Julian Bream: Classical guitarist of profound influence

The musician always saw himself as part of a continuing tradition and regularly expressed his belief that ‘the future of the guitar is every bit as important as its past’

Tim Page
Wednesday 19 August 2020 13:14
The London-born artist performs in 1968
The London-born artist performs in 1968

Julian Bream’s concerts and recordings on both lute and classical guitar brought a huge new audience of listeners and players to those instruments.

Over the course of a career that spanned more than half a century, Bream helped revive interest in the lute and assembled a repertoire of pieces that had been neglected since the Tudor era but are now played regularly in concerts and schools.

Bream’s influence on the guitar was even more profound. Writing in the New York Daily News, critic Terry Teachout recalled the days when acoustic guitar recitals consisted of “fluff: second-rate Spanish pieces, miscellaneous arrangements and transcriptions, encore-type lollipops”.

“Today, classical guitarists have a huge repertoire of challenging music on which to draw, much of it – including most of the best of it – either discovered or commissioned by Bream,” he continued.

Bream, who died at his home in Wiltshire at the age of 87, had always seen himself as part of a continuing tradition and regularly expressed his belief that “the future of the guitar is every bit as important as its past”. And so he commissioned or played the first performances of music from many of the leading composers of his time, including Malcolm Arnold, William Walton, Hans Werner Henze, Michael Tippett, Peter Maxwell Davies and Toru Takemitsu.

Benjamin Britten created his celebrated “Nocturnal” (1963) with Bream in mind: it is a set of variations on “Come, Heavy Sleep”, a theme by the Elizabethan composer John Dowland, that is finally played in its original form at the conclusion of the 16-minute piece.

Up until the late 1970s, few classical conservatories offered instruction in guitar, in part because of its close association with pop music. Bream, who was largely self-taught, admired the instrument specifically because “it cuts across the whole gamut, from classical to pop and folk”.

“It’s also got something exotic and mysterious about it which is appealing in an unexotic and unmysterious age,” he told The Times in 1967. “It’s like a quiet small voice. You have to be very lucid to clarify everything and get it across to people. It’s the antithesis of someone yelling themselves hoarse to make themselves understood.”

Bream recorded prolifically, mostly for RCA, for which he made more than 35 discs. Most of these were reissued in 2013 in honour of his 80th birthday. He won four Grammy Awards between 1964 and 1974 and was a finalist on 20 other occasions.

“I enjoy having a large audience, but I don’t do anything special to attract them,” Bream told The Washington Post in 1980. “In the selection of repertoire, for example. I play what I like and hope that others will enjoy it – but if they don’t, it doesn’t worry me much. I’m really playing for myself and inviting or allowing others to listen. That’s the kind of instrument the guitar is.”

Julian Alexander Bream was born in Battersea on 15 July 1933. His father was a commercial artist and amateur musician who gave his son an old Spanish guitar for his 11th birthday.

“He could hardly read music, but he was very enthusiastic,” Bream recalled of his father in 1980. “There was always a guitar around the house – always the sound of a guitar, including guitar records. I was entranced by Django Reinhardt – he was my hero in those days and, I must confess, even in these. Then my father brought home a record of Segovia and he became my second hero, as he still is today.”

In 1947, Bream was admitted as a scholarship student at the Royal College of Music. Because there wasn’t a professor of guitar there – or in any other institution in postwar Britain – he studied the piano, along with harmony, counterpoint and composition. When he began his professional career in his late teens, he found himself working in a very different musical setting.

“The opportunity came along to play electric guitar with an army dance band three nights a week,” he told The Post in 1980. “It was a big band, with five saxes and six brass, and we had a good small group in the rhythm section who would play alone once in a while to give the reeds and brass a rest. That’s when I learned the job of improvisation – a way of making music that is almost totally closed, these days, to the classical performer.”

Bream divided his 1958 American debut at New York’s Town Hall between music by Renaissance composers Dowland, Daniel Batchelor, Francis Cutting and Robert Johnson on the lute, and by Bach, Villa-Lobos and Albeniz on the guitar. The reviewer for Musical America reported that “he had the audience listening with hushed breath to the miraculously lovely music being evoked”.

Bream was particularly drawn to the lute music of Dowland and other Elizabethan composers.

“I think Englishmen or northern Europeans in general are more naturally attracted to the lute than to the guitar, which always seems Spanish exotic – to our ears,” he told The Post. “My own style on the guitar grew out of my experience with the lute. I suppose some people might say I play each like the other. And of course I know a lot of guitar fans who wish I would stop playing the lute and vice versa.”

Asked by a reporter for Newsweek in 1962 what sort of people attended concerts of lute music, Bream replied: “Real nuts and scholars, lovers of Elizabethan music, those who like quaint period pieces, and those who are dragged along by somebody.”

He claimed to be most interested in the last group. “I want to convert them,” he said. “I want to shout: ‘Don’t you think this is marvellous?’ The great secret of Elizabethan music is that it is meant to be enjoyed. The Elizabethans wanted fun from their music.”

Bream retired from performance in 2002. Five years later, critic Allan Kozinn, a guitarist by training, called Bream’s absence from the concert halls after the late 1990s “a clear evidence of a decline in the quality of life”.

“Others have also felt it keenly,” Kozinn continued. “Next season a handful of younger guitarists will present a 75th-birthday tribute concert at the 92nd Street Y. Their focus no doubt will be on Bream’s contributions to the repertory. But what they won’t be able to convey is the warmth of his sound and his persuasive personality, which came through in his music-making and his informative and often amusing comments about the music at hand.”

Bream’s marriages to Margaret Williamson and Isabel Sanchez ended in divorce. Survivors include a brother and a sister.

After retiring, Bream remained deeply interested in music. In 2008, he set up the Julian Bream Trust to provide financial help to gifted music students and to continue commissioning works.

In 2013, he told The Guardian that he had to “renounce making music seriously” in 2011 after being knocked off his feet by a neighbour’s dog while he was out walking. He broke both of his hips and injured his left hand.

He said there was nothing sad about not playing anymore. But then he added: “The thing I feel a little annoyed about is that I know I’m a better musician than I was at 70, but I can’t prove it.”

Julian Bream, classical guitarist, born 15 July 1933, died 14 August 2020

© The Washington Post

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