Clifford Bunford 1919 – 2018

Richard Elfyn Jones plays tribute to Clifford Bunford and his career as a singer, singing teacher and choral conductor.

Clifford Bunford, who died two hours into his hundredth year, had a career as a singer, singing teacher and choral conductor stretching for over eighty years. He was an astute musician who was held in great affection by students, choristers and music-lovers. He had a very appealing personality and was generally regarded as a  ‘one off’, whose vibrant personality reflected a wealth of life experiences. For almost 20 years he was head of practical studies in the Department of Music (as it was then called) at University College, Cardiff. But unlike his university colleagues during the 1970s and 80s, it was apparent that Cliff Bunford’s early life made for a unique synthesis of characteristics; certain virtues, memorable social skills, and a perceptiveness which marked him out as different from nearly all his colleagues in academia.  


He was brought up as one of a large family in Moy Road, Aberfan, a small house just below that infamous coal tip, typically in very impoverished circumstances.  But his surroundings were very cultural and his early development was nurtured by a community whose values ran deep and where social and artistic activities acted as an escape from the ‘violence of mining.’  When we say that people in mining communities supported each other and cared for one another, we can see exactly where Cliff Bunford came from and how certain special values were ingrained in his personality. Afterwards these values were useful assets in the very different environment of a grammar school, and of university and professional music-making.


Singing and choral music was of a high standard in the Merthyr valley and the young Cliff was blessed with a wonderful voice. He always won in local eisteddfodau and such was his talent that he performed professionally as a boy soprano. It seems that   he was very much the Aled Jones of his day. Like many youngsters of his generation raised in the Depression years, a certain pattern was inevitable. One had to leave school at too early an age, in Cliff’s case to go down the mine, even though he had progressed very well academically in Quakers Yard Grammar School. In 1939 there was to be no smooth transition for Cliff to College or University. Instead there was enforced entry into coal mining, to go underground at the cutting-edge of mining. To put it in his own words (from a private Memoir that he wrote): ‘I found myself at the coal face with all its attendant dangers, explosions, roof-collapses . . .  The coal seams could be as narrow as 2 feet 6 inches and one needed to crawl through a 200 yard length to reach the end.’ However, in 1945 at the age of 25 escape was possible and he took the opportunity to enter the University College of South Wales and Monmouthshire to study for an Arts degree focusing on music. By then he had a solid reputation in Wales and beyond as a successful freelance tenor with a sweet voice. During the 1940s and 50s he shared the stage with distinguished company like Elsie Suddaby, Mary Thomas, Trevor Anthony, Helen Watts and at least on one occasion with the legendary Kathleen Ferrier. Later on, in the 1950s he started to perform on the BBC as a soloist, giving first broadcast performances of songs by his  and his wife Ann’s friend Grace Williams; also songs by David Wynne, Mansel Thomas and others. He was a founder member of the BBC Octet and during the 1960s appeared often on television in programmes like Land of Song.


A career in opera would surely have been a natural development, but Cliff sang in only one production for the WNO. So why didn’t he become an opera star?  Cliff came to a disappointing conclusion that opera was not for him because he regarded himself as too short for the best roles. He himself explained this in his characteristic way, saying ‘It would have taken a huge suspension of disbelief to accept me winning battles against burly baritones or winning the hand of equally burly sopranos.’


For a freelance musician there has always been an attraction in applying for a permanent post. Cliff decided to go in for teaching and he was ideally suited to become  an effective and inspiring music teacher. In the early 1950s he was appointed Head of Music at Cathays High School and his pioneering work there in promoting musical performances was widely acclaimed.


Although the University College at Aberystwyth was keen to employ him as a singing teacher towards the end of the 1960s, he decided to stay in Cardiff and take up Alun Hoddinott’s invitation to become head of practical music at the expanded University Music Department in Corbett Road.  Over the next many very happy years this meant lots of concerts to conduct: with the University Symphony Orchestra, University Choir, Baroque Choir, Renaissance Choir, and later on the Opera Group. He gave vocal tuition to many aspiring singers – some of whom were to achieve fame in Wales and outside.  Visiting singers came to the Department and Cliff had an excellent rapport with them – notable musicians like Peter Pears and Sir Geraint Evans who were were persuaded to give master-classes. Scores of concerts were given, but pride of place must surely be given for the great effort that went into producing   magnificent performances of Walton’s Belshazzar’s’s Feast and Britten’s War Requiem in St David’s Hall.


The Department ventured into the tricky world of producing operas, which would have been very difficult without someone of Cliff’s expertise in charge.  Among the very ambitious operatic works which the Music Department put on in the Sherman Theatre in the late 1970s were Alun Hoddinott’s What the Old Man Does is Always Right,  Holst’s Savitri, and Menotti’s The Telephone.


During his period in Cathays School Cliff Bunford had founded the Cardiff Bach Choir. For over forty years his direction of the Bach Choir was a great contribution to the musical life of the city and it was no coincidence that music by Bach featured prominently in his funeral. In his rehearsals his musical preparation was meticulous and demanding. They were never boring occasions and were generally enlivened  by an inimitable dose of wit and humour.


Towards the end of his Memoir, Cliff shares with the reader his personal view of his long career.  He wrote: ‘It was many years before I realised I was involved in one of the most edifying, humanising, creative and soul-enhancing activities of all . . . I was  asked once which of the 3 musical activities in my life, i.e. singing, conducting, and teaching, I enjoyed most. I can only say that each had its splendid rewards: singing, for hopefully giving an audience pleasure; conducting, for the joy of investing the written notes with beauty; and teaching, for the opportunity to reveal to the pupil the loveliness of song.’


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Richard Elfyn Jones is a composer, choral conductor, organist  and academic. He was a senior lecturer at  Cardiff University and head of composition at the School of Music.

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