Julian Bream & the Regal Treatment of Guitar in TV Series ‘The Guitar in Spain’

By Graham Wade | From the February 1985 issue of Classical Guitar

On 18 December, 1984, Julian Bream performed the Concierto de Aranjuez at St John’s Smith Square, London, with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe conducted by Sir Charles Groves. This was no ordinary performance either for Bream himself or for the rather compact invited audience. For one thing it was Bream’s first appearance in England since the terrifying car accident last July when he injured his right arm very badly. In the interim, fighting back against the misfortune with amazing willpower and courage, Julian had given no fewer than ten recitals in the United States during November. The arm is still painful but it is on the mend. Thus his return to the concert platform was a remarkable event in itself, almost a kind of miracle after the traumatic happenings of the summer. The audience thus greeted their favourite guitarist with rather more than the usual rapture.

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

What made the occasion even more special was that this was the culmination of one of Bream’s long-standing musical ambitions. The playing of Rodrigo’s evergreen masterpiece was filmed as part of a forthcoming series on Channel Four, to be shown in 1985 from Sunday, 17 March, entitled “The Guitar in Spain.” Bream had nurtured for several years the dream of being involved with an extended television series about the Spanish guitar in all its aspects. The series, a feast for all lovers of Iberian culture, will be in eight parts. No doubt many will wish to buy, hire, or steal a video just for the duration of this unique set of programmes. No other instrument, not even the pianoforte, has received such regal treatment. Such a series will surely have a unique effect on public awareness of the guitar as a solo medium, its history, its music, its composers. As a missionary for the guitar no one has better credentials than Julian Bream.

I was fortunate early on to be associated with this series on the research side. During some intense weekends at Julian’s home in Semley, lubricated by a few bottles of the finest wines in Britain, a plan of campaign was thrashed out. It was decided, even though little of it might be used as raw material in the films themselves, that a background document to each of the eight programmes was essential. Together the dossiers would provide as many available facts about the guitar in Spain from the vihuelistas up to the present time. Every relevant piece of information about composers, places, pieces, and original source would, as far as possible, be included in the text. Thus when Julian appeared in front of the cameras, the facts at his disposal would at least have been not only checked but quadruple checked.

Once an adventure like this is embarked upon, the possibilities are practically infinite. Suddenly one discovers dozens of scholarly books, facsimiles, sources, reference books, works in various languages, editions and publications, all of which now need tracking down. Moreover it is soon apparent that many standard works on every subject, whether history of Spain, biographies of composers, encyclopedias, scholarly monographs, or (especially) record sleeve notes, have a nasty habit of contradicting each other. Try to find out where Charles V went with his entourage of musicians during his visit to the Netherlands, and whether Narvaez went or not (and similar information), and the sub­history of fretted instruments becomes a game of hide-and­seek. Like Sherlock Holmes, one fact leads to another equally fascinating, and what is relevant or irrelevant only becomes apparent after a lot of chasing. Most books tend to skim across the obvious surfaces—digging deeper reveals many contradictions and straightforward errors. It was probably, for example, an error in the 1954 edition of Grove which made so many writers on the guitar to this very day believe that Rodrigo was born in 1902, and not 1901. Extend this process to previous centuries and the mist thickens.

However by the deadline of March 1984, with my wife and myself pounding two typewriters for many hours, the eight programmes spanning the vihuela, the Baroque guitar, the classical guitar, the romantic guitar, Granados, Albéniz, the twentieth century and Rodrigo, had been researched, and we had learned a lot in the process. We had also managed to drive well over two thousand miles round Andalusia, a small part of Spain but a large part of the guitar’s history. Bream’s tour of Spain would of course cover all the regions. The final document was eventually delivered, two hundred closely typed pages—at least, despite a certain amount of perspiration and tension as the deadline approached, our part of the project had been completed. Only a small fraction of this might be used in the film, but the essential background picture had to be mapped out and absolutely nobody could carry every jot and tittle of this material round in the memory alone.

The early summer of 1984 was for Julian Bream unbelievably hectic, surpassing even the normal frenetic active life of an international concert artist. All the music for the eight programmes had to be recorded, performed on location, the explanations and historical places prepared appropriately, and most of Spain circumnavigated, all in a short space of time. Nearly 40 pieces of Spanish music were put on film, and locations included Seville, Toledo, Madrid, Aranjuez, Barcelona, Granada, Ronda, Cordoba, and the Pyrenees. Various paintings, precious musical manuscripts, and available instruments had to be filmed. José Romanillos had made a vihuela and a Baroque Spanish guitar, and the unfamiliar patterns of these instruments had to be mastered both for recording purposes and filming. Bream performs publicly on the vihuela and Baroque guitar in the series for the first time ever. In the fourth episode Paco Peña talks with Julian about the secrets of flamenco, its origins and significance. Attention also had to be paid in the film, as in my own research, to the historical, cultural, economic, and architectural developments in Spain, to provide a meaningful introduction to the music of each period. This in itself had never been attempted before on film for mass audiences at peak viewing time.

The series is directed by Barrie Gavin, who has won several prizes for music programmes for television, whilst the producer is Laurence Boulting of Third Eye Production Company. Link-ups were made with Televisio de Catalunya and Bayerischer Rundfunk, as well as RM Arts and Channel Four, in one of the most ambitious cultural projects that any television team has ever attempted in terms of presentation of music. The companies concerned deserve our gratitude and congratulations for their efforts in establishing a serious approach to the guitar that combines imagination and a colourful background with the charismatic presence of Julian Bream. Obviously there is no other guitarist in the world who would have carried out this massive task with so much panache and incredible zest.

Finally, to return to that magic evening in St John’s Smith Square. Bream’s performance of the Aranjuez Concerto was, like everything he does, a revelation. He identifies closely with this Concerto, having recorded it three times in his career on disc, and now again for a film series, and, like the audience, adores this work. The slow movement echoed round the hall with riveting intensity. The depths of the music were charted and the scale runs effortlessly executed. How fortunate that millions worldwide will enjoy this performance and guitarists with video will learn much about the intricacies of Bream’s approach. Those virtuosi who throw off the Aranjuez like so much confetti may also learn something about how each phrase should be lovingly crafted and shaped with true artistry. Bream’s performance was very inward, and for once the concerto lost any tinge of shallow exhibitionism that the Aranjuez can soon acquire in the wrong hands. Julian Bream’s commitment to Spanish music and his deep feelings about Iberian culture throughout the forthcoming programmes will surely prove an indispensable experience for guitarists and general public alike.

This article was originally published in the February 1985 issue of Classical Guitar. View available full-issue PDF downloads in our web store.