomas – “whom I met only once, and he was incoherently drunk” – and his intimate friends “the two Roberts”, Scottish painters Colquhoun and McBride.
A period of intense work and heavy drinking, as well as the effects of his harrowing adolescence, led to a nervous breakdown in 1954. He sought refuge at the Dominican priory in Hampstead and converted to Catholicism.
After a dismal two years, he found music again and a chance meeting with Fr Agnellus Andrew, head of religious broadcasting at the BBC, led to his appointment as choirmaster at St Mary’s in Edinburgh.
He was to establish himself quickly as a major figure on the Scottish music scene, through his inspirational work with the cathedral choir and with pupils at Scotus Academy, where he taught. He wrote and produced an operetta, The Land of Green Ginger, for the school, and a colleague, the art teacher Richard Demarco, designed the sets. It created quite a stir, while the reputation of the cathedral choir was burgeoning and had attracted the attention of Carlo Maria Giulini.
Demarco recalls in Oldham a kindred spirit. “Arthur believed every human being had a potentially artistic soul. With The Land of Green Ginger he proved conclusively his extraordinary high professionalism. His genius as a human being was to inspire others. He was a man of passion who lived a full life and would not take no for an answer.”
When the Edinburgh Festival was looking for a director for its chorus in 1965, Lord Harewood approached Oldham on the advice of, among others, Alexander Gibson.
Oldham’s first production, performed on the opening night of Festival, was a triumph and set a standard which he would replicate throughout his 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,” Oldham would recall in his autobiography, Living With Voices. Ironically, Mike Maran was planning a reunion of the choristers of 1965 when he heard news of Oldham’s death.
Ever a perfectionist, Oldham ensured there was a true blend of Scotland in his Festival Chorus – he held practice sessions in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen where his contagious enthusiasm and searching insights into the composer’s intention were often pithily and robustly expressed.
At one of his early Edinburgh festivals he had been unable to contact Herbert von Karajan to find out whether the conductor wanted the chorus to learn the Italian Latin or German Latin version of the Bach Magnificat. “When he arrived, my first question was, ‘Which do you want?’ Karajan said, ‘Which have you prepared?’ I said ‘Both’.”
Oldham prided himself on the quality of all 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. He gave it up in 1978 but returned eight years later. Indeed the choristers were to refer to “Arthur’s Seat” on the shuttle between Paris and Scotland.
Oldham went on to win several Grammy awards and was made an OBE in 1990.
On his retirement from the Festival Chorus in 1994 due to ill health, Brian McMaster said: “The Festival owes a huge debt to Arthur Oldham for his commitment and energy. He guided the Festival Chorus for almost 30 years, making it one of the great amateur choirs in the world.”
Last June, the Orchestre de Paris staged a farewell concert for Oldham, performing the work he had written in its honour, La Testament de Villon. To mark his unique contribution to the nation’s arts scene, at the close of the concert, the French minister of culture presented him with the award of Commandeur de L’Ordre des Artes et Lettres, an act applauded by the Parisian press which affectionately referred to him as “Captain Haddock from TinTin”.
Suffering from cancer, he directed for last time in Paris last October, with a performance of Te Deum by Berlioz.
Looking back on his work as a great choir trainer, Oldham had reflected: “The French have it for temperament but are a bit short of discipline. The Dutch have all the discipline you’d want, but take things rather seriously.
“The Scots have a good share of what I’d call Latin temperament, much more than the English, but marvellous natural discipline to back it up. And you know that on stage they will give you 50 per cent more than rehearsal every time. I like that blend.”
Oldham is survived by his second wife, Annie, his first wife, Eileen, and their four children.