The man behind the music

David Cole MVO, the Legion’s Director of Music, speaks about his lifetime in music and his plans for this year’s Festival of Remembrance.

Funnily enough, my first musical performances were in uniform. I grew up in south London, and our garden backed onto neighbours who happened to be in the Salvation Army.

One evening they took my brother and I to a concert they were playing in – I’d never heard live music before, but afterwards I knew I wanted to be a part of that. In the Salvation Army everyone plays a brass instrument, and I happily joined their junior band and tried to tackle the tuba!


Music aside, I didn’t settle well at school and was happy to leave aged 16. I got a job as a clerical officer, commuting on the same train every day to an office. I remember sitting there, sun streaming through the windows, and realising I didn’t want to be doing this for the next 40 years.

This was in 1966, when England hosted football’s World Cup, and watching it on TV, I saw the Royal Marines band marching up and down at half time. I couldn’t hear them, the commentator was shut inside a glass box; but they were marching across the screen, and I was amazed at the straight lines.

They were brilliant. So I contacted the Naval Careers Office, and arranged an audition at Deal. I wanted to play the tuba, the Royal Marines Music Director wanted me to train on the cornet. So I said no, thanks, and went back to the office with the pipe-smoking manager, the same train and the same meal every day!


When I turned 18, and the sun poured through the window… I did it again, decided this wasn’t for me, got back to the recruiting team to ask if I could still join, and luckily for me they said yes. I was an adult, so I didn’t just play music, I trained to be a Royal Marine Commando: marching, physical drill, shooting, – but no music – for six weeks.

In my seventh week I had the option to hand back my rifle, and walk across the barracks to the school of music; and that’s what I did, to the surprise of my sergeant, who hadn’t known I’d signed up as a musician.

The training was rigorous, all day playing and marching, and on the cornet, I was finding it a struggle. My ‘tuba mouth’ was trained to fit onto an eggcup, but I was trying to make sounds come out of this tiny aperture. I just couldn’t get it right. At the end of my trial six-month period, I explained everything to my CO, ready to walk away – and he said, go and get a tuba! 

These early years stood me in good stead: I learned how to perform music at all kinds of ceremonies. And I learned to play it, not just in a rehearsal room, but while walking along. 


Time marched on. I was a rank and file musician, then passed a corporal’s course at the commando training centre in Devon; then a sergeant’s course, and finally selection to be an officer. I was commissioned at the age of 30, the intervening years spent playing in orchestras, performing at ceremonies and even recording at the famous Abbey Road studios. 

I was proud to be a Royal Marine Musician. Other bands have a reputation – Central Band of the RAF, brilliant; the Guards Band in the Army, very good – but we always felt like an elite outfit. 

Moving up the ranks through lieutenant and captain, I began to be given responsibility for the performances of others, not just my own. It’s where I learned my skills at arranging music, so crucial for the Festival of Remembrance.

A piece of film music won’t have a score for a military band, and that’s where I arrange scores that allow us to play modern music. It’s a way to engage younger audiences, surprising them with up-to-date material, in addition to the traditional music we never want to lose.


The highlight of my military career came in 1991, when I was selected to be Music Director on the Royal Yacht Britannia. It was a hell of a leap for a working-class boy, and I owe it all to music. I joined the other 20 officers on board the royal yacht, with my own cabin, dinner cooked by the Queen’s chef every night, and often joining Her Majesty and other members of the royal family.

When we sailed out of Portsmouth, I’d take 30 musicians and between us we’d have a marching band, an entertainments band and a little orchestra for dinner. I did tours of the Western Isles and farther afield to Russia, South Africa and more.

I left the Service at 50 and spent several years as Music Director at a private school, but then the Director of the Legion’s Central Band retired, I applied for the post and got it. That was 11 years ago. 


In terms of musical performance, the Festival of Remembrance has changed in recent years. Previously, the Guards Bands would play the music for the service, then along would come a variety of military bands, each doing their own musical thing. But it’s grown into the complex event, live on BBC TV, that we see today. 

The scale of the thing is the biggest change: no longer a series of individual acts stepping out to do their bit, but a structured programme. We now have an opening fanfare; then the choir sings (and what a fantastic one we have this year: the 120-voice Bach Choir, making their first Festival appearance), then the Standards are brought in to the background of another piece of music. One after another, the pieces of music are linked; even if a piece of film is to
be shown in the arena, the BBC producer will ask for 20 seconds of music from me, to underscore the visuals.

The key focus for me, always, is the audience in the Royal Albert Hall. If I get the music right for them, I know it will translate well for the millions watching and listening at home. We work well together, the Legion and the BBC; last year’s Festival even won an award, the prestigious Production Award BAFTA give out every year.

The programme was nominated for it against very stiff competition from the likes of Ant and Dec and Strictly Come Dancing. So it was a great honour when we won it, and a great way to commend the relationship the Legion has built with the BBC to create a thoroughly professional, hugely popular event that brings the true spirit of Remembrance into millions of homes around the world.


I won’t spoil the surprises we have planned for this year’s event, but we’re not resting on our laurels; I’ve been working on this since January to ensure we keep up the high standards we’ve set.

We’ll be honouring the 75th anniversary of the founding of the RAF Regiment, among other things, and 100 years of women officially working in the Armed Forces; these are themes that will inform the way the music is arranged and performed.

Music is fundamental to the work the Legion does. No Remembrance service would be as effective without it, because music stirs up our emotions, it transmits how much we care to the bereaved, it’s so uplifting for everyone who hears it.

But even at a grass-roots level, it’s important: playing the Last Post is a vital connection between the Legion and the community. 

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