Duff, Arthur Knox (1899–1956), composer, arranger, and music producer, was born 13 March 1899 at 27 Bloomfield Avenue, Dublin. His father, John William Duff, was from King's Co. (Offaly) and worked first as an accountant, later as a clerk in a local tobacco factory on the South Circular Road. His mother, Annie Kathleen Duff (née Hickey), had been brought up in nearby Heytesbury Street. Duff had one older sister, Kathleen Violet, born in September 1895.
Apart from a period of military service in Cork, Duff spent most of his life in the capital. He gained his formative musical experiences as a chorister in the small Chapel Royal choir in Dublin castle and in the choir of Christ Church cathedral. His association with Christ Church provided him with an introduction to two of the most eminent music teachers in the city, George Hewson (qv) and C. H. Kitson (1874–1944), who worked with their young student through the RIAM, where Duff was a pupil. The records of Feis Ceoil for 1913 and 1914 disclose that Duff was an able and successful vocalist and pianist. From 1917 he undertook further music studies at TCD, where Kitson held the chair of music from 1920. Duff gained primary degrees in arts and music, and later, in 1942, he sued successfully for his Mus.D. An accomplished keyboard player, he served as organist and choirmaster at Christ Church, Bray, to the south of the city, where Hamilton Harty (qv), with whom Duff studied composition for some time, was one of a distinguished line of predecessors.
In October 1923 Duff accepted a commission as the first native bandmaster in the newly formed Army School of Music in Dublin, where he served under the keen eye of Colonel Wilhelm Fritz Brase (qv). He was subsequently transferred south as the first permanent conductor of the Army no. 2 Band, stationed in Cork (1926). It was during his period as a commissioned officer that Duff met Frances Emma Ferris, daughter of the American consul-general. They were married in November 1929 and a daughter, Sylvia, was born in October 1930.
After a professionally unhappy period in Cork, Duff resigned his commission in 1931 and for a time concentrated his energies on Irish theatre, which afforded him a welcome outlet for his literary gifts. He wrote a series of reviews for the Dublin Magazine and the play Cadenza in black (1937), which was produced by Hilton Edwards (qv) at the Gate Theatre and later adapted for radio broadcast. During this period he acted occasionally as music director for the Abbey Theatre, for which he wrote some incidental music; some of his works are directly attributable to this connection, such as The drinking horn suite (1953), based on music originally written for a ballet produced at the Abbey in 1933, and A deuce o' jacks (1935), incidental music to a play of the same name by F. R. Higgins (qv). Duff also collaborated with W. B. Yeats (qv) and Higgins in producing Broadsides, a collection of traditional and new songs with illustrations by Jack Yeats (qv) among others. The volumes were published by the Cuala Press in 1935 and 1937. The respect that Yeats had for Duff is evident from his inviting him to write music for certain later dramatic works, including the dance play The king of the great clock tower (1934). Duff also composed the music for the play A bride for the unicorn (1933) by Denis Johnston (qv), the success of which when it transferred to London helped to enhance Duff's reputation.
A more permanent position offered itself when in 1937 he was appointed as the first music producer in the fledgling national broadcasting service, Radio Éireann, with the title ‘studio control officer’; Duff eventually rose to become assistant director of music in 1945. Although not engaged as a conductor, Duff occasionally had the opportunity to work with the Radio Éireann Symphony Orchestra. His interpretation of modern music, notably by his friends Arnold Bax (qv) and E. J. Moeran (qv), won special approbation.
A gentle and languid personality, Duff composed little music, but what he left is sensitively crafted. His principal works were written for the active Dublin String Orchestra under its director Terry O'Connor (qv), who was also the leader of the Radio Éireann orchestra. Duff displayed little inclination to explore larger forms; his works are small and lyrical and frequently employ modal harmonies, all of which points to his debt to fellow miniaturists of the early twentieth-century English school. The influences of his formative training in sacred choral music and his special interest in early English music are readily discernible in his music. His works include Meath pastoral (1940), dedicated to the writer Brinsley McNamara (qv) and premièred by the Dublin String Orchestra at the RDS in November 1944; the Irish suite for strings (1940), dedicated to Moeran; Music for strings (1955); and the two late suites entitled Echoes of Georgian Dublin (1955, 1956), which are essentially pastiche, but pastiche of a most engaging and elegant kind.
Duff died 23 September 1956 in Dublin and was buried in Mount Jerome cemetery beneath the epitaph: ‘resting where no shadows fall’.