50 Years on the Planks: Julian Bream Talks About His Life and Work

Interview by Chris Kilvington and Lorraine Eastwood | From the October 1996 issue of Classical Guitar

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Julian Bream’s performing career, one which will be celebrated with a series of concerts with the London Mozart Players on 2, 4 and 5 October. We drove to the sleepy Wiltshire village where he lives to chat over Julian’s reflections on his life with the guitar, and began by asking him at what age he began playing the guitar.

Note: This is part of our ongoing series celebrating the legacy of Julian Bream, who passed away this year at the age of 87.

I think it was between 10 and 11. I’d already played the piano for a year or so and I got a proper fingerstyle, gut-strung guitar for my eleventh birthday, an Ibanez instrument. Before then I’d played a steel-string plectrum guitar; my father was an amateur plectrum guitarist, and also a fingerstyle banjo player.

By the time he was 14 he’d progressed to the stage where he was giving his first public concert in Cheltenham (hence the occasion of this 50th anniversary series).

Yes, that’s right, 50 years on the planks! I seemed to make tremendous headway; initially having been trained in music with the piano, I could read pretty well. One of the great encouraging things for me was that after the war the Philharmonic Society of Guitarists renewed their activities. They had monthly meetings in private houses, and my father and I went along. I suppose there were about 30 people, representing the cognoscenti of the guitar in England at that time. After a bit of talk and a cup of tea people were asked to play, and the standard of performance, I have to say, was very low indeed! So much so that I volunteered to play a tune myself, and I’d only been playing a year, and people were rather taken aback by my audacity. I had to borrow a guitar but I wasn’t at all nervous.

The society president, Dr. Boris Perott, seemed rather impressed. There were no guitar teachers as such anywhere in England at that time; although a physician by profession, Dr. Perott was obviously at one time quite a capable guitarist, and so I had some lessons from him. But unfortunately he taught the old Italian school of guitar playing where your right-hand little finger is stuck to the soundboard. And the repertoire was basically just 19th century. After some months I realised there was going to be no possibility of playing a Spanish piece such as Leyenda by Albéniz with your little finger in this position. I realised this was a dead end and eventually I told him so, and didn’t have any further lessons. But that’s how I got started.

It wasn’t totally natural that a Londoner should aim to be a guitar virtuoso

Then there was an amateur cellist, a very nice man, who was also a guitarist; he was Desmond Dupré, and he offered to help me a little bit. He was good for me; I only had four or five lessons, but he taught me to practise scales and arpeggios, and encouraged a disciplined approach to practising, after which there wasn’t much more he could teach me, so I was virtually on my own, and have been ever since. Of course; I played for Segovia a couple of times privately. I went to the Royal College of Music—no guitar there of course—and I learnt a hell of a lot about music, keyboard and composition and so forth, learnt some guitar technique by watching Segovia at his concerts, or anybody else for that matter. Sometimes you can learn from players who are not so good, how not to do it! In those days, the late 40s, early 50s, there was really no possibility of making a serious musical career with the guitar in this country.

Had you envisaged all this when still in your teens?

No. My generation of music students tended to be idealistic, that is, you did what you wanted to do and if you couldn’t forge a career you didn’t have a career, but you still did it on an amateur basis. I suppose that’s an old-fashioned attitude; these days a lot of people want to know first what will be the likely financial outcome. And just after the war the austerity in this country was pretty bad, things were tight. It was very difficult to get guitar strings and music, or a decent instrument. A totally different world. And so you moved step by step; if you could get a few strings, procure a bit of guitar music, or get a reasonably good instrument, get heard. And when you’re very young you don’t need much to live on; I used to earn enough by giving the odd guitar lesson. I also had a scholarship from the Royal College of Music which initially just paid my tuition fees. And there was then a fund set up for me by the Philharmonic Society of Guitarists. So I could keep going. And then the Royal College improved my financial position by not only paying for my tutorial fees but also giving me a little bit extra each week so that with my private teaching I could just about manage through.

All we did was set our sights on something—and mine were set on playing the guitar, and to do it absolutely as well as I could. It was a terrific struggle in those early years, but on the other hand such struggles can make you more resilient. The fact that in this country I was the only one who even envisaged making a go of it created for me a sense of individuality, and a sense that I was doing a really good thing. Not just for myself, but for music, in trying to revive interest in a neglected instrument like the guitar.

We were curious to know why, when Segovia had been here playing concerts, there seemed to be no other special interest, and that Julian seemed to be the only person attempting to work to such a high level.

There were no gifted players as such, just a few amateurs. Segovia came once a year and played at the Wigmore Hall to a full house, and a few other dates such as Manchester; but the audiences he got then in the provinces weren’t very big. He really became hugely successful in the late 50s; but in the 40s we could only say he was reasonably successful outside London. It seemed natural then that he, as a Spaniard, should play the guitar; but it wasn’t totally natural that a Londoner should aim to be a guitar virtuoso. There was a curious dichotomy between my upbringing and nationality and the instrument I chose to play at that time.

Do you think that the public perceived the guitar as being a Spaniard’s instrument?

Well, yes, in as much as they had any perception. But I never looked on it like that. It seemed to me that there were two problems. Not just the fact that you’re playing a Spanish instrument; there was incredible prejudice in England from a very long time previous that the English were no good at music! Some of them changed their names. Alfredo Campoli, the violinist, was a cockney from London. I was told by the Russian president of the Society that I’d never make it with a name like Julian Bream, I’d have to change it, and why not have a Russian name?

It there’s a possibility to do something then the great thing is to do it—if you want to do it.

In the 1990s there is an ever-increasing availability of guitar music—was there a problem for you in getting hold of sheet music when you were younger?

Yes, a terrific problem. In the war there was no importation of music at all. And at Schott’s after the war there was just a handful of pieces in the Segovia edition, and a few 19th century pieces. So, not very much music; but on the other hand you didn’t need very much. I started off with a book of Carcassi pieces, and just went from number 1 to number 30. And then you’d find another book and go through that in the same way. And strings too; I’d use double length gut violin strings for the trebles and anything I could get hold of for the basses. In fact, the very first piece that I played at the PSG was a Torroba piece, Serenata Burlesca. And I played that particular piece because it was the only piece of modern guitar music at Schott’s!

Did you ever tire of playing repertoire chosen in that way?

No. I didn’t even think of it as repertoire. It was music. And I found it so difficult that I could have spent a lot of time studying it. And I loved those Carcassi Etudes, enough to last a lifetime—at least, that’s what I thought then. Because when you’re that young you don’t think what’s going to happen when you’re 30, you think about what’s happening tomorrow. Carcassi­—I thought I could enjoy those pieces for ever. And I still think that one or two are absolutely charming, and wonderfully good studies for technique.

It seemed appropriate to ask whether the transcriptions he made were in order to extend his available repertoire.

Yes, although I really did them because I liked the music, and I thought they worked well on the guitar. But that was a little later; well, not so much later when I think about it, around 1948 I suppose. Anyway, things started to improve, you began to be able to get more music and also some Segovia recordings. For example, in the war you couldn’t get any of those; but my father found a shop off the Charing Cross Road which dealt in rare and special recordings, including Segovia’s. By the late 40s he was recording again, and I think some of his best performances were recorded in ’47/’48 for the Brunswick label, such as the Albéniz and Granados music. So things gradually improved year by year.

And for me too; my first concert, which I didn’t consider a professional concert, was at Cheltenham in 1946, This was a first trial concert to see if there was any interest in the guitar at all as a concert instrument. So a close friend of my father’s, Wilfrid Appleby, hired a little room in the Art Gallery and advertised the concert and introduced the pieces. The public would have known nothing about the guitar repertoire at all, and he was very knowledgeable about these things. There was some interest—not necessarily because I played the guitar, but because I was so young and people were intrigued. And at that time intellectual life in England was beginning to wake up a bit, after the war. Anyway, I had quite a good audience, and they were very enthusiastic. So, Appleby and my father thought, why not go for a bigger concert in Cheltenham in the following year, and that was my first big concert.


At that point we felt compelled to ask if he could remember what he played at that first concert.

It’s funny you should mention that because I came across a copy of the programme recently, where is it now? I’ve got an impossible filing system. Boxes and boxes, ah where is it? I’ve got it somewhere. I’ll tell you why… I’ll look once more… because there’s a book coming out written by Stuart Button. He’s got together all Appleby’s and my father’s correspondence, and this will hopefully be coming out next year. It should be quite interesting, with a whole lot of interesting stuff I’d actually forgotten. It shows the situation musically at that time, and what was going on in this tiny little world of the guitar. Now, where is that programme? I seem to remember that I played some fairly substantial numbers for those days. And I did some Bach, Segovia arrangements… oh, I’ve forgotten, I must find that programme for you, I came across it only the other day. And what’s interesting is that it belonged to Wilfrid Appleby, and it’s actually got his annotations on it, the things he was going to say.

I was initially nervous at this concert, the first piece, but not after that. I thought the whole thing of performing was just a wonderful experience. And I often think it’s an odd experience, a strange thing to be doing. And sometimes when I get nervous or agitated I sit down backstage and think, why the bloody hell do I have to put myself through all this? Not necessarily all the time! But just on occasions that does happen. But in the early days I thought it was a cinch. I thought, I’ll just show ’em what I can do, and if they don’t like it they can damn well go! And the sensation of having an audience, and they’re all listening, I found it magical. It’s phenomenal! And after the first experience of that, it stays with you forever, it just never leaves you. I can remember how it felt playing those pieces 50 years ago.

From the age of 15 to 18 Julian Bream was at the Royal College of Music, and then from 18 to 21 on National Service in the Army—not the conventional route for a concert performer. He had five LPs out by the time he was 24—was that a foundation for a career, especially at that time?

Yes, but a musical career was different then, things evolved in a very gradual way. There were rarely what one might call blockbuster events. One thing just seemed to somehow evolve into another—or dissolve into another! You see, the pace of life, and the whole way the music profession expressed itself, was much slower. Things went forward hopefully and naturally, but nothing like the intensity and pace of today. And there was nothing like the publicity machine. the marketing, little of that at all. There were far fewer concerts, so it wasn’t difficult to get a review in The Times or The Daily Telegraph, and when you made a record people tended to take note of it because in any given month there were probably only 30 records issued. So you generally got a review. Now there are probably 2,000 CDs each month, so you can no longer expect a review.

The guitar can have too much personality in its sound—in order to play a Bach fugue you’ve almost got to depersonalise the instrument.

The radio also was a wonderful medium for me. The BBC could use me for playing the lighter Spanish music. I would play guitar solos featured within a programme that was otherwise made up of a little tango band. The Third Programme started up in 1947, just for serious music; transmitters opened at six in the evening and packed in at eleven. It was a very serious and intellectual programme, and helped with the development of interest in early music. I was sometimes asked to play odd lute things on the guitar, there seemed a sort of demand for this. So in a funny way I took up the lute to fulfill this demand. It’s like so many things in life; if there’s a possibility to do something then the great thing is to do it—if you want to do it. Now, it just so happened that I loved lute music, and there was the chance of getting some work. Within my decision to play the lute was clearly a commercial realisation of an opportunity. I can’t tell you where the idealism left off and the commercialisation started! I wasn’t desperate, but when you’re on your uppers you take what there is, and I was absolutely determined not to play the commercial plectrum guitar.

We wondered if that included the Django Reinhardt style, as we understood that Julian was an admirer of his.

Oh sure. And I played plectrum guitar up to the age of 21, I played frequently in a dance band in the Army. And, yes, I loved playing jazz guitar, but not as a profession, just for fun. You can’t mix the two. I can remember playing steel-string guitar for dances, and it just ruined the sensitivity of your left hand. And I was playing rhythm guitar with big six-string chords all night long. It was a knucklebender!

Are you still playing the lute?

I do from time to time, mostly for myself. I get a great crush on it. and do quite a bit of playing, and then I leave it alone, and concentrate on the guitar. Again, it’s very hard to play both instruments, because of the different string tensions. I love the lute very, very much. For me, it’s more of an aesthetic experience; I do love contrapuntal music, and the lute has a wonderful clarity for that type of music. The guitar can have too much personality in its sound—in order to play a Bach fugue you’ve almost got to depersonalise the instrument. And it can work!

The guitar can sound a very brash instrument after the finely textured lute.

The lute I’ve played in the last ten years is a very light instrument, with gut frets. I prefer that type of instrument now. You know. something I enjoyed—when I played the lute in the first half, an atmosphere was created, a beautiful feeling, something which ideally should not then have been interrupted by the guitar. The guitar can sound a very brash instrument after the finely textured lute. Yet on the other hand, because everyone had been concentrating on the lute the impact of the guitar was strong. Stronger in volume, and a more emotional instrument. So in the end I suppose it did work very well from an audience’s point of view. And you could do a wonderful history of European music using these two instruments, going from even the 15th century right up to the present day.

This was obviously a really rare opportunity for people to hear the lute with there being so few players at the time.

Yes. Desmond Dupré played, and of course Diana Poulton. And there was a very good German player, Walter Gerwig, who made a beautiful sound, really exquisite—but you couldn’t really hear it properly more than three or four rows back. It was lovely, but small. I felt that I wanted to promote this music in a way that would be acceptable for all music lovers. The lutenists hitherto had really just played for their own kith and kin, and I was interested to bring out the music of Morley, Dowland and Rosseter, and project that to people who also loved Mozart symphonies, or Beethoven piano sonatas. I believed that this music existed in the same realms as the more normal classical music that we were all listening to. I felt very much a pioneer.

I saw no hope for the guitar as an integral part of European music without a contemporary literature that expressed the feelings and movements of now.

Now, whether aesthetically I should have done that is something that could well be questioned. You could say that it took the lute out of its conveniently intimate spirit and thrust it into the public den as an instrument that projects. For its musical spirit, that may have been an aesthetic mistake on my part, but on the other hand there was such interest! And nowadays there are some fantastically fine players of the instrument. Maybe if I hadn’t done what I did then we may not have had such fine players today—if that doesn’t sound too conceited on my part. My job really was to get things started. It was something I wanted to do, and that I felt had to be done. I found it such a stimulating instrument. And it had an effect on how I then approached the guitar. People said, years ago, that I played the guitar like a lute and the lute like a guitar, and there may have been an iota of truth in that. But the fact remains that the lute did have a very interesting influence on my guitar playing. A very good example of that is that, whereas some guitarists would play their Baroque music in very high positions for the emotional effect of the vibrato, in the Tárrega and Llobet and Segovia style, I always liked to use a long string length. I would use vibrato, but not for effect, but for a more musical reason, largely to do with phrasing. I was not afraid to play this music in low positions and let the instrument just ring, without using the left hand for colour. That was the main influence of the lute on my guitar playing.

Returning to his work with the guitar, we asked how and why he became involved with the commissioning of major new works which, as we all know, went on to make such an important contribution to the guitar repertoire. and has left us with such a rich legacy.

The reason was that I saw no hope for the guitar as an integral part of European music without a contemporary literature that expressed the feelings and movements of now. To play old music was all very well, but the instrument’s repertoire needed revitalising. The Segovia repertoire, some of it at least, was very charming and sometimes very beautiful; I used a lot of that in my early days. But I became interested in other styles of music, simply because I’ve always enjoyed music outside of the guitar repertoire. I listen every day to something, a string quartet, a symphony, or whatever.

As I get older it fascinates me even more, because it is the power of music which is such an extraordinary phenomenon—and it has been almost totally commercialised today in order to make money. But it wasn’t originally intended for that. I spend a lot of my time here thinking about it, and analysing music without a score. I’m interested that one performance of a work can convey ideas which no other art form or words can convey. And upon one hearing! And I also knew quite a few composers personally; in London, which has always been a wonderful city for music, you all came into contact with each other, either socially or through work. Gradually I began to know all the important people. There was Michael Tippett, Lennox Berkeley, Ben Britten; Willie Walton lived in Italy, but I knew him. We occasionally bumped into each other at a party, or maybe we’d meet at the first night of an opera. There was always contact. I must admit there were cliques, the Britten clique, the Tippett clique, and I used to enjoy breaking rank as far as that went. The musical life of London was very stimulating. And they were all interested in what I did, and would comment on the wonderful sound, and I’d suggest they should write a piece. They’d say it was too difficult and I’d tell ’em it was OK, I’d show ’em how it worked. And that’s how that started.

We all know that Britten’s Nocturnal, composed in 1963, is a magnificent work. Why didn’t he write another major composition for you before he died in 1976?

Well, he wanted to. But he became ill, had a very bad heart condition. That’s a great mystery, how a composer sits down and writes a piece. Now, I know with that piece, he had it in mind for years, because we used to talk about it. I knew him well, through my relationship with Peter Pears, I used to go down to Aldeburgh to rehearse with Peter Pears. And he said he wanted to write me another work, but he’s not the kind of composer who would just sit down and write it. The time had to be right, he had to be feeling right, and the ideas that had probably been running through his head for years would begin to emerge in a more mature and definitive way. Not all composers evolve their music like that, but quite a lot do. Of course, they’ll get a commission to write for an occasion, and they’ll just write a piece.

Julian then went on to say that, while they were fine pieces of their time, after he had finished working with them they were of the past—for him.

As somebody who was involved with them, they belong to the past now. You know, yourselves, it’s like making a record. I never listen to my own recordings. I’m not interested. I’ve done that, and I’m on to doing another thing. It’s like novelists: they write and they’re on to the next one. That’s good. And maybe it’s a mistake to resurrect it.

I still say that music’s different now. Whereas in those days it was, if I may say so, in a better condition. Today there is a lot of confusion about which way music might go. And because of so­called world communications a lot of the interesting idiosyncrasies are no longer in evidence, the particularities of an English composer, or Dutch, or French—one of the things that made the music interesting—hardly exist today. And therefore there is a complete melee of styles and aesthetics which I find extraordinary. I can’t find my way around it. For example, this music, all rhythmical, motifs, what do they call it? Yes, minimalism. You could come in at the middle, or the end, or, yes!—the beginning, and it wouldn’t make much difference. But that’s already out it seems. Now why should such things be out so quickly? Why? It can only be because of the compression of the musical world, and that what once took 25 years to evolve formerly now needs only five. Now I do think there are some very beautiful pieces by Arvo Part, extraordinary pieces, but the music is largely reflective, a looking back with a somewhat religious nostalgia. Yet I think it produces a sensation of feeling that can be very lovely. But in some cases it can also be finally rather boring. And harmonically I find a lot of what I hear today very undistinguished. It’s as though composers, having gone back to a tonal system, it’s no longer an integral part of their culture. It’s no longer really part of them. Perhaps it’s lost its structural direction, and its purpose, and inevitably its meaning. Of course, there are some composers who still have something to say, and can say it eloquently, but overall I feel this is a very dull period for classical music and actually for many other things too—painting, architecture… something will happen, but this is not the moment to try to get things to happen.

In view of Julian’s comment that in a sense music is going backwards harmonically, we wondered if he felt that there was anywhere else for it to go?

Well, there isn’t yet, in my opinion. The late Hans Keller once said that you may not like serial music but he would hate to know what’s going to happen to music when serialism collapses. In the past composers took influence and inspiration from their predecessors, there were clean lines of evolution development; for example, Haydn, Beethoven, Weber, Berlioz, Wagner. And that language and influence carried through to the beginning of this present century. There was borrowing and recreation. After the first world war, which obviously had a tremendous influence on cultural life—on all life—the line split in three directions: the Second Viennese School, the Neo-classicists, and what one might call “the press on regardless.” Then where do you go now? There’s post-modernism, they have post-romantic, and… oh, goalposts! It’s a real muddle.

Changing the· subject and looking ahead to the forthcoming chamber concerts, we asked how Julian felt about the balance of the guitar with orchestra, and whether he still preferred to remain unamplified.

I think if you’re playing a chamber work with guitar it’s got to be very well rehearsed, not just in terms of ensemble, which is important enough, but also the balance has got to be re­thought and re-jigged. The problem with strings is that once they play too quietly the vitality of their sound begins to become inferior, and the music loses its life through inhibition. And the guitar is a soft instrument; its sound blends so well with other instruments that it’s very hard for it to dominate. If you let the others play where the guitar part is not so important, and where it is, then maybe just use a little less bow, then it can work. Last month I did a concert in France with a young English quartet, and they were very good. We did the Boccherini E minor quintet, and there were no problems at all with the balance.

The modern guitar, in a sense, would sound very well with the violins and cellos of, say, 1800, fitted with gut strings. That would balance very well. But not with a Panormo guitar, though. I think the guitar is a guitar. It’s an intimate instrument. I’m not saying it cannot be effectively amplified, I think it can be. But the reason I feel, particularly when playing in public, that it shouldn’t be amplified, is that most people hear their sound artificially regurgitated via records, radio or TV, and I think it’s very important that when you perform live it’s the real sound that people hear. Amplification can create all sorts of problems in a chamber music situation. How are you going to sort out your integral balance, where are you going to put, for example, the loudspeaker, who’s going to hear it… this is a great problem. It’s very important in chamber music to have an integral balance. And then you have to have a phenomenally directional mike. And I can’t envisage myself going along to the quartet and asking them to hang on a bit while I get the amp sorted out and get the mike up. Life’s too short! Better to solve it integrally; and, as I mentioned earlier, to realise that some bits are going to be less audible than others.

In every work—guitar quintet, or clarinet, or flute—there are passages where that instrument is subservient to the others. And so long as it’s there and reasonably audible, that’s OK. But when the featured instrument has a solo or important part, well it must be heard. And that’s a curious case against guitar chamber music. The whole idea of chamber music is equality between the parts. That is true chamber music—the most perfect being the string quartet, of course. You get problems with piano quintets because of the fact that the piano is a tempered instrument and the strings aren’t, and the music can sound terribly out of tune. Or take the Brahms horn trio, violin, horn, piano—that’s never in tune, the intonation is often sour simply because the three instruments have a different method of playing, of finding their notes, and a different articulation. And while I can’t think of guitar quintets as being true chamber music because of the inequality of the balance of the guitar in relationship to the strings, I can’t be a purist all the time, life’s too short for that. And some of it is lovely music, and the guitar can sound perfectly well and adequate to its musical task.

We asked about his choice of programme for the forthcoming orchestral and chamber music concerts.

I’ve chosen a programe which I think people will like, and which I think will be stimulating for them. I hope it will give them pleasure, because that’s what it’s all about. It has to be balanced. Normally when I play I don’t think about filling a hall; I probably should, but I don’t. But the LMP have to think about such things, they’ve got such terrific overheads. You’ve got to understand that as a fact of life.

I’m making a special feature of Leo Brouwer’s music. I’m playing his sonata, and I’m doing his arrangement of Iberia by Albéniz. I think Leo’s a highly gifted chap. A London platform won’t do him any harm. He’s very well known in the guitar world, but that’s a tiny world, not particularly important when you consider the overall musical profession. I’m very fond of him, and I do think they’re wonderful pieces. The Concerto Elegiaco is beautiful and beautifully orchestrated, and the Iberia orchestration is excellent.

When I proposed my programmes the LMP said that this was my celebration, not Leo Brouwer’s. But I wanted to give a little theme to the three concerts, it’s interesting music, it’s good music, and I know people will enjoy it—what more can you want? The problem, like anything else, is names in order to get bums on seats. In our time, things boil down to names, I’m afraid. That’s the way I see things going: there will be certain key works and certain key names, much in the impoverishment of our musical culture. And I’m always interested to do other things. And I’d say, if you don’t like the music then get somebody else. I’m lucky enough to be in a position to say that. And I don’t say that in any facetious way. I just feel that I’d like to do certain things, I’m willing to hear other views, and perhaps I’m able to come to some agreement about it. And if not, if they say, “We can’t sell that,” then I’d say “Well, I’m sorry, you’ve booked the wrong person.”

As you know, the Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu died earlier this year. In the chamber concert I am also making a little tribute to him. Apart from that wonderfully evocative piece Toward the Sea for alto flute and guitar, I will also be giving the first performance of the composer’s last piece, In the Woods for solo guitar, a touchingly haunting piece.

Before we finished our conversation we mentioned the fact that audiences for all concerts, not merely guitar events, are smaller than they used to be. How did he feel about this?

Everything is contracting at a time when there are more and more musicians. There’s no answer to that. But there is no doubt too that the actual quality of interest in classical music has declined. That is understandable when you have an international situation where there are so many other styles of music which are being almost comfortably integrated into our lives; not, alas, into mine so much. I do find that I have to make a conscious effort to hold on to the thing which I believe in. I really do. I just think, no, I’ve got to keep my integrity and my vision intact. In a world which is increasingly alien to sensitivity or imagination it’s the only thing I can do.

I’ve said enough! Thank you.