Julian Bream: Celebrating His Classical Guitar Mastery at 50

By Graham Wade | From the March-April 1984 issue of Classical Guitar

After reading some comments by Colin Cooper in the November issue of Classical Guitar concerning my article on Julian Bream (originally in Classical Music, October 1983), I thought it might be useful if what I had actually written could appear in full. I am grateful to the editors of both magazines therefore that this article can be published here.

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

Many of the ideas in the article can be found in a more expanded form in “Julian Bream—An Appreciation of Twenty-five Years with RCA” which I wrote to accompany the double album, Music of Spain, Volumes 7 & 8 issued to commemorate Julian’s 50th birthday.

Those who wish to find out more about the attitudes of players in the early 20th century should turn to chapter 20 of Segovia’s autobiography. They will then discover that Andrés Segovia ran the gauntlet of prejudice on the part of people who believed the guitar should only be restricted to the salon. I have attempted to explore some of the complex relationships and tensions between the salon and the concert hall in chapter six (“Segovia and the Concert Hall”), of Segovia—A Celebration of the Man and his Music. These aspects, so vital to the 20th century development of the guitar, are frequently subject to mis­understanding of one sort or another. But without Segovia’s determination to appeal to the widest possible public for the guitar early on in the century by performing in the world’s concert halls, things might have been very different. Moreover, following Segovia’s example, few guitarists possess that remarkable ability to attract the general public; but of the few Julian Bream and John Williams are out­standing examples.

On St. Swithin’s Day, 1983, Julian Bream celebrated his 50th birthday, bringing to the festivities his own unique blend of intensity and joie de vivre. For the latter aspect there were two magnificent parties at the Savoy and at the Fine Arts Society, New Bond Street, on consecutive nights. An array of distinguished guests, including Donald Sinden, Julian Lloyd Webber, Clement Freud and John Williams could be spotted at the Savoy, while the second party achieved a line-up of such luminaries as Laurie Lee, Sir Michael Tippett, Stephen Dodgson, Michael Gough and Dame Peggy Ashcroft. Two birthday cakes, each shaped more or less like a guitar but with varying numbers of frets, graced their respective fiestas.

The intensity came in the form of a humdinger of a concert at the Wigmore Hall on the sweltering night of 15 July; in the company of John Williams, Robert Tear, and William Bennett, among others (who provided a star­studded cast to support the birthday recital), Julian Bream gave us a wide range of music, some of it jogging our memories of past triumphs.

As well as this occasion, a durable souvenir of Bream’s half century of achievement comes in the form of a new double album. This commemorates also Bream’s silver jubilee of years with RCA. And what a recording! One disc, dedicated to the Spirit of Segovia is a tribute to the Spanish maestro’s finest gifts to the repertoire in the year of Andrés Segovia’s 90th birthday. The perennial gems, such as Turina’s Fandanguillo and Sevillana, Torroba’s Sonatina, and Mompou’s Suite Compostelana are presented alongside works by Falla, Ohana, and Gerhard. Another disc, Rodrigo, Last of the Spanish Romantics also includes works dedicated to Segovia, the Three Spanish Pieces of Rodrigo, as well as a less well-known Invocation and Dance. Bream’s third recording of the Concierto de Aran­juez is also here.


The superlatives that have cascaded from critics since Bream’s first recordings in the 1950s will unite at this point in a climax of satisfied approval. Bream has served a long and wonderful apprenticeship in the art of recording the guitar—this album represents all that he has learned during the steady climb to the peak of Parnassus. Julian Bream, Music of Spain: Volumes 7 and 8 (RCA RS 9014/5) needs no discussion about its remarkable merits, merely the absorption of the listener in its amazing range of sounds and interpretative mastery.

Bream’s half century may help us to think back over the great changes in attitudes towards the guitar that have occurred over the last three decades. In the 1950s, apart from the majestic presence of Segovia, the guitar was a comparatively unknown species to the general public. Since 1960 well over 600 solo recordings of classical guitar have been issued and the number increases considerably each year. Moreover early music, and the search for authenticity, are now part of our musical environment. In the 1950s Bream’s lute enjoyed an almost solitary eminence. Nowadays a number of significant lutenists can be heard.

Over the same time the classical guitar itself has been through an arduous process of defining its identity, a process that continues. Year by year more is uncovered about the instrument’s past and similarly more con­temporary composers join the endeavour to create worthwhile music for it. Under the pressure of the early music lobby the guitar has been forced to do more than recreate approximations of the glories of past eras. The guitar has changed shape, not forwards but by rediscovering its past voices. A parade of reproduction instruments, vihuela, Baroque guitars, early 19th-century guitars, and even Torres guitars, have been seen on the concert platform, attempting to recognize the past’s reality. The excess baggage has been stripped away from the guitar’s repertoire. Familiar composers of the old regime of guitarists have re-emerged in unfamiliar garb—that of their original clothing! The music of Milán, de Visée, Sanz, and Corbetta has been revalued and redefined.

In this rapid evolution between the mid 1950s and the present day, Julian Bream has been the ideal artist to defend the values of the classical guitar and to give them an appropriate orientation. For one thing he has been consistently in the vanguard of the contemporary music produced over these years, eliciting from the best of composers masterpieces which have astounded players and public. Britten, Arnold, Walton, Bennett, Searle, Raws­thorne, Berkeley, and many others, have given a British context to the instrument. Thus, Bream has propelled the guitar forwards into unprecedented spheres of excellence and technical accomplishment.

At the same time many past aspects of the guitar’s history have been illuminated by Bream’s labours. The entire field of early 19th century guitar studies, the works of Sor, Giuliani and Aguado, have gained in stature through Bream. The Elizabethan world of the lute and the consort first found wide public favour through Bream’s advocacy. Julian Bream offered the first all-Bach album to the general public, and his playing of Villa-Lobos, impassioned and brilliant, won him a Gold Medal from the composer’s widow. His performances of Baroque music on the guitar have provided a great deal of pleasure and offer a half-way house between the previous somewhat liberal adaptations of this repertoire and the slightly dry textures of authentic instrumentation.

Bream has been a central charismatic figure at a time when some of the popular aspects of the classical guitar might otherwise have been undermined by many historical cross currents. Bream always transcended the little coteries of guitar societies and summer schools, excellent as they might be in themselves, bringing in the largest possible public. In this, as in so many other ways, he carries on the work of Segovia, whose instinct was to appeal over the heads of more narrow-minded players of his day, to the international scene, filling not just the salon but the largest concert halls in the world. From these developments the guitar has forged forwards, making it possible for a guitarist to achieve true fame and musical distinction.

After Segovia, Julian Bream represents the next decisive element in the instrument’s evolution, a complex element itself the combination of the man and the hour, the genius and the moment of opportunity. Amazingly Segovia and Bream still co-exist as recitalists—and at the age of 90 Segovia will be visiting five British venues in October. Without Segovia it would have been particularly difficult for Julian Bream to achieve the progress he did. Segovia had laid down not only an expanding repertoire but a supreme example of what could be achieved, that greatness was there for a guitarist who merited it; that an international career at the highest level was possible; that recordings could be made; that huge concert halls might still not be capable of accommodating all those who wished to attend a guitar recital.

Julian Bream has repaid whatever debt he owed to Segovia, and his latest album is the finest tribute Segovia could receive. What Segovia began in his debut in Granada in 1909, and continues to this day, the task of bringing the guitar to the world, Julian Bream has continued. Many promising, even outstanding guitarists, slacken their pace at some time in their career, do not make recordings or give few recitals, drifting into academic posts or some musical interests less demanding than the concert platform. Bream has never faltered in his pursuit of greatness and has worked indefatigably to develop his immense gifts.

Moreover, with half a century on the scoreboard and 30 years’ professional work magnificently achieved, the best harvest of Bream may be yet to come. Remember that when Segovia was six years older than Bream is now, he still had not made his first LP!

This article originally appeared in the March-April 1984 issue of Classical Guitar.