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Roger Bullivant
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Roger Bullivant

Dr Roger Bullivant MBErftbtreated

Practical and academic musicianship of rare distinction

An obituary for the Yorkshire Post – reprinted by permission of Regional Independent Media

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 is 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 at Sheffield Cathedral.




An Address by Dr Simon Lindley at the Memorial Service for Dr Roger Bullivant MBE

held in Sheffield Cathedral on 3rd February 2005

Roger's was, truly, a very special capacity for friendship.

He made friends, often instantly, all over the place.

Here in Sheffield, of course – as a particular bridge between town and gown – and in Doncaster and the whole of the region.  But his concert schedule involved frequent excursions rather farther afield.

On one memorable occasion, like that at Professor Hill's interview, I encountered at first hand proof positive of his great enthusiasm for public transport systems. We once spent an unforgettable day together – yes a day, between Taunton and Birmingham – putting the world and the transportation infrastructure to rights during the course of what seemed an interminable train journey.

Major flooding had knocked out the electric signalling system and involved the guard getting down off the train at each track segment end and walking to the nearest farm or house to telephone for permission to proceed further. We had met by chance at 6.30 am on the station at Taunton, both intent on returning to Yorkshire fairly promptly for a day's teaching – but it was not to be.

That day cemented the bond of friendship between us. I certainly learnt far more about the vagaries of what was then British Rail than one could have deemed possible.

Roger's connection with music in Leeds extends back half a century to his first collaborations on the then new edition of Handel's Messiah by Bradford-born Dr Watkins Shaw.

By the time I settled in Yorkshire exactly thirty years ago, Roger was established as the natural first choice for continuo at any Messiah or Passion, indeed any Baroque masterwork, that was worth its salt.

Together, he and I were regulars with Halifax Choral and with Leeds Phil among others.

A number of small, but significant, Bullivantisms characterised his wonderful accompaniments – these were always inventive, often visionary and occasionally hilarious. The Choirs knew when to expect them – the starts of choruses such as And He shall purify and His yoke is easy were never complete without those life-enhancing melodic turns – what choristers young and old referred to as "Roger's twiddly bits".

He knew how to project the wonderful pathos of He was despised with some highly individual key shifts and his interpretations of I know that my Redeemer liveth simply shone with the assurance of Resurrection. He knew – and knew instinctively – when to step on the gas to come to the aid of a soloist who was about to come unstuck – even if the singer probably didn't realise anything was about to go awry – but Roger knew and was there as ever present help in time of trouble.

He gave wonderful support to music making in this Cathedral, but was just as much appreciated for his visits to Worcester's Three Choirs Festival and to so many occasions for St Peter's Singers, whose regular and esteemed harpsichordist he was. Only occasional illness kept him away. He joined in all our regular curricular occasions with zest and also in some of our rather more hairbrained schemes too – I think Roger loved risk!

Roger's background was in church music – an uncle was the organist of St Mary le Bow in the City of London and his father an organist in his home town of Rugby.

It is rumoured that his parents tried to dissuade him from substantive involvement in music. We must today be so relieved by their failure to do so.

As a person, Roger was by turns intensely private and astonishingly gregarious. His knowledge of Leeds's Italian restaurants was almost without equal and he became a member of the Leeds Club where he was a great favourite with the staff who were much impressed by his unique combination of the randomly Bohemian and sartorially elegant. It was, probably, those colourful scarves and superior carrier bags that did it.


Successive Club Stewards were wont to refer to him as Dr Boolayvon – lending him a slightly continental and exotic air. This was not a mystique he seemed particularly keen to dispel and one that proved invariably appealing to generations of boy choristers at LPC and at Worcester too, no doubt.

Roger was in many ways a combination of the consummate professional and the most enthusiastic of amateurs – someone who never lost his wonderment of music and its workings and who was possessed of an almost missionary zeal to share this with others. With his students, of course, particularly – but those, too, of less focus or commitment who were just as important to him as individuals I think.

He was profligately generous in sharing his time and talent  with others, yet perhaps only rarely did his colleagues and friends discern the real Roger.

His great love of tradition combined with an intense dislike of convention for its own sake, an independence of spirit that bordered at times on obstinacy – but, above all, his deep understanding of the power of music to invoke a spiritual response from its hearers – all these were parts of Roger that we still have with us and that we treasure.


It is clear that he inspired great devotion as well as respect and those of us who are left have so much for which to give thanks.


Let us think  particularly today with gratitude of so many of Roger's friends whose invaluable support was so integral a part of the Bullivant experience – to Kenneth and Margaret Sleaford, widely known throughout the land as "Roger's roadies" – and to all those, especially those in Sheffield and Doncaster, whose unselfish commitment enabled him to remain so active throughout a long and distinguished career.

The lives of us all are so much the richer for having known him and loved him.



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