Julian Bream: A Life on The Road

classical guitarist julian bream


Any book answers many questions, but by nature there are always some which are left, at least in part, unanswered. Recently I visited Julian Bream at his home in Wiltshire, and we discussed a few such questions arising out of Tony Palmer’s book, Julian Bream: A Life on the Road.

CLASSICAL GUITAR: What intentions lay behind the book?

JULIAN BREAM: Yes, well, I can tell you that. The primary reason was that few people have very much of an idea of what it’s like to be an international concert artist. Many know a little of the procedure, in that the artist has to practise, prepare his programme, put on his uniform and so forth, and then of course he has to get there. They are the logistics, so to speak. However, very few people know what it’s really like to be a performer, and more so a performer “on tour.”

There’s that big “however” there.

That’s right, yet nobody seems to have written a book about that experience. But there were several reasons for doing it. For example, when I’m moving around socially or going to the local pub with friends, somebody may ask something like “Where have you come back from?” or “Where are you going?” “Oh I’m just going off to Chile,” I might answer. Well, I must say in a sense it is wonderful, but it is also a commitment, a job of work, you see. And in describing it, I didn’t want to deglamorise my profession at all, but I did want people to know what it’s like—it’s not a bed of roses, and there are occasions when it’s even worse than that. The second reason was that every year there are many young musicians who have finished their studies at college and want to pursue a musical career, who might want to know a little bit about the structure of the profession and how things work.

The business end.

That—but, more importantly, what actually happens, the nuts and bolts of it all, and hopefully that it’s realistic yet not too discouraging.

They normally don’t address those subjects in college.

You are quite right, because this experience is almost impossible to teach. You can only celebrate or suffer it as an individual and then, as I’ve tried to in this book, express your feelings about it. So they were important reasons for the enterprise.

There was also another. Having been a professional musician for some 35 years, I have over those years formed opinions, attitudes. Obviously I’ve developed; I might even have decayed. Yet my thoughts have evolved naturally through that time, and I felt that a book of this nature would be a very good platform from which to offer my feelings and opinions in, I hope, a stimulating way. It could enable other people just to think about certain things they may not have thought about, or had thought about but in fact treated them in a subconscious oblivion.

I also thought that here was a time in my life when I could sit back and look at what I’ve been doing, and then to try and understand a few things that I didn’t try, or even want, to understand many years ago. When you’re in the middle of a professional life, in the thick of it you might say, there are many things you don’t even question, that you treat in a rather nonchalant way, so the book opened me up—I thought: Well now, I must think what actually goes on, what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. So it was, and in fact the writer, Tony Palmer, continually questioned me about it. I also thought about it enough to be able to suggest some questions to him so that, as it were, he “asked the right questions.” Of course, I’d already thought about the answers—but then he asked a lot of other questions that were quite new to me. It made me think, I was pinned down, I couldn’t retract, and in a sense that was very good, very good. Because in fact you could write a book of this sort yourself, but it’s having the other person who observes you at work, at play, or witnessing your concert performances, which adds another dimension. In fact, another person can see many things you can’t see, simply because you can’t visualise yourself. That’s why I asked Tony Palmer to be the author, and that’s how the book came about.

I got the impression that one of the intentions in the book was to convey the strong dichotomy between the public life and the private life.

I lead that sort of existence by design and choice. I enjoy the public life, though naturally as it’s manifested today—by that I mean with all the fast-travelling jets and so forth—a lot more actual work and travel is packed into a shorter time. It is compressed. Because of this, I decided that if I’m going to get in on this treadmill, if I’m going to commit myself seriously to it, then I’ve got to have an alternative commitment that is just as serious and as strong, to balance the “sheer madness of it all!”

In the book you’ve allowed people to have an insight into you as a person—your past, your private life, etc. You also give your honest opinions about many things, musical and otherwise. Did you, during the project, ever feel a bit apprehensive about that?

In a sense I did, yes.

In other words, you get down to the nitty-gritty.

Well, I thought it was either going to be a complete commitment, this book, or just a public relations veneer. I had to decide early on how it was going to be, and I decided that I would commit myself to it. It’s very much how I feel, and I think that it’s very good to commit yourself in this sort of way. You’ve got to be careful. That is, you don’t want to cause unnecessary pain, or unnecessary rudeness toward individuals whom you’re talking about. But after all, one man’s opinion is only one man’s opinion, and there are plenty of other opinions that are perfectly valid; mine just happens to be one. The thing is, if you go ahead with a book of this nature, with a full commitment, you have to be totally honest. And if you are, you’re naturally going to tread on some rather tender toes. So really, my feeling was that, yes, I laid myself on the block, but I felt that I have enough resilience, as a musician and as a person, to be able to withstand criticism of that.

The book is most interesting in terms of some of your attitudes toward, and ideas about, music. You made some meaningful statements, and so possibly we could probe further into them. In one you talked about “remaining innocent after experience,” with particular reference to early music and interpretation. Now how does one, or how do you, strive for that goal in music­making? Or can it indeed be a goal?

I think it’s more a state of being than a goal. It is really, I suppose, trying to find those initial intuitive reactions you had as a child. We can all surely remember them, but they remain largely underground, unevoked. In terms of experience of life, it’s getting back to those pristine feelings, when it was absolutely pure experience, that I think is often important. It’s something you find in yourself—it’s not so much a goal you attain. In fact, you never could attain it, because attaining a goal is too much an evolving process. It is really like going back within yourself. However, sometimes through reading poetry or looking at a picture or experiencing light on trees, you can regain those very first impressions you had as a child. It is that innocence which is untainted and which, I think, is a lovely, indeed heavenly thing to get a glimpse of.

In this connection in the book, referring to early music, it was that I didn’t see how one could feel like a man in the period, say, of 1650, having had in our genes and our experience all the intervening years of change. So that even when somebody says, “Well this a totally authentic performance,” you know, it cannot be. It’s physically impossible to do that, and therefore it has to be contrived. And it’s “contrived contrivance” and “artfulness” that can sometimes destroy or debilitate musical impulses which are natural to a person at this moment.

So the way you see it, there must be some type of balance.

I think so, yes. I think that one should look at all music that has been written: all styles of music that have come down to us, to absorb them, and to understand why music has changed and continuously does—try to understand a little bit the historical processes of that change, which sometimes have very little to do with music. They may have to do with politics, sociology, many other things. It’s that understanding which I think is very important. And it’s not just understanding a given period which you may be specialising in, but understanding the period before that—how that special period evolved from the period before, and how and why the succeeding period evolved from it. Then you look back at things and, with luck, you may learn a thing or two or three.


There was another very interesting statement in which you said: “Music is at its best to my mind when it is a revelation of what one might call, for want of a more apt phrase, a religious experience.” The spiritual qualities of music are important to you…

Not in all music, but in some music, yes. Some music is, in a sense, largely entertainment music. There is other music of a more profound quality, which is important—but it is by no means always essential.

The spiritual aspects don’t seem, in general, to be often talked about or often appreciated to the fullest extent.

Well there are, for example, what I call composers’ composers. That is, there are certain composers whose intimate gifts can only be really perceived by composers themselves to a large extent, though not entirely. They’ve been through that experience themselves, and have had success or failed in varying degrees. For example, a lot of the chamber music of Faure is very, very intimate. It doesn’t have an impact on people like the chamber music of Shostakovich or Ravel, for example. But it’s simply that the composer didn’t want that, that he was working with inspirations of a more withdrawn character. It’s only those composers and musicians who really know what the composer is doing, what he’s actually composing, who can really appreciate that. To some extent, when we’re talking about the spirit of music, it’s only those who have indeed been enlightened or felt the spirit of music who can know about it, but there are many people who feel it instinctively. They cannot explain it but they can feel it—that’s the important thing.

“Nerves and apprehension are not necessarily destructive; they can be very much the life­blood of a performance.”

On the lighter side, you mentioned how “ludicrous” it is “to dress up in front of all those people and go through all that nervous hee-haw in order to play a few tunes.” I’m sure you’ve been asked this frequently, but how do you deal with performance anxiety?

Well, I don’t think I probably do deal with it—I think it deals with me. Then I have to cope, naturally. But I don’t think I deal with it. I just, hopefully at best, come to terms with it. Everyone who has to perform goes through a similar problem, I would think, but some more so than others. In some people it can be acute, even to the point where they take pills.

I’ve heard about one particular new drug designed to combat the effects of nerves that is supposedly not addictive, hailed by some musicians as a miracle. Now it seems to me that though it may not be physically addictive, psychologically it has to be, because after a while you begin thinking, “I have to have this in order to play a concert.”

Right. It’s an awful thought, that. I think you just have to go through it, and sometimes, because you’re going through it, something quite lovely can happen in the interpretation of the music, or in the way you are performing it. Nerves and apprehension are not necessarily destructive; they can be very much the life­blood of a performance.

In the book you discussed many aspects of the guitar repertory, and you specifically mentioned that much of it is lightweight, which doesn’t really serve to push it forward.

Yes, I think that’s probably right.

But on the other hand, isn’t it good in the sense that it draws the uninitiated to the guitar?

Yes it is. I think a lot of guitar music has a great deal of charm and attraction, and I think indeed it does bring a lot of uninitiated people towards the instrument. And I think that’s a perfectly valid reason for playing a prelude by Tárrega, for example. However, what is difficult or sometimes frustrating for the very serious student, once he is enticed with the guitar and its literature, is that as his general musical appreciation develops, how is he going to find the same stimulation from the guitar literature as he may find from orchestral music, the piano repertory, or chamber music? This is, I think, why there hasn’t been a really great artist—I’m not talking about a good one, but a great one who has dedicated himself to the guitar. Because an artist with any greatness, for want of a better word, within himself could not tolerate living with the slender literature of the guitar for a lifetime. There just isn’t enough substance to sustain and develop the inquiring mind of a musician of that calibre.

Just the brute variety and volume would be enough to sustain for a while?

A good artist, certainly. But I’m talking about a great artist. I mean somebody of the order of a Menuhin, a Michelangeli, or a Rostropovich. That type of great artist would find the guitar literature very limiting in terms of his artistic development, let alone his enjoyment.

Do you feel that the major works, especially the very good ones, that have been written in the 20th century, many of them for you, would be putting the guitar on the road to having that kind of solid body of literature?

There was a very good article in a guitar magazine recently, written by Ruggiero Chiesa. He points out, and I think this is a very good argument, that where the guitar really did miss out was in not enticing the important composers of the early 20th century. Now for example, I think if we had a couple of works by Ravel, perhaps one by Debussy, maybe one even by Alban Berg, this would have made a lot of difference. In fact, it would have made the difference in terms of the guitar’s position in music.

On the other hand, say just what you’ve done with the Britten “Nocturnal” or the Henze “Royal Winter Music,” pieces such as those—they are composers who, and works which, will definitely be very highly regarded. They are now, but will certainly be much more so, as is usually the case, many years hence. Now don’t you think our current situation, with its many substantial works, will end up having served that cause when it’s looked back upon in the future?

Well, it might, but I think the guitar has missed out in this important interim period. It’s very difficult to know what is a masterpiece today. A new work is written, it’s played, there is a critical discussion about its merits or demerits. But so often with a piece at the time of its inception or birth, it is too original, or saying something which is of very little interest to people just at that time. It often takes 20, 30, 50, 100 years for a reassessment of that music, and each age reassesses earlier music according to the characteristics of the earlier period that age is assessing.

They’ve had plenty of time to look back…

That’s right. You see, we’ve had time to look back on Stravinsky, Ravel, Prokofiev, for example. But have we had time to look back on Shostakovich? I doubt it. Britten? Hardly; Henze? Not at all. So that is somewhat the dilemma at this time, and I think Chiesa had a very interesting point.

Speaking of contemporary music, you’ve encouraged and performed a great deal of it, and have collaborated with numerous composers. And I wonder what your feelings are on aleatoric music, avante­garde music. Have you done any or do you plan to?

I haven’t really, no. I don’t profess to be a specialist in those areas. I think it can be fascinating and I think, in a sense, it has freed music to some extent from constraints that were becoming almost intolerable. Intolerable in certain ways—that it was almost impossible to write down such sophisticated rhythms, for example, that many composers in the ‘60s were utilising. I do wonder, though, whether they’re just passing fashions or, in fact, ideas with enough genuine musical substance behind them to stick, and indeed to be developed.

“I think Tedesco had real talent as a composer, but his ideas were supremely dull.”

You’ve also played and recorded practically all of the major guitar literature, not to mention the lute literature, from the 16th century to the present. Looking at your discography at the back of the book I noticed, however, that there were a few composers you had missed—Ponce and Tedesco, for example. Have you played their music, and if not, why? How do you regard their music?

No, I haven’t recorded those composers. I think Tedesco had real talent as a composer, but his ideas were supremely dull. The music doesn’t seem to say much to me. I’m sure it says plenty to other people, but I can’t commit myself to music that doesn’t stir me up a bit. I think the early Sonata he wrote was quite a good piece—it has some very interesting sonorities, and I would say it was his best piece. But in the final analysis I find his music rather dreary.

And Ponce?

He had talent certainly, probably more than talent, shall we say. He was very gifted, but I don’t think he ever really found a language in which to express what he wanted to say. I think he fluctuated too much between the poles of Neo-Classicism and Romanticism, and harmonically the music tends to be rather plain, and the texture pleasing but not distinctive. But all this is only my opinion.

I would also like to ask what your general views are on arranging. You’ve certainly done a great deal of it, and I don’t remember you having discussed this subject in the book.

It’s always a delicate point on the guitar. If one were to play just original music, one could certainly devise reasonable programmes, in fact quite good ones. I think, though, that the use of the arrangement not only widens the scope of the programme, giving variety, but shows the guitar in a slightly different guise, from a different angle as it were. If the arrangement is good, it can also serve the music, throwing different light and inflections on the original impetus. And it’s a very worthwhile achievement if it comes off. It is very stimulating for the performer. The guitar is, after all, very suggestive, and therefore it’s how the arrangement is made which is important—whether the piece of music suits the spirit of the guitar or not, and whether the music can be reconciled with the characteristics of the guitar without debilitating the composer’s original intentions.

Changing the subject a bit, you speak in the book about your various tours and travels, and there was one aspect I’m most curious about. Most of us know the general situation with the guitar in the free world, but not so much what is happening behind the Iron Curtain, in bloc countries. Could you tell something about that from your experience?

I’ve got very little really. I’ve been to Bucharest, Prague, a couple of other places. The audiences are marvelous, they are warm and attentive, and they love music. But one is also aware that the instrument has not been adopted with the same enthusiasm as it has in Western Europe. In Eastern Europe the times haven’t changed quite so quickly as they have in the West. Therefore, in a sense, one might be now looking at Eastern Europe going through a sort of ‘60s involvement or evolvement. There is a tremendous time-change between East and West. I have noticed, for example, that the guitars they use are sometimes more old-fashioned, more the 19th century type of instrument. But obviously they are gradually adopting more modern methods of construction as well as instruction.

Certainly there are a number of excellent players coming out of Czechoslovakia, for example.

Yes, I believe there are some very good players actually, coming from the Eastern European countries. Well, isn’t that marvelous?

Most assuredly! You mentioned that you haven’t visited the Soviet Union or China. Have you ever visited parts of the Middle East or Africa? Do you want or plan to visit any of these places?

No, I haven’t been to any of those countries. If they ask me, I probably will go. I’ll go anywhere, but I do have a lot of commitments that are booked years ahead.

A very large portion of the book is devoted to, as the title implies, your life on the road—as you say, what it’s really like to be on a tour. There are the various hair-raising stories and incidents you relate, and of course you withstand a very frantic, hectic schedule. Can you put into words what it is that keeps you going?

Or, “Why does he do it!”

Right—”Why does he do it!”

Well, first I’m a professional. Music is my profession, and what I love to do. All the rest that goes with it is either fortunate or unfortunate. You have to take the rough with the smooth. I wouldn’t do it unless I got something from it—and I do. I’m stimulated by the feeling of an audience in a concert, that I can give pleasure to them. It gives me a pure yet beautiful reason for the pursuit of excellence. Everybody’s job, or most people’s jobs, have their drawbacks, and in this book, A Life on the Road, I describe the drawbacks of mine. So, as I mentioned earlier, I have no wish to deglamorise it because there are many aspects of it that I enjoy, in fact love very much. I have to play the guitar often, and that is something I really want to do well. I suppose I’m “locked in,” but it sometimes gives me immense pleasure to be so confined!

This article originally appeared in the May-June 1983 issue of Classical Guitar.