Dr Roger Bullivant MBE
Practical and academic musicianship of rare distinction
The death of Roger Bullivant at the age of 83 after a period of declining health has deprived English music generally and Yorkshire music in particular of a life-enhancing force whose remarkable devotion to the general, as well as the academic, cultural and educational, community was given unstintingly over six decades.
His contribution towards the well-being of generations of students proved of immense value; yet he was no dry academic, but an intensely practical performing musician of rare distinction of whom it was said that no student party was worth its salt without his presence. Despite a natural reserve, Roger Bullivant enjoyed an easy rapport with the young and his speech mannerisms were easily imitated, not least the ever-present and thoughtful "um, yes" as well as the equally endearing (and, not so frequent - for his spirit was a generous one) - "they've really no idea, no idea at all." He wore his learning lightly and his programme notes, free of tedious musical jargon, were models of the genre.
As conductor of two notable Yorkshire choirs [Sheffield Bach Society and Doncaster Choral Society] over very long periods, Dr Bullivant's programme planning won awards - with frequent and enterprising sprinklings of contemporary music among more standard repertoire. Other work included conducting the Danensian Singers and the South Yorkshire Choir and there were close and regular associations as harpsichordist with Leeds Philharmonic and Halifax Choral societies.
Interpretations of the music of Bach, especially the Passions and the Mass in B minor at Sheffield Cathedral and elsewhere were in the top rank and, for many, became benchmarks against which other performances were judged. He is said to have directed the fastest Messiah in the West Riding - a claim he never seemed particularly keen to deny. Involvement as a continuo player par excellence with so many performances directed by others betokened a generosity of spirit towards professional colleagues and he served long terms on committees of the Incorporated Society of Musicians and the former National Federation of Music Societies, now Making Music.
Dr Bullivant's continuo playing had begun in earnest in the late 1950s as a result of the writings of Ernest Bradbury and a subsequent correspondence in The Yorkshire Post. There were many collaborations with Dr Donald Hunt, both during his time in Yorkshire and after his move to Worcester as Cathedral Organist and conductor of the Three Choirs' Festival.
Upbringing in Rugby probably accounted for Bullivant's fascination with railway signalling; many of his conducting scores were peppered with visual aids such as railway speed restriction signs. Education at Rugby and New College, Oxford culminated in a lecturing appointment at the University of Sheffield from 1949. The holder of an Oxford DPhil, he was especially delighted, in retirement, to receive an Honorary DMus from the University of Sheffield. His concise and thoroughly common sense book on Fugue, published by Hutchinson in their 'University Library' series regularly changes hands for large sums - a fact that amused him greatly. It is one of a very small number of out of print standard texts on the booklists of nearly every English-speaking University Music department and librarians guard their copies with care. Bullivant also contributed hugely significant main articles to the New Oxford Companion to Music in vital areas of counterpoint and harmony - the latter enhanced by an analysis of Henry Mancini's Moon River, indicating by this chosen example both his wide-ranging tastes and his ability to relate the complexities of musical science to the man and woman in the street.
Half a century of friendship with Eileen Denman - like Roger awarded an MBE for services to music in Sheffield, and like him, a very great servant of Sheffield University - was ended by her death not long ago. Impaired mobility had for him already involved increasing dependence on others for travel, and he received much help in his last years from Vicky Highet, a Sheffield Bach Society chorister whose commitment extended to joining Roger's Doncaster choir to give added support to enable him to continue as conductor well beyond the age of normal retirement. His splendid harpsichord was transported for many years the length and breadth of Britain by Kenneth and Margaret Sleaford of Sheffield, who constructed a special cradle for it, labelled, appropriately for one who loved trains so much, Cembalo Express.
His last concert was a truly memorable Good Friday Messiah this year with St Peter's Singers at Leeds Parish Church - he had proved an indefatigable supporter of both the Singers and the Parish Church over many years. Infirmity and ill-health had not restricted his passion, nor dimmed his interpretative authority and wonderful sensitivity as an accompanist. Witnessing his artistic and spiritual triumph in the face of physical infirmity on this and other occasions was profoundly moving and will never be forgotten by those privileged to have experienced it.
He had a liking for colourful scarves, exotic carrier bags, quality red wines, post-concert suppers at which music was hardly ever mentioned (for he had a very wide circle of friends) cabaret, and, not least, jazz.
At the height of his renown as an academic, he is alleged to have been asked by a Doncaster 6th former "and what do you do?" - after due consideration, there came, with typical self-effacement, a concise reply - "O, I conduct the choral society and ..[long pause] I play jazz." This masterly understatement at least centred upon two of numerous loves of a great man. For the rest, his unique enrichment of so many lives is his special memorial.
Dr Bullivant's funeral was on Friday 3rd December at 1.30 pm at St Mark's, Broomhill, Sheffield followed by Cremation of Hutcliffe Wood. A memorial service will be held later.
Simon Lindley, writing for the Yorkshire Post.
Please note, the Memorial Service will be held on Thursday 3rd February at 2.30 p.m. in Sheffield Cathedral.