Julian Bream on Playing for Pablo Casals, the Influence of Skiffle Music on the Guitar’s Popularity, & More

Classical Guitar magazine cover October 2006 Julian Bream
Interview by Therese Wassily Saba | From the October 2006 issue of Classical Guitar

It is almost 60 years since the guitarist and lutenist Julian Bream gave his debut recital at the age of 13 in Cheltenham. His career was success­ful from the start and always very broad in approach. He worked equally hard on his guitar and his lute playing, giving solo recitals on both at a time when the lute was relatively unknown on the concert platform. The list of musicians with whom he worked and the composers from whom he commissioned new repertoire for the guitar has been phenomenal. In 2004 a new DVD called Julian Bream – My Life in Music, directed by Paul Balmer and produced by Judy Caine in collabora­tion with Julian Bream was completed. That limit­ed edition release was soon sold out and many people have been waiting longingly for its re­release. In September this year the DVD finally became available again. Julian Bream is now in, retirement but not idle. He is working on his biog­raphy and other projects. I spoke to him about his work past and present.

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

I know it took you a long time to make this latest DVD, but are there any things that you wanted to add or regretted not having in?

No, I thought it covered an extraordinary amount of music: from the very early days, and the first very early four string guitar music, which were clips from the Guitarra! film.

Guitarra! is now available again too, isn’t it? I remember you had a wonderful collection of hats which you wore in that and of course your playing of the Albéniz…

Actually, Albéniz is interesting because that’s an Arabic name, isn’t it? I went to his birthplace, which is a beautiful place in the Pyrenees in Guitarra!. He was born less than 2 miles from France.

But we always associate him with Andalucía.

With the south, that’s right, because he loved Andalucía more than any other region in Spain.

Some say that Albéniz put any name on his pieces and Sevilla was Just called Sevilla, do you think that’s true?

I think it had a lot to do with Seville, because the underlying rhythm is a Sevillanas.

And Mallorca?

That’s got the slight spoof on Chopin who stayed there with Georges Sands in the 1830s. It has a touch of Chopin’s Arabesque, and the swirl of the sea. Yes, I think he did take note of it; it’s a wonderfully descriptive piece. His finest descriptive piece in my opinion was Córdoba, where there’s a huge mosque, the famous Mesquita. In the middle of that, the Christians built a Cathedral. In the opening of Córdoba you have this beautiful modal harmony; it’s the choir singing first thing in the morning. It’s a wonderfully imaginative idea. After that little introduction the piece really starts, followed by a musical description of the more modern 19th-century town.

I’m very interested in what’s going on at the moment in contemporary classical music. I can’t say I’m over-stimulated by it, but I find it interesting.

In your recordings of Albéniz’s pieces over the years, are there lots of little changes in the transcriptions?

There are a few, but that is only natural over a long period of time.

Yes, and in the same piece?

I’ve never recorded or duplicated a recording of a work by Albéniz.

So we can’t find any tinkering in the recordings?

No, and I’m glad about that. I like tinkering on occasions but not on or for recordings.

But when you played them in concert, we would have heard the latest tinkered version, wouldn’t we?

The recently tinkered version, yes, tinkered up especially for the concert.

But only little things?

Tiny things that are sometimes hardly noticeable.

Not key changes or anything like that?

No! They are adjustments but they make all the difference in as much as I generally do things for ease nowadays, as I’m getting old.

That is a good thing for the rest of us who haven’t got your technique!

Well, my technique is also rather ancient now, and I’m all for making life easier, providing it is not artistically inferior. Ease in our modern, compressed world is a valuable commodity. And in any case now I only play an odd recital for charity in a church. I do it in a church because the acoustics are generally so lively that I can take a slightly slower tempo but hopefully it doesn’t sound slow.

Of course we live at a great pace too, and that affects the way we play our music. Tempos, of say a Haydn symphony now, are considerably faster than they were even 15 years ago, and particularly in the final movements. One of the reasons for this is not just the pace of life, naturally that must affect the heartbeat a bit, but it’s also because people now perform so much on baroque instruments that tend to speak quicker.

I would have thought it was the opposite.

No, the old instruments spoke quickly; their articulation is in a sense clearer, so people can play faster.

Do you think in baroque times the instruments would have spoken clearer?

I think so, but on the other hand people’s lives were slower, so you wouldn’t have had that ridiculous situation where the music falls over itself. My feeling is that whatever the spirit of the music, even if it’s a fast rondo, it must retain its poise in my mind, and if it doesn’t, it’s too quick and falls over itself.

Do you think Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez goes at a faster pace than it did 50 years ago?

It certainly does. When I first learned the Rodrigo Concierto, that was the absolute limit of my technical ability because as you know I was more or less self-taught.

How old were you then?

I was about 17 or 18. I first played it in 1951. I found it very, very difficult but it was one of those things that helped me to develop my technique; there were so many problems I had to solve in that piece that it really made me rethink my technical equipment. But let me tell you who I think played it more beautifully than anybody else—that was Ida Presti. The trouble was that she never recorded it, and she never played solo after she met her husband. I did hear her play it on the radio in 1948 on a broadcast from Paris.

So it must be in the Radio France archives then…?

I doubt it. That was in the pre-tape days. It was so beautifully played that I can remember bits of that performance even today. It’s a great shame she didn’t record it.

It’s a great shame she didn’t live longer.

Yes. She was a great solo player. The duet team with her husband was obviously very good and she found it extremely stimulating, but she was a really great solo performer. I think it was a great shame that she didn’t pursue that type of career.

Did she come to London much in her solo days?

She did twice, I seem to remember. In the late 1940s and in 1951.

Did you go to the concerts?

Oh, I did. I think it was in a place called the RBA Galleries in the West End. I don’t think it exists now. It was breathtaking playing.

Do you remember which pieces she played?

That’s a very interesting question. Do you know I don’t remember everything that she played but I can remember the impression that she made on me. It was something that was rather unique for her—there was a real sense of musical spontaneity. You don’t get that very often, even with fine performers. Things are nearly always worked out beforehand and they perform what they have practised and organised. There was a lovely spontaneous spirit about the way she played and you got the distinct impression that she enjoyed her work greatly, and what’s more, that she wanted you to enjoy it too, which is a nice sentiment.

Did you meet her after the concert?

Oh yes. I knew her in Paris and I used to occasionally meet her in America when she was on tour. I think she was a lovely person, quite straightforward, but no fool, if you see what I mean. I thought the world of her.

The BBC archival material in My Life In Music is very good. When you do the lute duet with yourself, it’s so funny when you’re watching yourself. It was wonderful to see the BBC old-fashioned controls; I loved that.

The whole idea of the DVD was to relive an era which has disappeared, and the only way you can relive an era is to use old footage. It just so happens that with modern technology, old footage can be cleaned up and enhanced, and that is very pleasing. In fact, I was very pleased with the sound of some of the original music that I performed for that DVD, which I recorded at Snape in Aldeburgh. The opening of the Britten, for example, is about as good a sound as I’ve ever made. And I was really thrilled about that because I came out of retirement to do it. I’d already retired, and I was a little bit apprehensive of doing parts of the Britten Nocturnal as well as the Falla Homenaje, but I was very pleased with the overall sound and how I managed to perform the pieces. That gave me great satisfaction.

Do you think you’ve got better or easier fingerings for the Nocturnal now?

Different fingerings, not necessarily easier. I’m always trying to get the sound to do what I want, and the fingering, in terms of the tonal response of the instrument, is very important. What string you use, also sometimes what finger you use, can give you, or not give you as the case may be, the sound that you have in your head. There were some different fingerings in the Britten, but that just reflects over 40 years of thinking about it!

You used to give masterclasses didn’t you, but you didn’t do so much teaching. Was that because of the demands of your playing career?

No, not necessarily. I liked giving classes but I didn’t like teaching on an institutional basis, because I found that after I’d given a lesson, which might be two hours long, I somehow didn’t want to go near a guitar again for a little while. It extracted too much from me and I found that disconcerting.

So I haven’t done a great deal of one-to-one teaching. I found also that the guitar repertoire, is not a particularly stimulating repertoire to teach. Much as I love the Villa-Lobos studies and preludes, the Spanish repertoire, Bach, all that baroque music and so forth, if we had only one Mozart sonata, that for me would have changed my life.

Because you could have talked about that endlessly?

Yes, and because in musical interpretation or in playing, you’re presenting your feelings about life, and about your experiences, which are not necessarily always musical ones. I used to play the piano a lot, and when I was young I studied several Mozart sonatas. I found I got a lot more musical satisfaction from playing Mozart than any other composer. That’s why I say, if only Mozart had written one sonata for the guitar, it would have given me phenomenal pleasure to teach it.

It’s curious that teaching had this draining effect on you.

It was the strangest feeling, yes. But on the other hand I enjoyed masterclass tuition a lot more, largely because there’s a variety of music: someone might a play a Tansman piece and another might play a Turina or Henze. Also, each person has a different set of musical and technical problems to solve and that’s interesting. Sometimes I had to think: why is this person having difficulty over something that I can play myself with comparative ease? I have to say that I did find it stimulating.


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Do you have any particular advice for young players?

If you’re born to it, you should already have the physical capabilities and the mental and the emotional capabilities to withstand a tremendous lot, including the capability to withstand the intensity of playing music. It’s something you’re equipped with. Then of course, if you’re equipped like that, you’re vulnerable to other things which other people have got more resilience within themselves to cope with.

What sort of things?

That’s a very good point! Let me think. Let’s just say that I have my weaknesses, and I have been vulnerable. And it has to be said that I have never made a great success out of my various marriages and liaisons.

You wouldn’t blame on the fact that you’re a musician, would you?

Not blame, but the fact is that as an artist one is very selfish.

And very absorbed in what you’re doing.

Yes, very single minded. I think with a serious and important relationship that can be a disaster, and in my case it pretty much was.

If you’re an artist, you mustn’t be frightened of life; in fact you’ve got to be vulnerable to it because you’re expressing it.

It can be a source of great strength too. Some people have wives (or husbands maybe) that travel with them supportively, and it works perfectly!

Yes, lucky people. My first wife, I have to say, was a wonderful woman. Yet I don’t count my married life to have been a great success. If I had my life all over again, I would have done it exactly the same way. That’s life. You can’t have it all! It is very hard when you’re travelling around. Then when you come home being responsive to your wife did not always come naturally to me. I wasn’t capable of holding things together.

It’s probably quite normal.

I think it is quite normal, but sometimes a little regrettable and I always feel that if you’re an artist, you mustn’t be frightened of life; in fact you’ve got to be vulnerable to it because you’re expressing it. If you were to say: I’ll let myself do this, but I won’t do that because, if I do that, I may get unsettled, I may become unhappy. I think in the end that approach defeats itself because, if you’re an artist, you must take it all, synthesise and distill the experience, and then recreate it as a musical experience.

Are there a lot of pieces sitting on your shelf that we might see one day?

Oh I don’t know, perhaps! We’ll see!

What other things might you publish? There’s your arrangement of the Buxtehude Suite which you published years ago and there are still a few other Julian Bream things that we are waiting to see.

Are there really?

There’s the Folk Melodies by Witold Lutoslawski which guitarists associate with you. Have they ever been published?

No, they are still in manuscript. I used to love playing these pieces. I worked with the composer for the finished transcription; but I wasn’t aware that other guitarists might one day want to play them. There are things I have planned to put into operation when I finish my autobiographical book. But when you’re in your 70s, you have a diminished amount of time.

Well, not if you’ve got another 15 years to go!

I don’t want to live another 15 years. I wouldn’t mind ten though! My brain’s still OK, but my memory is not so good. I can physically walk quite well, but things take longer now. I don’t get so much done as I would like.

That’s not a bad thing.

I rather enjoy that. I’m enjoying my retirement tremendously, because I’ve got time. It’s wonderful to have time, even though I say it’s a diminishing amount of time because when you finally fall off your perch, that’s it. But I’ve enjoyed my retirement greatly because I’ve had time to think. I read quite a bit one way or another and I listen to the radio. I listen to specific pieces of music, and I’ve now got time to do all these things.

Which pieces of music are your favourites? Do you turn the radio off if you don’t like it?

I tum it on to hear new music. I’m very interested in what’s going on at the moment in contemporary classical music. I can’t say I’m over-stimulated by it, but I find it interesting. I listen to a number of contemporary works, probably two or three in a week. My dog normally listens with me, but with contemporary music he generally goes out of the room. He doesn’t care for it much and I don’t blame him most of the time! Occasionally you hear something which gives you pleasure. I heard a work the other day by Thea Musgrave. I’ve always admired her music and I used to know her when I was very young.

Was she living in London?

Yes. And strangely enough, she never wrote a piece for me.

Did you ask her?

No. I think the reason is that she’d left London to live in America; we sort of lost contact. There are very few interesting composers for me at the moment. I love some of Arvo Part’s music. I heard some very nice clarinet pieces by Harrison Birtwistle the other day, and I have a lot of time for James MacMillan. But on the whole I find it’s a very curious and strange period in music. It’s as though after serial music, things went into a decline and never really settled down again. Although they use this horrid term post-modern, which means absolute balls to me, after all if you’ve been experienced, you cannot be innocent again. This is one of the great problems of the re-emergence of tonality in contemporary classical music. I find it’s phoney, most of the time. And, as for harmony, there’s no real basis for it to my ears—no strong foundation. It’s all a little bit inconsequential and sometimes rather frivolous to my mind, but I still listen to it because I’m interested to see how composers are going to solve this problem.

It is a very difficult situation.

It is and there is now this so-called “World Music” which compounds the problem.

You mean because they’re trying to absorb it?

Because you can’t possibly not absorb it, it’s all part of evolution, is it not? There was a time, even in my lifetime when style and aesthetic were heavily influenced by geography and disposition.

Sometimes it can be absorbed successfully. For example when the French invited Javanese gamelan players to their Universal Exhibition in 1889 in Paris—that in turn had an effect on impressionism, and created something new but still within the classical framework.

It stayed European. The great thing with the development of European music is that although it’s been innovative, at those periods of innovation they’ve often looked back in a sense; but creativity comes almost out of decadence sometimes. European music has always been on the move; it’s always been in flux and re-feeding on itself. This, of course, is contrary to what’s going on in the Middle East where, up until recently, the music and instruments haven’t changed very much since the 8th century.

When I heard Ravi Shankar… I was simply overwhelmed by the music; I’d never heard Indian music before. I was so fascinated by it that I went to India to find out more.

But the quality and the passing on of knowledge has diminished.

That’s because of communication and other influences.

Indian classical music has survived much better.

Yes, but it has other problems. When I heard Ravi Shankar—it had to be in the early 1950s in a private house in London—I was simply overwhelmed by the music; I’d never heard Indian music before. I was so fascinated by it that I went to India to find out more.

That was a very big step to take!

Yes, it was. There was a wonderful sarod player called Ali Akbar Khan. I loved his playing and I wanted to find out more about the way he learnt or felt his music. In fact, in the DVD of My Life in Music, there is a little segment with him where I try to improvise something. My improvisation wasn’t particularly Indian, but on the other hand, it was such a unique pleasure to play with a fine musician from that part of the world and with such stature, that it was a wonderful experience. But now I hear Indian music and it sounds very different to me; it’s much more Westernised. There are harmonies and things of that nature. Forty years ago it was in a much purer condition as an Indian art form, but of course now with communications and influences from recordings and so forth, it’s changing. I think that is understandable too. Things have to change, if they don’t change, they degenerate. But although this makes sense, in my little tiny world, it’s a little bit regrettable.

Going back to the classical music, for example, you were a breakthrough artist with composers like Henze, do you still get scores of the latest pieces? Would you have the scores of say, Helmut Lachenmann?

No. I don’t. I do get sent scores, but I’ve never had a really interesting score sent to me in all my years of being in the profession.

You mean that you hadn’t requested from the composer?

Yes that’s right, scores were just sent for my perusal. I never found anything interesting that way at all, and that is surprising actually, because it’s been happening for many years.

And I suppose it’s disappointing?

No, it’s the nature of things. Years ago I used to go to Schott’s music shop or somewhere like that and thumb through all the latest things. I might pick up a few pieces. But I don’t go there now, and for the moment I don’t learn any new music. That is a pity because new music is a stimulation if it’s good. That’s one of the things that happens when you retire; one tends to play the old pieces that you loved, and you want to revise. I suppose you just play for pleasure. I did learn a piece by that Australian composer.

Peter Sculthorpe?

Yes. From Kakadu. I learned that a couple of years ago and I liked it very much. I found it very stimulating, and it has just enough musical problems to keep one buzzing. In fact I played a couple of performances of it including one at the local church here.

We talked earlier about you working on the year 1956 in your autobiography. You were saying that it was a really interesting time because it was the start of pop and skiffle groups and that people were beginning to buy more guitars.

Oh yes, the classical guitar was gradually awakening. People were fascinated by it, but there was a great change in the middle of the 1950s. I think one of the reasons is that we had dumped our wartime ration books and there were things that you could buy; there was a real change in the air. For example, one of the most remarkable things in 1955 was a recording that came out by an unknown Canadian pianist, and he was playing not one popular work of Bach. Overnight it became the fastest selling classical recording ever made.

That was Glenn Gould, was it?

Yes, and it was the Goldberg Variations. They had charts in those days without The Beatles or The Rolling Stones. They would have included the likes of Frank Sinatra, Benny Goodman, et al, and the Goldberg Variations were right up in these charts. Now for a serious classical piece, that’s an extraordinary thing, isn’t it? I heard it when it came out, I was astounded by the playing. The other day I heard it on the radio quite by chance, and I was still astounded after all these years. So that has to be perhaps the greatest classical recording ever made, certainly on a solo instrument. There was something in the air that caught people’s imaginations. The Goldberg Variations aren’t the Brandenburg Concertos in terms of popularity. Also I think it was quite remarkable that a gramophone company in those days would let somebody, an unknown chap, record the Goldbergs.

Then in 1956 there was the emergence of skiffle music, an American type of music of the 1920s which somehow didn’t resurface again, but it certainly resurfaced in England. It was terribly simple. It was just one time signature and three chords, but suddenly young kids were buying up guitars and learning these three chords and playing in these groups. The manufacturers and shops were selling out of guitars; the demand was so great that they couldn’t keep up with it. I think that’s extraordinary. Of course they were metal-strung acoustic guitars, but interestingly, it was a craze that only lasted two years. By 1958 the craze had gone, but then pop music got underway. It was the first time that young people had a culture of their own. Of course by 1956, I found that my own audience was increasing with the amount of general interest in the guitar.

Do you think the skiffle people playing guitar contributed to that?

Yes, I think a lot of that somehow reflected onto the classical instrument and by 1956 the guitar was pretty well established as a serious classical instrument. Well, if not well established, it was well on the way to being established.

At that time was Segovia visiting England regularly? Did he give an annual concert in London?

Yes, originally his annual concerts were in the Wigmore Hall which was wonderful. He could fill up the Royal Festival Hall in the early 1950s. That is incredible, but it wasn’t anything like such a sympathetic venue to hear him; the sound was very small.

Did he give concerts in the Royal Festival Hall? If you sat right at the back, could you hear anything? Were people sitting absolutely silently?

Well no, because much of the audience were people who normally wouldn’t have gone to a guitar recital; they would have gone to an orchestral concert or a piano recital in that hall. Naturally, guitar players—and there weren’t all that many in those days—sat absolutely focused and quiet, but a lot of other people didn’t; they coughed, not because they were rude, but simply because the musical sound that was being emitted from Segovia’s guitar in that vast hall, didn’t have the presence to help people concentrate. When you’ve got a lot of people together, they don’t concentrate; they move around, they cough and they get bored. Segovia used to get furious with the coughing but it was a problem that was partially of his own making.

By choosing that venue?

Yes, but then on the other hand, what do you do? You choose a venue ideally for the musical pleasure that it gives to the people that come along to hear you. But then, of course, one can’t discount the rather pleasant feel that you could get playing in the Festival Hall. I mean I wouldn’t play in the Royal Festival Hall, though I have to confess I’ve done the odd concerto there, but I used a microphone. I would never do a solo concert in there. What I would have done, if I had been Segovia, was play three concerts in the Wigmore.

He still would have sold out.

He would have sold out all three and it would have been a wonderful musical experience for everybody, and less strain on him. I mean OK he’s got to give three concerts, but funnily enough it’s a great strain playing in a…

…in a very big hall

Well, not only a big hall but one with a really devastatingly bad acoustic. It was so dry in the Royal Festival Hall; there was no bloom on the sound. I believe it’s been improved since then, but originally it was a disaster, and not only for the guitar.

I found that I couldn’t help but respect the style of music and to try to, as it were, project that style to an audience.

Guitar makers now try to make a louder guitar because the players want instruments that can cope with the larger venues.

That’s right, but they’re over-pushing loud instruments. They’re distorting the sound to some extent, whereas a sound that’s well focused, that’s beautifully focused, travels to the heart of the listener.

At that time when you were going to Segovia’s concerts, was he playing different repertoire to you? Were you performing a young man’s new repertoire?

I was doing a slightly different repertoire to him, but I also was playing his repertoire too. When I was very young, I copied his interpretations until I was about 14 or 15. Then I went to the Royal College of Music to study the piano, and I had a wonderful teacher who was a fine musician. He taught me how to play Bach, Mozart, Debussy and Beethoven, and I began to see that each composer required a different intellectual and sonic approach. Then I noticed in Segovia’s recitals that whatever he was playing, aesthetically, it was the same style; it was Segovia’s style. There was nothing basically wrong with that, but when you are playing music by composers from different periods in the history of Europe, I found that I couldn’t help but respect the style of music and to try to, as it were, project that style to an audience. I was encouraged by the fact that I had learned all this piano repertoire with a fine musician. So my interpretation began to change. And in 1955 I even played the G minor Lute Suite to Casals in Prades, where he lived. I was on my way to Barcelona and I had the best music lesson in my life. I had a letter of introduction, so I called in and asked him if he’d listen to me play. He was very interesting and informative about this particular Bach suite. That sort of influence was very valuable and I began to rethink other Bach pieces.

Did you play it in A minor to him?

Yes.

But it’s also the G minor cello suite?

Yes, that’s right. Of course now looking back, he would have played in an old-fashioned style. If you hear his old recordings now, they’re not played in the Baroque manner as we’ve received it, as it were, in the latter part of the 20th century, but they’re played always with the most committed and convincing musicality, and the music always dances. It’s a very masculine approach to the music and I find that masculinity wonderfully stimulating to hear.

How would you define that masculinity? It’s a strength, but—

It’s not just strength. These days people are so politically correct about these gender matters that one would hesitate to put your foot in it! It is, incidentally, one of the great drawbacks of the time in which we live. But in the masculinity of his playing, it was the assertiveness, and the search for the is-ness of the music. I’m making up the word is-ness. It’s a search which is both physical and intellectual where no holds were barred.

Was it forthright?

It had an intellectual boldness which was seeking the truth of the matter. I would say that that was a part of the masculinity of his playing when performing Bach. But if you listen to his solo in the recording of the slow movement of the B flat major String Trio by Schubert with Alfred Cortot and Jacques Thibaud, that is undeniably the most feminine playing that you could wish to hear in music. Yet, it’s played by a man.

So what does Julian Bream do these days?

He walks his dog twice a day and writes a sentence or two of his autobiography in the mornings and plays a few tunes on his guitar in the afternoons.

And you are happy with the way life has turned out for you?

I couldn’t visualise my life without playing the classical guitar. There was just that one time when I played in Lou Stone’s dance band, but that was because my family was in a terrible financial plight. It was very hard going, but in any career you need luck. Luck plays a very important part in these things. Things do happen but you’ve got to be aware and sensitive about things. But once it had become popular then it’s not always a clever idea to devote your life to something which is already in vogue, because in your lifetime, particularly if you start when you’re young, there’s a good chance that it may not be in vogue any morel For example, in the 1960s there were a lot of harpsichord recitals. There’s hardly a harpsichord recital around now, is there? You see, fashions have changed.

Yet when I was a young man there weren’t many good string quartets about, but now there is a plethora of string quartets, and most excellent they are too. Whether they can all earn their bread is another matter, but institutions go in and out of fashion, and the great thing is to be prepared before a trend begins, and that’s easier said than done. The guitar for example, and the lute, but particularly the guitar, are not central to the Western classical tradition. They will always be at the mercy of fashion.

And it’s not an orchestral instrument.

Yes, and also because it has a soft sound so it is not an ideal chamber music instrument either. It’s not central to our universal music making, so when it does come into vogue, unless the literature that it is expressing has a really contemporary message to convey, like the electric guitar, the vogue is not going to last forever because the instrument largely resides on the periphery of our conventional musical affairs.2