In Memoriam: Clive John 1948 – 1955


Clive John was born into a musical family in Morriston – both parents professional singers, his father with Carl Rosa Opera. Clive entered Dynevor School in 1948, and developed skills not only musical and scholastic but sporting – tennis, fives, and full-back in the first XV.  He took a B Mus at University College Cardiff, where he was already displaying a single-minded commitment to opera.

Clive’s career as an opera conductor took off while in his early twenties, directing the Clydach Operatic Society in operettas including Lehar’s Merry Widow and Strauss’s Gypsy Baron. He took them to the prestigious Waterford Festival where he twice won the conductor’s prize. Having conducted the Cadoxton Operatic Society in the Welsh premier of Bizet’s Pearl Fishers in 1965, he took the production to Ireland and gave the Irish premier. This was the firm foundation for a long and distinguished career in opera.

He joined the staff of Dynevor in 1963, following in a line of celebrated music directors including Gwilym Roberts and John Richards. Regular school concerts and Speech Days continued the school traditions, and soon extended to contemporary opera – Benjamin Britten’s The Little Sweep, in which his wife Betsan sung the role of the maid. When secondary education in Swansea was reorganised Clive moved to Olchfa Comprehensive School, and subsequently moved to Gorseinon College of Further Education. His inspirational work with pupils later led him to West Glamorgan Youth Theatre as composer, conductor and tutor.

His conducting career rapidly expanded within South Wales. His widow recalls that opportunities often arrived at very short notice, but he usually found time to fit them in. Burry Port Opera called him when their conductor was indisposed just before the show; Clive was still with them years later. Other appointments included Swansea Amateur Opera, Manselton Male Choir, St David’s Church Opera Group Morriston and Waterford Grand Opera (as guest conductor). His most enduring legacies were with Neath Opera in Craig y Nos, and with Swansea Philharmonic Choir.

Clive co-founded Neath Opera Group in 1961 and for 39 years conducted and sometimes produced operas in the theatre of Adelina Patti’s country house at Craig y Nos in the Swansea Valley. The great Italian diva had fallen in love with our hills and valleys, bought the castle in 1884 where she built an opera theatre to entertain her friends and admirers in private performances. Maestro Clive and Neath Opera revived the tradition, giving wonderful performances to a less fashionable but equally discriminating audience! They created “the Welsh Glyndebourne”, earning fulsome praise from their patrons and from the London music critics, especially for Verdi and other Italian masters.

In 1984, he was chosen to succeed Haydn James as director of Swansea Philharmonic Choir. During a thirty year reign, Clive and the choir treated their audiences to the choral classics (Bach, Mendelssohn, Verdi, Elgar, Vaughan Williams and many others), as well as a variety of twentieth century pieces including those by a remarkable dynasty of Welsh composers: Daniel Jones, Alan Hoddinott, William Matthias, Karl Jenkins and Clive’s ex-Dynevor pupil Stephen McNeff. In 1995, the Philharmonic combined with the Bach Choir of Mannheim (Swansea’s twin city) to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the end of WWII, performing Britten’s War Requiem in Mannheim on VE day and in Swansea on Armistice Day. Clive also led the choir into the world of operetta, gala opera choral evenings, and in one memorable season the two “Samson operas” of Handel and Saint-Saens.

He continued with the Swansea Philharmonic till his retirement. In 2013, they sung Vernon Hopkins’s “The Bells of Santiago” in All Saint’s Church Oystermouth, to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the 1863 church fire in Santiago de Chile which killed 2500 people and destroyed everything except the church bells, forged in Swansea a century earlier. After the disaster the bells were reshipped to Swansea as scrap, but found their way to All Saints, where they remained till 2013 when they were returned to Santiago at the request of the Chilean authorities. Clive’s final glorious concert with the choir took place in December 2014 in the Brangwyn Hall with the Chamber Orchestra of Wales, and star soloists Rebecca Evans and Paul Carey Jones, in a programme of music by ‘old friends’ including Purcell, Faure, Mascagni, Strauss and Bernstein.

On a personal note, my connection with Clive began in the early 1960s, before he took up the music post in Dynevor. Playing flute in the orchestra for Clydach and Cadoxton Opera Societies, I admired his ever-cheerful but firm direction of the performers on the stage and in the pit. His charm and authority in the opera house worked to brilliant effect with distinguished soloists and members of the chorus and orchestra, both established musicians and students like me. I re-lived that formative experience just four years ago at our reunion of Dynevor’s Year of 1958, when Clive showed me a collection of concert and opera programmes, and we recalled the Clydach and Cadoxton days in the sixties. He showed the same quiet and cheerful confidence which I recall from the Mond Nickel Works Social Club and the Gwyn Hall Neath, but also a contented glow from decades of exceptional music-making.

Clive died peacefully on 5th December 2015 in Ty Olwen. His family, including his wife Betsan and son Edward, as well as old friends and colleagues, including Susan Croall (long-term accompanist of Swansea Philharmonic Choir), David Dickinson (Dynevor contemporary), and conductor John Hugh Thomas (contemporary at Cardiff University), have contributed freely to this portrait of one of Swansea’s finest musicians.

Roger Williams    Dynevor 1958-65      Member of Clive John’s orchestras 1961-65