Obituary: James Douglas, talented Scottish composer, organist and music teacher

James Douglas. Born 4 July, 1932 in Dumbarton. Died: 1 February, 2022 in Ullapool, aged 89

James Douglas began his career as a church organist in 1948
James Douglas began his career as a church organist in 1948

James Douglas was born in Dumbarton in 1932. His mother died when he was nine months old, leaving him to be brought up by his maternal grandmother in Edinburgh. For anyone who knew James, they would know that music was his life and his unique memorable talent.

James was educated at Parsons Green Primary School and gained a bursary to Broughton High School, one of only two pupils in his age group to do so. However, his education was hampered by the onset of the Second World War in 1939. During the war, he and his grandmother were evacuated to Dunbar, Maybole, and Broughton, as it was believed that Edinburgh was in danger of imminent attack from the air. After finishing school, his studies took him to London, Munich, Salzburg and Paris, where he gained a LRAM and an ARCM, studying with Professor Henri Lauth and Professor Herman Reuter, both of whom had a profound influence on his life and his music.

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In 1948 James Douglas began his career as a church organist, initially at South Leith Parish Church, Edinburgh, followed by employment at Nicolson Square Methodist Church, Mayfield Salisbury, Reid Memorial and latterly at Christ Church, Morningside. Throughout his career as an organist, he was also an accomplished accompanist, including at the Oxenfoord Castle Summer School in East Lothian and at International summer schools in both Salzburg and Munich.

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In 1961, James Douglas became a father and in this period, he wrote much contemporary atonal music, including various organ works, such as De Profundis and Alleluia pro Nativitas. He became a music master at first at Stewart’s Melville School in Edinburgh, followed by a long spell at The Edinburgh Academy where his two sons were educated. Having lost his first wife in 1967, he met his second wife Helen (née Fairweather), whilst they both were teaching at The Academy, and they married in 1968.

In 1973 James was commissioned by poet Robert Nye to provide the music for his libretto for Mask: The Seven Deadly Sins, which received its world premiere in Stirling, and was performed during The Edinburgh International Festival in St Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral.

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In 1979 he left Edinburgh Academy to form his own music publishing company – Scotus Music Publishing – to represent Scottish composers worldwide, which ran until 1981. In 1986 he returned to his love for the organ, with the appointment as organist and choirmaster to Christ Church, Morningside, Edinburgh as well as establishing the music publisher Eschenbach Editions and associated Record Company Caritas Records, which are now run by his daughter Katharine.

James Douglas’ setting of the Ave Verum for SATB Choir won The Gold Medal Prize at the Compozizione Prize in Arezzo in 1988, his choral music also included settings of Celtic prayers by the late Rev Canon David Adam, Holy Island as well as an Opera based on the life of St Cuthbert. During his time at Christ Church James gave over 100 concerts including The Christ Church Sequence, 75 pieces dedicated to those who had helped him over his musical career.

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In 2006 James and Helen Douglas moved to the North West of Scotland where he and fellow musicians continued to give concerts at The Macphail Theatre and in Inverness Cathedral. Organist Michael Bonaventure continues to give performances of Douglas’ major organ works today.

When James Douglas’ death was notified, the only correction required was the changing of Occupation from: Composer (retired) to: Composer. James Douglas never stopped composing.

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He is survived by his widow Helen, sons Stephen and Gavin, daughter Katharine and his three grand-daughters Susannah, Isabel and Maddie.

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