Arthur William Oldham (6 September 1926 – 4 May 2003) was an English composer and choirmaster. He founded the Edinburgh Festival Chorus in 1965, the Chorus of the Orchestre de Paris in 1975, and the Concertgebouw Orchestra Chorus in Amsterdam in 1979. He also worked with the Scottish Opera Chorus 1966–74 and directed the London Symphony Chorus 1969–76. For his work with the LSO Chorus, he won three Grammy Awards. He was also a composer, mainly of religious works, but also a ballet and an opera.
Arthur Oldham was born in London in 1926. When he was age 14, his mother committed suicide by gassing herself in an oven, and he was brought up in Wallington, at that time in Surrey. He won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music, where he studied composition under Herbert Howells. He then became Benjamin Britten's only private pupil at Aldeburgh between 1945 and 1951. (He claims that the bar lines on the manuscript of Peter Grimes were his work.) He and Britten came into conflict over their ideas about choral music, but they later worked together in Edinburgh on Britten's Voices for Today, Op. 75, and the War Requiem. Until 1968 the only published vocal score of Britten's The Little Sweep was the piano duet and percussion version prepared by Arthur Oldham.
He was appointed musical director of the Ballet Rambert in 1945, aged only 19. His music first came to public notice in 1946, when his ballet Mr Punch was performed by the Ballet Rambert at Sadler's Wells, and was included in the Rambert's 1947–48 tour of Australia and New Zealand. Several of his own pieces were heard at early Aldeburgh Festivals. He also composed for the Royal Ballet for a time.
He arranged Britten's Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge (a work for string orchestra) for full orchestra, for the ballet Le Rêve de Léonor, choreographed by Frederick Ashton. This had its first performance on 26 April 1949 at the Prince's Theatre, London, by the Ballet de Paris de Roland Petit.
In 1952, after Edmund Rubbra pulled out of the project, Oldham provided a variation for Variations on an Elizabethan Theme, a collaborative work with other contributions by Lennox Berkeley, Britten, Imogen Holst, Humphrey Searle, Michael Tippett and William Walton. That year, his modern treatment of Thomas Arne's pastiche opera Love in a Village was staged by the English Opera Group. Criticism of the work led to a nervous breakdown and his working outside music for some time.
He then became a Roman Catholic and was employed as a teacher at Scotus Academy and choirmaster at St Mary's Roman Catholic Cathedral, Edinburgh. He introduced Scottish pre-Reformation music such as Robert Carver's 19-part motet O Bone Jesu. Britten's Missa Brevis had its first performance in Scotland under Oldham's direction. His work at the Cathedral was noticed by people such as Carlo Maria Giulini and Georg Solti.
The first performance in Scotland (and one of the earliest in the United Kingdom) of Mahler's Symphony No. 8 "Symphony of a Thousand" was scheduled for the opening night of the 1965 Edinburgh Festival, with the Scottish National Orchestra, but a suitable choir was lacking. Lord Harewood and Alexander Gibson approached Oldham to create one and train the singers, and the Edinburgh Festival Chorus was born. Under his direction for the next 12 years, the chorus went on to participate in major works such as Verdi's Requiem (under Giulini), Tippett's A Child of Our Time (under Gibson), Bach's Magnificat (under Herbert von Karajan), Prokofiev's Seven, They are Seven (under Gennady Rozhdestvensky], Mahler's "Resurrection" Symphony (under Leonard Bernstein), Brahms's A German Requiem (under Daniel Barenboim), and Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms (under Claudio Abbado). He was instrumental in the first Scottish performances of Britten's War Requiem, under Alexander Gibson. He also continued with the St Mary's Cathedral Choir until 1971.
He left for Paris in 1977 to create the Orchestre de Paris's Chorus at Daniel Barenboim's request. For his farewell appearance in Edinburgh he wrote Psalms in Time of War, which was performed at the 1977 Edinburgh Festival. His first project with the Paris chorus was Berlioz's Te Deum, under Barenboim, for which he had auditioned 1,700 people to create a chorus of 200 singers. From 1987 to 1994 he commuted weekly between Paris and Edinburgh, working with both choirs. In 1992, the Edinburgh Chorus presented Schoenberg's Moses und Aron. From 1994, he worked with the Orchestre de Paris Chorus exclusively. He celebrated 20 years with the chorus in 1996 with a new work, The Will of Villon. He retired from that chorus in 2002.
The Arthur Oldham/Michael Lester-Cribb Memorial Fund has been created to honour the joint work of Oldham and Michael Lester-Cribb, the Edinburgh Festival Chorus's pianist.
- 14th Grammy Awards (1972) – Best Choral Performance, Classical
- 16th Grammy Awards (1974) – Best Choral Performance, Classical (other than opera)
- 19th Grammy Awards (1977) – Best Choral Performance (other than opera)
This is an incomplete list of Arthur Oldham's compositions:
- Mr Punch, ballet
- arrangement of Thomas Arne's opera pastiche Love in a Village
- Psalms in Time of War
- The Will of Villon
- Blind Audlay's Carol (commissioned by the Purcell Singers for the Aldeburgh Festival)
- The Land of Green Ginger, a musical for children
- A song cycle on poems by Alexander Montgomery (commissioned by Peter Pears)
- Hymns for the Amusement of Children
- Now's the Time for Mirth and Play, unison voice.organ
- Two Hymn Tunes, SATB/organ
- Remember O thou man, carol (This has been recorded a number of times.)
- Three Chinese Lyrics, song cycle (recorded by Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten
- Circus Parade
- Angels from the Realms of Glory (arrangement)
- Hymn of dedication
- I sing of a maiden
- Saint Francis
- Laudes Creaturarum (recorded by the St Mary's Cathedral Choir and the Scottish National Orchestra.
- The Independent, 13 May 2003
- The Guardian, 14 May 2003
- Conrad Wilson, Arthur Oldham, jstor
- The Independent, 26 August 1994
- Herald Scotland
- Britten-Pears Foundation
- Critical Dance
- Eric Walter White, Benjamin Britten: His life and operas
- Letters from a life: The selected letters of Benjamin Britten 1913–1976
- St Mary’s Cathedral Choir
- New York Times, 12 May 2003
- National Youth Choir of Scotland
- Oxford University Press
- Music Room
- Music Room
- The Lied and Art Song Texts Page