As told by Johanna Vollers | From the July 1985 issue of Classical Guitar
Johanna Vollers came from Holland to London as a girl. Trained as a singer, she sang at the BBC in its early days, with Harold Craxton—later to become famous as a teacher of the piano—as her accompanist. She learned to play the guitar and to accompany herself, singing mainly Spanish songs and the French bergerettes. Then followed 25 years of teaching English to foreigners, a job to which she doubtless brought the same vigour and resourcefulness which she had applied to her musical activities. She became secretary of the Philharmonic Society of Guitarists (P.S.G.), the organisation which gave Julian Bream his first playing opportunities. It was Johanna Vollers who, with Victoria Kingsley, went to see Sir George Dyson, Principal of the Royal College of Music, to tell him about the remarkable young prodigy of the classical guitar—with results that the whole world knows.
Johanna Vollers died in 1983, in her 91st year. Two months previously I had met her in the house of her friend, the guitarist and teacher George Zarb, and she had talked, in her forthright and colourful way (and, incidentally, with all the crispness of diction for which she, as a singer, had been praised 60 years previously) about the personalities of the P.S.G. and their activities, particularly those of its youngest and most distinguished member, the schoolboy Julian Bream.
We hope to publish further extracts from this fascinating interview, but here are two to begin with. They concern Julian Bream’s first appearance at the P.S.G., and, later, his meeting with Segovia. —Colin Cooper
When we met in the flat of one of Dr. Perott’s friends (Boris Perott was the president of the P.S.G.), there were new people, people I’d never seen before who had heard about us and wanted to join.
On a settee was a man with a little boy in a little red jacket and short yellow trousers. We’d never had anything like that before in the Society.
Dr. Perott said to me, “Do you know these people?” I said no. “Do you think they play the guitar?” I said, “I don’t know, but we’ll soon find out.”
So I piped up and said, “Gentlemen”—of course, I never thought of the little boy—”Does the gentleman play the guitar?”
“Well, yes—but my son will be pleased to play for you.”
I’ve never forgotten. Julian said, “I’ll play three pieces, if somebody will lend me a guitar.” He sat on the arm of a chair and played better than anybody in the Guitar Society. So very promising.
That was the beginning of it. Dr. Perott took him up, and Mr. Bream brought Julian to him every Sunday for a lesson. And that’s where he first learned. He played the electric guitar, but you get to a certain point with the electric guitar and there’s no more to learn. That didn’t satisfy Julian.
That’s how he got interested. But there was nobody to teach him. There wasn’t anybody to teach anything on the guitar in England at that time. It had gone dead. It had been alive before 1900, when Madame Sidney Pratten was alive. Dr. Perott played, yes, but not to any great extent. And Julian had lessons from him, every Sunday. His father took him along. They took a lot of trouble over it.
We as a society had a library of guitar music, and it was transferred to Mr. Bream when he was made librarian of the Society. So, Julian had access to endless music, which was a great advantage. But perhaps the greatest advantage was being put in touch with Segovia through the Society—through me, really, because I knew Segovia, nobody else did.
Julian played to the Society every so often, and people became interested. They wanted him to play, they enjoyed his playing, they gave him half a crown or a box of chocolates. And I thought, that’s no good for a boy of that age. He was very young then. There wasn’t too much money in the family, so I said to Dr. Perott, “Why don’t we have a separate fund especially for Julian Bream? If they want to give this money, let’s put it in a trust fund in the bank.”
Which we did. It was very useful, too.
We didn’t know whether Julian would be any good or wouldn’t be any good. How could we tell? So, when Segovia came over for the first time after the War, I said to the Society, “Now this is a beautiful opportunity. I can get in touch with Segovia, ask him to come here and listen to Julian and tell us what he thinks of him.”
Segovia was willing to come. I went to see him personally, of course. He had Olga Coelho with him. They’d just come from Russia, the pair of them, where Segovia had given a recital and she sang to her guitar. He wrote the musical accompaniments for her, showed her how to play them, so she was very, very good. He said, “Well, of course, I won’t play.” I said, “We would never have dreamt of asking you.” He said, “But if you ask Coelho, she’s sure to give you some songs.” I said that would be wonderful.
So, that was all arranged. I told Dr. Perott I needed a motor car to get me from Beckenham. We would have to have extra cakes, or something for the evening, and milk, and I couldn’t drag all that along. And we had to fetch Segovia from his hotel. If I had the car, we could do it all in one.
The news got around. You never saw such a number of people—for which I was very pleased, I was delighted. Because you want Segovia to have a real, rousing reception on the occasion when he comes back for the first time.
So, there I was on the platform, with Dr. Perott in the middle, Segovia on his left, and me on his right having to make the introduction and all that. Suddenly Perott hands me a letter, handwritten by an enthusiast from Manchester who couldn’t be with us.
Perott, who was Russian, wasn’t very good at English. So I get this handed to me with a “Read that!” Somebody else’s handwriting that you’ve never seen before. You don’t know what it’s about. I thought, I must do this carefully. I read slowly and very carefully. You don’t take in what you’re reading under those conditions; you just read carefully the words that are there.
Suddenly the whole hall bursts out laughing. And Segovia gets up and indicates to me that I should stop. So I stop. And what I’d read out from this man in Manchester was that he looked upon Segovia as “the father of all guitarists.” Of course, everybody laughed. And then Segovia said, “I am sorry for the mother.”
That evening Segovia heard Julian play. He said, yes, you’ve got something there. And he said—it was an enormous help, as you can well imagine—he said, “I’ll write a letter to the Society, and you can use it however you like, to say that in my opinion Julian Bream has a possible career before him.”
With that letter, of course, we opened doors. It was the foundation of his career.