Julian Bream—The Contribution

classical guitarist julian bream
The concert scene has changed considerably since the heyday of Julian Bream.
By John W. Duarte | From the Sept./Oct. 1982 Issue of Classical Guitar

The Julian Bream I first met in the 1940s was a small boy in short pants; when playing he was virtually obscured by his guitar, face and arms appearing on its perimeter like those of a musical Mr. Chad. By the time this appears in print he will, incredibly, be in his 50th year. His fame is now such that he could, if it were in his nature to do so, join Segovia in adopting a surname-only billing. We so naturally accept his presence and stature that we are in danger of taking him for granted; it is perhaps a good moment at which to survey the path that has led him to his position of well-deserved eminence as, in a worthwhile sense, Segovia’s truest successor.

In relation to the guitar itself as a musical medium, Segovia’s principal achievements were:

  • The establishment of the instrument on concert platforms around the world, to a hitherto undreamed-of extent.
  • The winning of respect from other musicians for the guitar and its potential in high-quality music-making. This had a variety of consequences, one of the most important of which was his persuasion of non-guitarist composers to write for this humble and previously undervalued instrument.

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Technological advances—in jet-assisted air travel and in creating the long-playing record—greatly enhanced the spreading of Segovia’s influence and strengthened the situation of the guitar in the post-war years. At the same time there were those who viewed the matter with some apprehension: if Segovia were for any reason to disappear from the scene, what would happen to the instrument that was virtually identified with him? Such thoughts may well have passed through Segovia’s own mind at that time.

It was into this scenario that Julian Bream was the first “young hopeful” with genuine talent to enter as the 1950s unfolded. To all intents and purposes a self-taught guitarist, as Segovia was, he acquired a formal musical education (which Segovia did not) at the Royal College of Music in London, though in a haughty establishment where he was requested to carry his guitar in through the back door there was noone to help him in developing his instrumental studies with the guitar. His official debut, in London’s Wigmore Hall, was in 1950 and announced his long­awaited arrival—his reputation had preceded him in the guitar-musical world. Through the 1950s it became “fashionable,” not least among the politically motivated, to acknowledge Bream’s remarkable musicianship—but to express regret that his guitar playing, per se, left much to be desired. Such myopic carpings may have hurt his feelings at the time but they did not retard his development (they may even have provoked its acceleration!) or the spread of his reputation in the world.


Since then he has continued to develop in his own way, shaping his own path and attitudes, and contributing to the prestige and resources of the guitar to an extent unequalled by anyone since Segovia in the years of his most passionate evangelism. At the beginning of his performing career Bream used what has come to be known as the “Segovia repertoire”—it would have been surprising had it been otherwise at that time—but within half a decade he was already moving away from that territory; he has of course never entirely deserted it but it now forms only a segment of his working stock. Segovia had lobbied the sympathetic composers of his youth on behalf of the guitar—Torroba, Turina, Ponce, Villa-Lobos, Castelnuovo-Tedesco and others, some of whose music he found unacceptably “dissonant.” In his turn Bream had little difficulty in extracting new works from a galaxy of composers—Bennett, Berkeley, Britten, Arnold, Fricker, Rawsthorne, Searle, Walton, Davies, and Henze are names to conjure within the wider world of music; many of these works, like those to which Segovia acted as midwife, have become standard items in today’s programmes.

The high reputation of many of those who wrote for Segovia now rest heavily on their guitar works and, indeed, some are currently represented in the record catalogue by little else. It is difficult to believe that a like fate will befall many of those on Bream’s “list,” though time alone will tell. That Bream has been so richly successful is in part owed to what Segovia did, causing reputable composers to take the guitar seriously, but it is equally important that Bream’s artistry has made it possible for their efforts to be rewarding. If Bream has not so far embraced anything beyond the friendlier manifestations of 12-note music (a reaction shared by most contemporary audiences) his catalytic effect has been greater than that of any other guitarist of his time; his contribution has been vital to the well-being of the guitar. It has been just as important that it has been Bream who has done it: when an artist of his quality and reputation presents new music guitarists listen—to his concerts and his recordings—and learn, first to tolerate and then to understand, love and perform the music that at first sounded uncomfortably strange, far-removed from the guitar’s traditional “image.” This in turn helps talented, but less influential, performers by creating a climate in which it is more readily accepted that guitar music, like any other, inhabits an evolving rather than a static area.

Today there are other guitarists whose musical education and technical prowess at least match Bream’s but, though working in the favourable ambience he has done so much to foster, none is so universally respected as he is—a musician’s musician. He has worked with others in a variety of fields but, though he possess skills in the “lighter” forms of music (he is, for instance, a deft improviser in the jazz of the Django Reinhardt era), he has been careful to keep only to those areas in which his abilities genuinely match his reputa­tion and standards. In no “external” area has he been more influential than in that of renaissance music, one for which he has deep affection and which strikes resonances in his own personality. He took to the lute for the simple reason that he felt was best able to express the music written for it (though he has never come to terms with the baroque lute) and not because he viewed it as an instrument with a developing future beyond that of recreation. The revival of interest in the lute had gained momentum before Bream’s involvement with it but the world of the lute was still an esoteric one, inhabited by performers whose abilities were technically ill-equipped to attract the affection of a nascent public. Bream approached the lute with a guitarist’s right hand and used his nails, a thing that was and still is regarded with the same horror as would be the playing of the classic guitar with finger picks; he also used a lute that was far from “authentic,” with a single second course that took root only in Dowland’s last years—to mention only one anomaly. Lutenists were so busy tut-tutting that they tended to overlook the important point; their trees got in the way of the wood. Bream had an instinctive feeling for the music and possessed the technique to present it with burning conviction and the virtuosic fluency that purist lutenists then lacked; while they talked, criticized and researched, Bream communicated with the public and opened its ears. There are now many lutentists of superb musicality and high (authentic) technique—most of them, ironically, ex-guitarists—but Bream remains one of the very few who can fill a concert hall. Few are the diehards who now refuse to acknowledge that Bream played a key role in stimulating and accelerating public interest in lute music.

Within that same field the Julian Bream Consort virtually pioneered the revival of the Elizabethan broken consort. Working with modern instruments and players who, no matter how versatile, were not specialists in early music, the Consort made a very great impact in concert and on record. It was disbanded after the tragic, early death of the violinist Olive Zorian but was revived in the ‘70s and is now active once more, Bream the only member not qualifying for the medal of Authenticity‑but who cares? He is still the great communicator and that is what early music, like any other kind, is about.

Julian Bream has been the most influential guitarist of the post-Segovia years, not merely because he is a magnificent performer and consummate musician who has earned the genuine respect of musicians of all kinds; his influence has been much wider than that. Segovia established the guitar within the musical world in which he himself developed, that of Spanish and romantic (albeit late) music, a massive achievement in itself. Bream gave a firm but affectionate push to a repertory that was severely in danger of ossification and stagnation, imparting a momentum that others can now maintain more easily because of what he did; he created the climate in which they can now work. Others may trumpet loudly about the things they have done for the guitar, but a simple count of the new music they play and a headcount of the composers whose interest they have stimulated will easily sort the wheat from the chaff. The world of lute music too owes him a debt that is now more freely acknowledged than it once was. Five men in the history of the guitar made different, key contributions to the progress of the guitar: Sor, Torres, Tárrega, Segovia, and Augustine, a list that should now be extended to a total of six by the addition of Julian Bream.