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by John Walton

Roy Douglas was born in Royal Tunbridge Wells, Kent on 12 December 1907. Roy started to play the piano when he was five, and at ten he was composing little piano pieces. His mother squeezed a shilling a week out of her meagre housekeeping money to pay for lessons "so that I could learn to play from the music", but because of recurrent heart trouble he had very little formal education as a child, and he never had any lessons in composition, orchestration or conducting.

From the age of eight, when well enough, he "spent many hours playing the piano, reading at sight everything I could find from Beethoven to ragtime". The family moved to Folkestone, Kent in 1915, and in his teens he played regularly in local concerts. When he was 20 he joined the Folkestone Municipal Orchestra as mustel organist, deputy pianist, celesta player, extra percussionist, librarian and assistant programme-builder – all for £6 a week for 14 performances and two rehearsals.

When Folkestone Council cut orchestra salaries Roy resigned and made a "decidedly risky" move to the world of music in London, where he lived in Highgate with his parents and sister, Doris. But the move paid off, for he was soon talent-spotted by the London Symphony Orchestra and from 1933 he was a full member, as pianist, organist, celesta player, fourth percussionist and librarian.

Among the distinguished conductors under whom he played were Bruno Walter, Hamilton Harty, Adrian Boult, John Barbirolli, Henry Wood and Malcolm Sargent. In addition, he played many ballet seasons at the Alhambra, Coliseum and Drury Lane theatres. He recalls playing the piano part in Petrushka eighty times, and "in the Prince Igor dances I played triangle and tambourine, both parts together, one with each hand."

During the 1930s he played the piano in many West End shows including revivals of The Desert Song and The Vagabond King as well as performing light music in such well-known restaurants as the Savoy and Frascati’s, and in many popular cinemas.

"Disgusted and horrified by the many bad orchestrations of Chopin’s music for the ballet Les Sylphides," he writes, "I eventually created my own orchestration in 1936." For this work, he was originally offered an outright fee of £10. However, Roy’s version published by Boosey and Hawkes, was quickly taken up and continues to be used by ballet companies all over the world. It has also been recorded many times, so that it still produces a useful income of several thousand pounds a year.

As an orchestrator Roy was indefatigable during and after the Second World War and worked with many composers including William Walton, John Ireland, Alan Rawsthorne, Walter Goehr, Arthur Benjamin and Anthony Collins. He prepared a full orchestral arrangement of Liszt’s Funerailles, and orchestrated all Richard Addinsell’s music for eight BBC programmes and 24 films, "including the notorious Warsaw Concerto" (Chappell & Co. Inc. New York: 1942). He also arranged orchestral accompaniments for such well-known singers as Peter Dawson, Paul Robeson, Elisabeth Schumann and Richard Tauber for HMV recordings.

"From 1944 until the death of Ralph Vaughan Williams in 1958," he writes, "I had the unforgettable experience of being his friend and musical assistant, helping him to prepare works for performance and publication, including his last four symphonies and the opera Pilgrim’s Progress. As Roy makes clear in his book Working with Vaughan Williams (British Library Publishing: 1988), the composer’s manuscripts were very difficult to read. A large part of his job was to provide accurate and legible copies, and to correct the numerous mistakes in the original scores. He also had to deal with the many changes made in rehearsal, and to correct proofs.

Vaughan Williams described this process as "washing the face" of his music, while Roy saw himself as a "musical midhusband" to the composer’s new-born works. For 30 years, from 1942 to 1972, he performed a similar service for William Walton, whose scores were not quite so difficult to read. But he, too, would frequently change his mind, often at the very last minute.

Over the years Roy has composed many original works including an oboe quartet (1932); two quartets for flute, violin, viola and harp (1934/1938); a trio for flute, violin and viola (1935); Six Dance Caricatures for wind quintet (1939), Two Scottish Tunes for strings (1939); Elegy for strings (1945); Cantilena for strings (1957); Festivities and A Nowell Sequence for strings (1991). He has written music for 32 radio programmes, five feature and six documentary films. "In my 70th year I started writing music for brass band, and when I was 73 I wrote my first piece for military band commissioned by the WRAC." Since then he has mainly composed pieces for local players and is an energetic President of Royal Tunbridge Wells Choral Society (

In 1943 Roy was one of the founder members of the Society for the Promotion of New Music and an early committee member of the Composers’ Guild of Great Britain, formed in 1944, and was their Treasurer for five years.

In 1939 Roy moved back to Royal Tunbridge Wells, and after the Second World War he joined the local Drama Club. "For 22 years, I found acting an excellent way of forgetting musical problems." He played many roles, including Oberon, Shylock, Touchstone, Ben Gunn and Dr Chasuble, and produced three plays on the Pantiles (the colonnaded walkway in Royal Tunbridge Wells). For eight years he was Chairman of the Tunbridge Wells Drama Club.

Motor-cycling was another recreation which gave Roy great pleasure. When he was 51 he bought a Triumph 200cc Tiger Cub, which took him all over England. This "lively little bike" was replaced by a Triumph 350cc on which he covered more than 55,000 miles – until he was 80, when his doctor put a stop to this "possibly eccentric" activity. "But," Roy adds, "I still feel sadly deprived of my beloved motor-bike."

John Walton © 2005

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