Catching Up with Julian Bream: The Legendary Master Looks Back

julian bream
Photo: Eamonn-McCabe Courtesy: Hazard Chase

By Thérèse Wassily Saba

(The following interview was adapted from the December 2014 issue of Classical Guitar)

Thérèse Wassily Saba: The first issue of Classical Guitar was published in September/October 1982 and you were on the cover – that was 32 years ago. Can you remember some things from that period that were highlights of your career? You were still doing Wigmore Hall recitals as an annual event.
Julian Bream: Yes and I was preparing a series of films for Channel 4 television [in Britain], which was called Guitarra!; it was about the history of the guitar in Spain and that took me four years of preparation – from 1980 to 1984. So I would have been in the middle of preparing that; choosing the music; doing the research; learning the baroque guitar; learning the renaissance guitar; studying the vihuela; and generally trying to make a pretty fist of all the pieces that I had put down for the program.

So at that stage you hadn’t thought about performing on the baroque guitar before?
No, I hadn’t.

Was it the film that inspired you to have the instrument made?
Yes, and I also had a four-course renaissance guitar made too. It was at a time when, had it been 20 years earlier, you could have got away with making a series of historical films using a modern guitar for the 16th- and 17th-century music, but by 1982, there was no possibility of pursuing that line and technically getting away with it. There would have been all hell to pay by way of criticism – and quite rightly too. I think that the movement towards authentic instruments, such as we have witnessed in the last 30 years, has been a magnificent movement and as such it has changed the historical face of music forever.

It was quite a big move for someone like yourself, who was such an established performer, to launch into …
Another world. Yes, it most certainly was.

You were very brave!
I was, but don’t forget that I had always played the lute and so I was used to early music, and doing that I was also used to a lot of criticism and so the whole thing perhaps wasn’t so brave after all.

How did you approach developing the technique for each instrument?
All my technique – on the guitar, the lute, the baroque guitar, and not forgetting the vihuela, was totally homemade. I’ve never really been taught how to play these plucked instruments. Therefore, I have an ideal of sound in my head and I get as near as I can to realizing that sound. So I use any stroke or method of playing that gives me satisfaction first, that also realizes my ambition in matters of sound and articulation.

Did you find that after working on those new instruments that your approach changed when you returned to the modern guitar?
Yes, in many ways, it did. The baroque guitar in a sense speaks a little quicker than most modern guitars and it is limited in terms of its ability to express emotional feelings that belong to a later era, which is no bad thing because the feeling of emotion for the 17th- and 18th-century musicians was entirely different from our modern concept of the sentiment. Therefore, using modern guitar techniques and modern methods on an early instrument is not a very clever thing to do because it is the authentic spirit of the instrument that should dictate the quality and characteristic of the sound.

How did you decide on the repertoire?
That’s a very good point. I went through a number of old guitar books – baroque guitar books, as well as the printed vihuela collections, and I spent a lot of time just going through as much as I could of the works of Santiago de Murcia, Gaspar Sanz, Guerrero, Milan and Mudurra. I enjoyed it; it was a refreshing thing to do, having played the ordinary Spanish guitar for so many years, to now find out about this earlier music and how it was really played, I thought initially that the five-string guitar was a rather limited instrument compared to the modern guitar, but once I became involved in its literature and the music, I found that it was a perfectly complete instrument for what it wanted to express musically. It rang with the double courses and particularly so with the fourth course tuned in octaves; it made a beautiful, mature and archaic sound that fascinated me no end.

Do you think that, apart from your contribution of commissioning new works, you actually expanded the repertoire at the other chronological end, as well as through those films, and set off a lot of further research into that music?
Yes, quite probably and it still goes on.

Seeing you play a baroque guitar must have provided a big impetus for other people’s interest in the instrument.
Yes, that may well be true. I had the renaissance and baroque guitar built as well as the vihuela built of course by José Romanillos, who at the time lived very close to me in the country here and it was particularly interesting discussing the construction of these early instruments. Then also the fact that I had to learn to play them was a refreshing idea for me and I’m very glad I did it. There was also another reason why I did these films: it was a sort of “thank you” gesture towards Spain which had given me almost the raison d’être for my passionate feelings for the guitar. I am not sure, but you know I don’t think there would have been a performer in Spain or anywhere else who could have played all those four instruments as I did for those films at the time.

How did the idea for the films start?
Well, it started actually from a recording series that I wanted to make and I initially did some research for the project; I think it was called The History of the Spanish Guitar, or something of that nature. So I was already thinking through the idea of doing a historical series about the guitar in Spain when suddenly it occurred to me that to make a film of it would enhance the project still further, not the least because a film series would help to market the recordings. Now I am not normally that commercially minded, but in my estimation, there was no harm in doing that. … My feelings on the matter are this: you perform as an artist as your integrity dictates, the music that you want to record, but it may well be material that could have success in terms of its commercial viability.

Could you give an example of something you wanted to do and something that would have been more “popular”?
Yes, I can. When I recorded the 20th Century Guitar with the Britten, the Frank Martin, Henze and other contemporary composers, the authorities who ran the company in New York weren’t at all pleased with that idea; they didn’t think they could sell such a recording. But I had a close friend, who was also a very good producer too and he worked in New York for RCA. He actually produced the very first record that I made for RCA Victor, which, if I recollect correctly was called The Art of Julian Bream. He persuaded them that they must let me do this record. His argument, which was quite valid, and simply proposed that as I was making my records not two miles away from my home in England, and in a private chapel, where I had my own little recording team, consisting of a recording engineer and a producer, consequently it was dirt cheap for RCA to make solo recordings in that manner. They didn’t have studio expenses; obviously we gave the chapel some money for rent or whatever it was, but to make my records for RCA with the pound sterling as it was in those days – very unfavorably matched against the dollar – it was no more than peanuts for RCA! I think my friend, the producer Peter Dellheim in New York, would have told them so: “Let him do it. It’s not going to cost us so much money, and anyway he’s already made plenty of money for us.” So that was very good reasoning. I was lucky to have that friend of mine, talking on my behalf, and arguing my case but I would have pursued my purpose anyway. I would have made the record come hell or high water.

And it was successful, wasn’t it?
It was, and eventually very much so.

Was it as successful as the other records? Did RCA complain?
No, they were amazed. You know, they were completely phased by the sales of that recording. It sold so well that thereafter I had carte blanche – I could record whatever I liked. Of course they have all these sorts of people such as marketing staff and people sent out to check the latest rave in musical fashion, and then this record comes along that makes a bit of a splash and actually makes some money for them and they just couldn’t believe it. Perhaps they thought I was some sort of clairvoyant wizard.

Which you were!
Not in playing the guitar so much, as choosing the right repertory to record. The result certainly cemented my career with RCA.

But at that time you were already performing those works regularly in concert.
I was, that is true.

Did you meet Frank Martin?
I knew him quite well. I met him on three or four occasions.

There are two versions of the Quatre pieces brèves, aren’t there?
There are actually three versions: there is the original guitar version, the piano version and the orchestral version.

Was the guitar version written for you?
No, the guitar version was done for Segovia, but if you know the pieces, you don’t have to be told that Segovia didn’t want to play them! And he didn’t. There is a marvelous story: Segovia lived in Geneva for quite some time and I think so did Frank Martin. I think they were both walking along a main road in Geneva, on the same side of the pavement, and they were walking towards each other. And suddenly, it was all too much for Segovia and so he was forced embarrassingly to cross the road to the other side. I was told that by Frank Martin himself.

Was Frank Martin excited that you would be playing them?
I think so, because nobody played these pieces at all and I actually saw the pieces in 1957; Karl Scheit had the manuscript to edit for publication and he showed me the work before he had edited it. So I played them through at his place in Vienna. In those days I used to sight-read almost better than I could play. So I could almost sight-read those pieces. It isn’t the case now! I used to be good at that. I think the reason being that over the years when I was quite young, I did so many orchestral film sessions and you really have to read at sight pretty much and then record. There has always been a weakness associated with guitarists that they are very reticent about reading music at sight and it just so happened that I was very good at it, so naturally I always got the job.

It was an issue style for Segovia I imagine, but also so many people wrote pieces for him that in some respects, it would have been almost impossible for one person to première that quantity of pieces. Do you think that, or am I being too kind?
No, kindness is a perfectly reasonable sentiment in this matter, but I think he only played really what he wanted to play. He never did something in an idealistic way, that is to say, that it ought to be heard. In other words he was only interested in what he could do and make effective. What would have been the point in him playing something that he didn’t like? It would have never worked, would it?


You included Drei Tentos from Kammermusik 1958 on the 20th Century Guitar recording; did you meet up with Henze before that?
I had known Henze some years before that because I used to see him sometimes in Italy; he was a great friend of Willy Walton’s and I used to see them together on the island of Ischia, where Walton lived and actually where Hans Werner Henze lived – but only for a little while.

You performed in the premiere of Kammermusik1958. How was that?
Well, it was pretty chaotic because it was difficult. It was not only that the singing part was difficult and the guitar part was stretching my capabilities a fair amount, it was simply the ensemble music and bringing all the things together with the small chamber group of instruments has never been my strong point. I’ve never been good at time. I’m all right on my own, but not necessarily with a small group of instruments, and for that reason I felt rather sad that I didn’t play for the first performance of Le marteau sans maître by Pierre Boulez. It wasn’t because I didn’t want to do it – I wanted very much to do it. But I knew that the rhythm was so complicated that we would spend half of the rehearsal time trying to get Julian Bream to play rhythmically with the other instruments. You know, rehearsal time costs money and there are many other things that have got to be rehearsed assiduously in that piece, so I didn’t want them to go through that embarrassment because of my inadequacies. So I didn’t do it.

What did you think about Henze’s writing at that stage? Obviously you were attracted by it.
Yes, I was.

And he wrote The Royal Winter Music for you.
That’s right, but that was much later.

It was much later, but that is complex too!
Yes, I know, but it’s an entirely different piece and his language became more complex, particularly harmonically. It was much more complex then, than in Kammermusik 1958. Kammermusik 1958 was, for Henze even, a pretty way-out number. I think one of the reasons for that is that he was very much involved with the Darmstadt School and I think some of the people that ran the Darmstadt School slightly disapproved of Henze because there was an occasional major chord or something of that nature and you weren’t allowed to do that.

Yes, too retro.
Oh, God, yes, you could be put in prison for that!

Although you didn’t play in the first performance of Pierre Boulez’s Le marteau sans maître, you have tried to get a solo work from him, haven’t you?
Well, I did and I didn’t. Finally I think I failed miserably.

It’s never too late.
It is, I’m afraid. I suspect that he is now contentrevising some of his earlier pieces. I have also managedmore recently to mentally grasp a lot of hismusic, whereas 20 years ago I was somewhat confusedby it. There are still moments of bewilderment,but it doesn’t matter. The true essence of music inmy opinion is not always about rational comprehension.

Were there more pieces to come from Frank Martin?
Well, I did ask him to write something else for the Lucerne festival in Switzerland, where I met him on one occasion.

Was it a festival that you had played at?
Yes, I played there, but then he died suddenly, and his new piece for the guitar never quite materialized. Though previously I had visited him in Holland and I had the opportunity to look over a piece he had written for a New York commission, which was for voice and several instruments, and one of those instruments was the electric guitar. He asked me to examine the part for its playability, which I did; it was very well written and he understood the electric guitar as a musical instrument very well indeed. It was marvelous that someone of his age – he must have been 80 – was writing for the first time in his life for the electric guitar. It shows a bit of spunk, doesn’t it?

Classical Guitar, Issue 1
Classical Guitar, Issue 1

You have really taken the guitar to places it had never been to before.
Well, it was a niche instrument and it always has been, but there have been over the years some very interesting music written for it. And in the right hands that can question the instrument appropriately, it’s a highly expressive medium.

 And you got it out of its niche and into the contemporary mainstream.
I suppose so; that was my whole idea. That is why I tried very hard to make a conventional career on the instrument and why I eschew all these guitar festivals. I’ve never played in a guitar festival in my life and I think it’s sad that the guitar, in that context, has become a ghetto instrument. It’s a pity. I mean, are there violin festivals? Are there oboe festivals? Why guitar festivals?

In the Guitarra! Films, you played pieces by Granados and Albéniz with the backdrop of Spain. The location was fantastic, but more importantly, your interpretation left a mark on everyone because it was so personal and so strong; it is almost hard to imagine those pieces played in a different way to the way you played them.
Is that so? Well, it was a long time ago. I enjoyed playing those pieces and it was a moment in my life when I thought, “Yes, Julian, you are beginning to get the measure of these pieces.’”

Did you look to someone else for style or was it just the way you felt about the pieces?
You’d be surprised, there are one or two Segoviaisms in my performances of these works. Not because I included them as a homage to the maestro but because they were highly effective. Take for instance his performance of Sevilla that was always a tour de force, and other pieces by Albéniz and Granados as well. But I have always approached them differently because I’m not Spanish for a start. On the other hand, I do understand the Spanish temperament to some extent and I understand it, not because I read lots of books about the Spanish character, but it’s an intuitive feeling I have. What I find with most performers on the guitar, and indeed sometimes on the piano, is that they play the music as though it is a tourist attraction full of color and atmosphere and not much else. I like to think that initially I put my own musical personality on the back burner in an endeavor to seize the very essence of what I believe to be Spain. Spain is not a pretty country when compared with other European nation states. Spain can be unforgiving, arid and even unsympathetic, and yet there is a fantastic vibrancy about the place, about the people and most decidedly about the music. That is what struck me in 1955 on my first visit and it is that same vibrancy that in the 1980s could saturate my performance of Spanish music.

Did you listen to Segovia’s recordings or was it more from when you heard him in concert?
Don’t forget I had heard him in concerts since 1947 and then he was pretty much at his best. A Segovia concert in those days was a rather impressive affair.

How old were you when you went to your first concert to hear Segovia?
It was just after the war. I was 13.

That must have been exciting!
Very, and I can tell you the atmosphere was simply wonderful, not only because he played beautifully. Segovia had quite a good career in England before the war, but throughout the war, a number of musicians were killed in combat or left the scene through other difficulties in life, so when these pre-war artists came back after the war and performed, it was a very special occasion. The audience responded in a wild and wonderful way because it took them back to the pre-war days and they completely forgot the terrible situation that was prevalent in war-torn Britain. And so when these artists returned, they had a tempestuous reception, and Segovia certainly had that. I happened to be at that concert in the Wigmore Hall. It was incredible, and so many people wanted to hear him on that occasion that they even had the platform full of people sitting down… I was very lucky because my father managed to get two seats in the front row of the balcony and I managed to borrow a pair of binoculars. I trained the binoculars on his right hand – I wanted to see how that worked. So I had a wonderful guitar lesson at the same time.

What was the thing that struck you first?
The control and the lack of movement; the movement was quite small. It was the control and the sound colors he achieved when he wanted to vary the sound that I found so enticing.

Did you go backstage to meet him after the concert?
Yes, I did, actually; I was introduced to him.

Is that when you went to his hotel and played to him?
I met him and a couple of days later I played to him.

You had a few “sort of” lessons from him, didn’t you?
No, I played to him and he just said: “Oh, God, that’s awful.”

But he did admire you greatly. So Olga Coelho says in her interview; she says how he really admired your technique.
Does she? But my technique was atrocious.

But what you could achieve with it, was what he was referring to – it was the music you were producing.
I think it might have been my musicality. On the other hand, I wasn’t that good but I had promise and a different type of promise to the gifts that Segovia had developed. I played in a very different way.

It’s funny that you and John Williams seemed to appear at the same time but up until that time, I don’t think Segovia had any serious competitors.
I don’t think he did, no. Although I think before the war that Llobet was probably a challenge of sorts, but he didn’t really have anybody. He was the first really international guitarist; the others played in different countries but he was really international. For instance, he was playing in Russia in the 1920s, andall over South America. So his career was unusually developed and what he did was truly remarkable.

His stamina was incredible; travelling nowadays is exhausting but in his day was much more demanding. There weren’t many people at that time that could manage such a schedule.
There was nobody certainly on the guitar.

You played Villa-Lobos’ Studies for him. Was he specific about what he wanted?
Yes, he was. I could understand what Villa-Lobos wanted, but there were different ways of achieving it. When I was playing, he used to wrench the guitar from me and play and show me how he wanted things done. I thought that was quite remarkable because he probably hadn’t touched a guitar for years and years. He knew exactly what he wanted and I admired him greatly for that. When I look back at that meeting that we had when I played to him, I got the feeling that I played his music in a very European way, not Brazilian. His musical background and what he wanted from music was something quite different, and not necessarily European. The forms that he used sometimes were European, but the essence of the music and his musical ideas were anything but European and therefore a lot of European critics have been very critical of his music, simply because in a sense they don’t realize that he is not a European; that he is Brazilian and from another hemisphere.

But Villa-Lobos did write some great pieces.
Well, some of the Studies are indeed very fine music. But it may be an interesting idea that Villa-Lobos was perhaps very much influenced by Mauro Giuliani and the nineteenth-century school of guitar playing. I don’t think he was so interested or into the Tárrega school of playing; he was I think very much more of an old classical player, and that would have been rather irritating for Segovia because I don’t think Segovia had much respect for the old Italian school of guitar playing. And I have to confess that it had its limitations, but it also had its virtues. You can hear in Villa-Lobos that so much of his music for the guitar is influenced by that old style.

Jumping to the present, you have commissioned a new sonata from Leo Brouwer. He is more European, but still has strong Cuban elements.
His music inhabits very strong elements of his Cuban background, but it is a fine combination. I find that his folk music element and his more serious art music idiom is very well integrated in a natural and stimulating way.

The first sonata was written for you. When you commissioned it from Brouwer, did you give him any specifications in the style of those you gave to Henze?
No, I didn’t. The reason I thought he would write agood sonata is that he’d written me a concerto andthe first movement was in sonata form and Ithought he had handled the discipline very adroitly.I thought at the time that a solo sonata, with theskills that he had shown working in sonata form,would augur well for his new guitar piece.

Did you have to change the fingering?
No, everything was beautifully fingered; I did in fact amend a couple of fingerings and I did change one chord, I seem to remember, but apart from that nothing else.

Have you played through the new sonata, which is about to be premièred, No. 5?
No, I haven’t because I can’t play anymore. Due to an injury to my left hand, I haven’t played a piece of music on the guitar for three years.

The Julian Bream Trust is doing fine work. Are you happy with how it is going?
Yes, sponsoring students and new music, together with concerts of a somewhat eclectic nature.

How do you choose the students?
They come and play for me.

Just like the Royal Academy of Music’s Julian Bream Prize, which has always been adjudicated by you.
I suspect I am a hands-on guy!

And that’s what makes it so special: the Julian Bream seal of approval! Have you got any more commissions coming?
I have. I’ve got two in the pipeline: one’s from a foreign composer and one from an English composer.

All solo repertoire?
Yes, solo repertoire. You see, my idea, which I hope will work out, is that the students that we help in terms of their musical education, will hopefully havethe innate ability to do the first performances of these pieces.

So you particularly want the students to do the premieres? That’s quite scary, isn’t it?
Well, they have got to get used to that. Playing contemporary music is never exactly a piece of cake. There are often problems to solve that require some far-reaching decisions and conclusions.

Yes, but premièring a Brouwer and Harrison Birtwistle piece inone concert is going to be a big thing for Andrey Lebedev.
Well, maybe it is, but a really good performer should be able to do that at the age of 23. If they can’t, they’ll never do it. Andrey is a very accomplished player and technically very sound. He is also a nice chap. He’s not at all impetuous or pushy, like many of his contemporaries these days. He has charm, and I like people with charm; I know it may sound superficial, but it’s the lubrication that makes the world go around.