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Roy Douglas and his orchestrations of Chopin’s music for “Les Sylphides”

Richard Roy Douglas (born December 12, 1907) is a British composer, pianist and arranger. He worked as musical assistant to Richard Addinsell, William Walton, and Ralph Vaughan Williams, made well-known orchestrations of works such as Les Sylphides (based on piano pieces by Chopin) and Addinsell’s Warsaw Concerto, and wrote a quantity of original music. Born at Royal Tunbridge Wells, Roy Douglas was self-taught in music. He gained experience writing film scores with Karma (1933) and Dick Turpin (1933). He also assisted people such as Mischa Spoliansky on The Ghost Goes West (1935), Arthur Benjamin on Wings of the Morning (1937), Anthony Collins on Sixty Glorious Years (1938), Nicholas Brodzsky on Freedom Radio (aka A Voice in the Night, 1941) and Tomorrow We Live (aka At Dawn We Die, 1943), Noël Coward in In Which We Serve (1942), John Ireland in The Overlanders (1946), and Walter Goehr in Great Expectations (1946).

In 1937 Roy Douglas first worked with Richard Addinsell, on the score for Dark Journey. They went on to work on such films as Victoria the Great (1937), The Lion Has Wings (1939), Gaslight (1940), Old Bill and Son (1941), Dangerous Moonlight (1941, aka Suicide Squadron, which contained the famous Warsaw Concerto), Love on the Dole (1941), This England (1941), This Is Colour (1942), The Big Blockade (1942), The Day Will Dawn (aka The Avengers, 1942) and The New Lot (1943). The extent of his involvement in Addinsell’s scores is somewhat unclear. Some sources suggest Addinsell had good musical ideas but no skills in orchestration, and that Douglas’s role was much more than a mere assistant or copyist.

Douglas also worked for a long period with William Walton. This collaboration started in November 1940, on the film score for Major Barbara. He later worked on Went the Day Well?, Next of Kin, The First of the Few (1942) and Henry V (1944). He generally orchestrated the shorter sections of Walton’s film scores, based on Walton’s jottings on two or three staves, and according to specific instructions or in Walton’s style. Walton was commissioned to write the score for The Bells Go Down, but declined and instead offered it to Roy Douglas to write his own music. Douglas and Ernest Irving helped Walton complete the ballet The Quest by his birthday, March 29, 1943, in time for its premiere performance only a week later. Walton arranged the Valse from Facade for piano, but all other piano arrangements from the score were made by others, including Douglas, Constant Lambert, Herbert Murrill, and Mátyás Seiber. Douglas worked with Walton on the revised version of Belshazzar’s Feast. The vocal score of Troilus and Cressida was largely the work of Roy Douglas, assisted by Franz Reizenstein in Act III.

From 1947 until the elder composer’s death in 1958, Roy Douglas worked as Ralph Vaughan Williams’s musical assistant and amanuensis. His job included producing legible copies of Vaughan Williams’s scores, and in the process he identified numerous issues of orchestration needing resolution, deciphered Vaughan Williams’s often illegible handwriting, and made various suggestions for improvement, most of which were accepted. They worked together on symphonies nos. 6-9, the opera The Pilgrim’s Progress, the Tuba Concerto, and other works. In this way he was able to produce manuscripts that were even more authoritative than the composer’s originals, since all issues of notation had been discussed and clarified with the composer himself. Sometimes Douglas’s involvement with Vaughan Williams’ works became more than that of a mere assistant, as in the orchestral suite arranged in 1952 from his 1949 cantata Folk Songs of the Four Seasons.

As composer, Douglas’s own works include some chamber music; Six Dance Caricatures for winds (1939); Two Scottish Tunes for strings (1939); Elegy for strings (1945); Cantilena for strings (1957); and Festivities and A Nowell Sequence for strings (1991); as well as scores for five feature and six documentary films and music for 32 radio programs. However, he is best known as the orchestrator of Frédéric Chopin’s piano pieces for the ballet Les Sylphides (1936). It is said that these arrangements were written to improve on what he considered “very bad orchestrations” of Chopin’s music.

My collection includes one work by Douglas:

Les Sylphides, ballet after Chopin.


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