Julian Bream at 60: ‘The Guitar Is The Music Of The Streets’

Classical Guitarist Julian Bream at age 20 and 60
Julian Bream at age 20 and 60
Interview by Chris Kilvington | From the August 1993 issue of Classical Guitar

It’s a gorgeous June day in deepest Wiltshire; the unspoilt meadows are full of buttercups, there’s barely a sound bar the hum of insects and the song of the occasional bird. The pace is slow going on slower. It feels good. I have come to interview Julian Bream at his home at the time of his 60th birthday, but I don’t really want an interview as such, I just hope he’ll talk freely… and that’s how it turned out to be. Both at the time and afterwards I thought how much secondary meaning could be read into many of his comments, but I’ve refrained from unsubtly interposing my opinions here. I could be wrong, after all. And, besides, so much more fun for everyone to form his own opinion uninfluenced. The greeting was warm, and we were talking immediately.

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

Chris Kilvington: I’ll show you this one to start us off This is from an interview you did with Lance Bosman for GI in 1985, and you said, “guitar music is largely not intellectual music.” I’m very interested in that today. After all, you are regarded as a champion of quality new music and one of its greatest interpreters. What did you mean by that, or what might you have meant, and how would you reflect on that now?

Julian Bream: About 40 years ago I met the famous Italian composer Gian Francesco Malipiero, had an introduction to him, and played for him on both the lute and the guitar. He said: “You know, they’re two very different instruments, the lute and the guitar; the lute is music from the spheres and the guitar is the music of the streets.” In a sense that conveys exactly what I meant when I said that a lot of guitar music is not intellectual; the guitar is an earthy, sensuous, and ravishingly beautiful sound in the right hands. The music, or the quality of the music, is nearly always on the slight side, it doesn’t have any grave intellectual import. I feel the guitar is an instrument of the senses; it has a great charm, and it has half a dozen pieces which—could be said to be great, probably not half a dozen even. And the rest of its repertoire is, on the whole, rather lightweight. But that doesn’t mean that a fine player cannot invest that music with great meaning. And in a sense it’s more of a challenge to play the guitar repertory than that of the piano.

It’s a paradoxical challenge. Does it bring out something special in the performer?

Yes. I think it was well summed up by Edgar Allan Poe in his short story, The Fall of the House of Usher. The anti-hero is a guitarist, and the gist of the idea as it affected Poe was that although the range of the instrument was not great, because of those very limitations there was a certain tension created in the performances which made them magical. He said it much more beautifully than that, of course…

But that’s the message?

That’s the message. The constraints and discipline can be creative as well as sometimes being harmful to the creative process. You see, to play a dozen notes on the guitar beautifully—any notes—it can evoke such expressiveness. But it’s how you play those notes which is important. And how you link those notes, and how you use the diminuendos of the plucked string that in itself creates myriad silences; but it’s those silences and the tensions between the impact of the next note it creates. That is important—that is the poetry.

Why does one get it right, so close to being perfect sometimes, and not at others? That’s true, isn’t it?

Yes, it’s true, but that’s the charm of public performance, that it’s never the same. Even the instrument itself, because the density of wood is so fine compared to that of a violin for example. It’s very finely calibrated, always subject to the prevailing conditions of the air, the humidity, the dryness and so on. Sometimes in a concert hall where it’s too humid the instrument simply won’t sing as you want it to. And when it’s very dry the guitar can be rather shrill and un-giving. And your nails of course, their condition and length, and the state of your strings, whether they’re brand new or three months old… should they have been changed (much laughter). Then the hall itself and its acoustic, which obviously very much affects the way you play. I always play a little faster in a dry acoustic, and I think that most people do, because you’ve got no assistance from the hall to help the notes sustain and thereby achieve the phrasing as you want to present it. Another consideration, and a most important one, is the public. When you go to a concert there’s such a wonderful—or can be, shall we say—such a wonderful frequency of feeling amongst most of the people, and that really feeds back to the performer. And if people are attentive and concentrating and willing to let themselves go into the music, then I think certain things can happen in a recital which make it a memorable, or at least a pleasurable, event.

This business about the audience—why should it not always be excellent? Every audience has surely come to be entertained or involved?

Well, I just wonder about that. When I was a student I used to go to concerts in London and they weren’t hugely advertised as concerts are today. There was perhaps a little notice on a Wednesday in the Times or the Telegraph, but you had to know where to look. But the fact that you had to search and hunt, make an effort, meant that you weren’t just some ordinary old concert­goer. And that is already a wonderful beginning from the point of view of the public. Nowadays promoters want to get as many egalitarian bums on seats as possible, because it is largely an economic exercise for them. And so the great thing is to find new audiences, and that comes about through advertising, the media, and so forth. They bring in people who wouldn’t normally have gone to concerts 40 years ago. They think, “Hello, I saw him on the box, perhaps it might be a nice idea to go to his concert.” So they go. You get people coming out of curiosity more than anything else. And sponsorship… I’ll give you a typical example of a bit of dead wood in the audience. Nowadays, nearly all my concerts are sponsored, like the one the other night in Bath sponsored by the gas company. They gave their top employees tickets, with a special bar laid on for themselves and their friends—then they hear the concert and have a slap-up dinner somewhere afterwards. So it’s really just an outing for the company, and people are not going to say no to a trip to Bath, with a free concert and a free meal thrown in. It’s very hard to get through to dead wood. And in a sense, if you succeed, you’ve actually achieved something! That’s the problem with this modern sponsorship: admirable when it’s working; but, finally, it doesn’t always help.

What do you think would be the perfect audience, if such a thing could exist. Is that a silly question?

No, it isn’t—although I don’t think anything is perfect. London can produce a very good audience, the Wigmore for example. The one year I couldn’t use the Wigmore I went to the Elizabeth, a cold and rather austere hall but not a bad acoustic. And I had one of the best audiences I ever had. Yet the Wigmore is the ideal hall for the guitar; when I was a kid just after the war all the great artists played there, I mean the very greatest! That was the hall, with just 500 seats.

Who were they?

Fournier, all his London cello recitals were given there. There was Victoria de los Angeles, all her early song recitals. Rubinstein… they were all that calibre of artist. To go there and hear them was a real treat, it was the perfect place. And the Segovia evenings there were just as magical! Whereas when he moved across the river to the South Bank into that very dry, large hall, I felt it was only half a musical experience. So I think that halls are very important as far as the quality of audience goes.

How do you go about choosing a new piece—and what are the processes for you between that and performing it? Quite a procedure…

An interesting procedure. These days you’re asked for your programme maybe a year ahead, whereas before it was a couple of months. People want to get everything organised early and I find that rather sad. I’ve just been giving my programmes for next May, yet now I have the summer pretty much off to learn things and make records. I’ll probably learn something that I’d like to play in my next season’s concerts, but really I’m stuck.


You can’t change?

Well, I do occasionally, but not much. And then my programmes do have a shape, a typical rather conventional shape. I play what I really like to play and if nobody likes it well, they can go home. To be able to take that attitude, well, at the age of 60 I feel you’ve earned that prerogative. So, yes, I only play what I like, music that stimulates me. And then I never, ever, get bored with pieces. But I do rest them, perhaps for a number of years, and then pick them up again, and I see totally new things. I’m doing that now with Lennox Berkeley’s Sonatina. I took it on tour with me recently—I do that, look at other music, as assiduously I’m not always practising my programme in order to keep a sense of freshness—and I found that the old concept I had of the piece wasn’t bad but that I just didn’t bring out all the beauties which I now feel in the composition. I can tell by the fingerings I used. It’s a very well-made piece, and charming music. I remember Britten once saying—and he never had a good word for any other composer, well maybe not entirely, but he was very critical of English composers in particular: “That is very nearly a great piece.” And coming from him you can be sure it’s a damn good piece anyway.

To what extent is your interpretation planned in your dynamic and tonal phrasing, and tempo, and to what extent is it intuitive on the night?

Well, tempo is very spontaneous because as I mentioned earlier it is, among other things, to do with the acoustics and how you feel. You know, it’s the old heart that sets the rhythm. Tone colour which, as you know, I use rather a lot, well, I sort of work it out but not always. Sometimes I enjoy experimenting or reversing the colours, a passage taken near the bridge I might try beyond the soundhole and so forth. And that keeps one on one’s toes.

Is that purely for the possibility of discovery?

Yes. And for fun. So that’s what happens. Now, dynamics are largely pre-arranged; but the intensities of those dynamics are not.

And how does that happen?

According to the hall and the audience. If the audience is really concentrating you make them concentrate even more—well, you don’t make them, you just do, it happens. Sometimes you can play so quietly, perhaps a tiny gentle artificial harmonic, but if you can get it to ring exquisitely with some left-hand vibrato added it just has a certain magic. If the sound is good… such an important thing about the carrying power of the guitar is the actual sound you make on it. If the sound has a real centre, is really focused, then that sound really carries through the air. It doesn’t matter about decibels; it gets there. and if the sound is not well focused, a bit angular or thin, that will often not register so much with people. It won’t travel. I experiment a great deal when I’m performing, always trying to get the instrument to ring a bit more or to have a little bit more incision in the articulation. I’m always trying things and sometimes I fall flat on my face. But it’s worth a try.

Tightrope walking?

Yeah, a little bit. But audiences like that. The ones that know, they know what you’re doing and they’re saying, “No, no, he’s not going to get away with that one.” And you do or you don’t.

It keeps it live, doesn’t it?

That’s it! I was doing a concert recently somewhere in Germany, and finished with Falla’s Miller’s Dance. And they’re very serious in Germany. That fantastic last A minor chord right at the top of the instrument, I missed it by a semitone! And the whole audience collapsed with laughter. I was so annoyed with myself, but I have to say the audience enjoyed that. A complete semitone except, of course, for the open A, the rest was A flat minor… the very last chord of the concert. The audience just fell apart.

What else could they do? There was no point in being polite about it.

I just shrugged my arms and walked off. I can see that it was amusing and I was grateful that they laughed, but for me it wrecked the whole evening, I have to say. I felt I’d let the composer down. But that does happen from time to time, and it livens things up a bit! I’m always looking for the very best out of every phrase.

Do you think you’re changing?

At the moment I sense I’m improving, somehow. It’s a wonderful feeling. Something has happened. I’m enjoying the whole business of making music so much now—I mean, I always have, but in some ways even more now. As you get older, and this is not just to do with music, you begin to get rid of things which are a waste of time. You say, “I don’t want to do this,” or, “I’m getting rid of that.” I want to simplify life. Because since the beginning of time life has got more complicated, and there comes a time when you want to concentrate on what’s truly worthwhile. And all the rest of the stuff—chuck it! I’ve cut out a lot of the waste of energy and time. You’re not going to live forever, you know time’s limited, you suddenly realise that it goes at a hell of a lick. It seems only yesterday that I was 50… so the great thing is to get rid of all the unnecessary stuff.

Do you do exactly what you want to do?

I’ve always been idealistic about music. I suppose. One of the things I remember as a student at the College after the war was that we were an idealistic generation. It was a rough time coming through the war, but we had ideals. And I miss that now.

Ideals about what kind of thing? Social, musical…?

Well, if you were in music, then in music. And other things too, of course. There weren’t so many people doing things; there weren’t so many people, period. And there was space, and there wasn’t this sort of competition and this sort of elbowing.

You’re talking about the musical world?

You bet—but also the world in general. There weren’t the pressures, particularly on young people. Today they race into these competitions and if they win maybe get a prize of half a dozen concerts and a recording contract if they’re lucky. That’s a lot of pressure on a young person. My generation, we sort of matured into our profession slowly, and I think we were very lucky to be able to do that. Now it’s very different. It’s the commercialisation of life and the competition of it all which has caused a lot of unhappiness for people in general.

Do you think there’s any value in music competitions?

I think they can sort out the good players. Let’s face it, in the old Communist ethic there was no such thing as competition, everybody had the same. But the Russians also had their music competitions, so they had to have something to sort out the great from the not so great. Even the Bolshevik Russians had that. They treat music very seriously, it’s a genuine part of their system of education. Look what wonderful artists come out of Russia—and they’re trained at a very early age. It’s terrific, it’s wonderful. They become so deeply involved with the music itself.

Like an actor can become his role, should a musician attempt to become the music, or maybe the composer?

One should think about the music deeply without the instrument sometimes, with only the score. We must certainly find out a bit about the composer and the environment in which he worked, it all helps. The important thing for a performing musician is that he must be the servant of the composer. And that would be very difficult if you’ve got a big ego, if you think you’re just the greatest. Those people tend not to be the best interpreters, although they can be flamboyantly brilliant and good value. But as I see it, one’s role is in the service of the music. And then to be able to convey that music in such a way that it’s wholly convincing, utterly and totally convincing.

Absolutely unique for that occasion?

Yes. For that very moment it has to be nothing less than completely convincing. And that is a very great responsibility for a performer to bear in mind.

What do you actually think about when you’re away from the guitar and working with the score?

The shape of the piece, and sometimes the fingering. It’s getting to know the first note so that paradoxically you can almost hear the last note, so you can feel the whole sweep of it. It’s hard to achieve. Two works of Bach ideally employ that idea, both in variation form: the Goldberg and the Chaconne. And then you go through an experience which transcends time. I use the word paradoxical because the transcendental quality of the music means that it is always stretching out, and yet the relationship between the variations always brings it back. So you’ve got this inhale/exhale situation, and it’s that tension which can be so moving and so wonderful in a variation piece of that quality. Much best to look at that sort of thing away from the instrument.