Obituary: Douglas Guest

Click to follow
Douglas Guest will be remembered not only as a fine church musician (and one of the most handsome) but also as a great school director of music.

There was indeed something of the schoolmaster about him, with a warmth and sense of humour beneath the surface as well as the firmness and sense of discipline to be expected of an army major. That he would take no nonsense was made perfectly clear to new choristers at Westminster Abbey, who were told that any misbehaviour would result in a "reign of terror which would make the French Revolution look like a children's tea party". The boys quickly got the message and soon grew to respect and feel genuine affection for him - indeed at his last service several were in tears.

Guest's own musical education began in 1935 at the Royal College of Music. He arrived with Bernard Rose (later to become Organist of Magdalen College and who died earlier this week) and, sharing the same birthday, they became lifelong friends; both went to Cambridge, where Guest was a distinguished Organ Scholar at King's under Boris Ord.

During the Second World War Guest served in the Honourable Artillery Company and was mentioned in dispatches. He was twice severely wounded and eventually invalided out, his leg injury continuing to trouble him for many years. In 1945 he was appointed Director of Music at Uppingham School, and his name is still greatly revered by boys from his time there. New initiatives included establishing music scholarships, founding the Paul David Society for school concerts and the Uppingham and District Concert Club, whose soloists included Kathleen Ferrier and Solomon. But his most imaginative achievement was to conduct a highly acclaimed performance of Purcell's Fairy Queen, with costumes borrowed from Covent Garden.

Guest's interest in education continued throughout his life; he was Director of Music of St Mary's, Calne, from 1950 to 1957 and a Professor at the Royal College of Music from 1963 to 1981, as well as giving magnificent support to Ruth Railton, founder of the National Youth Orchestra, of which he was Chairman from 1953 to 1984.

His first cathedral appointment was at Salisbury in 1950 and here, as when he moved to Worcester in 1957, he consolidated the work of his predecessor (in each case David Willcocks). He took great pride in the achievements of his former choristers (such as Stephen and Nicholas Cleobury), and many were grateful for his insights into the music of the 16th and 17th centuries.

In both cities he took an active role as conductor and, if his own high standards were not being met in rehearsal, he would threaten to call off the concert, saying "To think, the public is being asked to pay money for this." He directed many fine performances at the Three Choirs Festival between 1957 and 1963. Kodly came over to hear Guest conduct his Psalmus Hungaricus and other unusual works he championed included Jancek's The Eternal Gospel and Frank Martin's In Terra Pax; and there was a memorable performance of Britten's War Requiem in 1963.

That year he moved to Westminster Abbey, where, as Organist and Master of the Choristers for the next 18 years, he was responsible for the music at many services of national importance, including the state funeral of Earl Mountbatten of Burma, when the choir had to be summoned back from holiday at short notice. He was also the much-respected conductor of the Westminster Abbey Special Choir, and none who heard it will forget his 1966 liturgical performance of Beethoven's Missa Solemnis, part of the abbey's 900 celebrations.

Although he composed comparatively little, Douglas Guest's music was always beautifully crafted with a natural feel for words, and his beautiful Binyon setting, For the Fallen, is sung all over the world.

In 1975 he was appointed CVO, and other honours included a Lambeth Doctorate of Music and Honorary Membership of the Royal Academy of Music. In retirement in Gloucestershire he continued to serve on the councils of the Royal College of Organists, of which he was Vice-President, and the Musicians Benevolent Fund.

He and his wife Peggie (whom he married in 1941) were unfailingly hospitable to friends and colleagues, and throughout their lives together he was wonderfully supported by her and by their two daughters.

Douglas Albert Guest, organist, conductor, teacher and composer: born 9 May 1916; Director of Music, Uppingham School 1945-50; Organist and Master of the Choristers, Salisbury Cathedral 1950-57; Director of Music, St Mary's School, Calne 1950-57; Master of the Choristers and Organist, Worcester Cathedral 1957-63; Organist and Master of the Choristers, Westminster Abbey 1963-81 (Organist Emeritus); Professor, Royal College of Music 1963- 81; CVO 1975; married 1941 Peggie Falconer (two daughters); died 18 November 1996.