On July 15, 2018, the British guitarist and lutenist Julian Bream celebrated his 85th birthday. Born in Battersea, South London, he has dedicated his life to making music, and this birthday is a milestone in a career that’s always worth celebrating!
Bream made his professional debut on the guitar in February 1947 in Cheltenham (Gloucestershire, England) at the age of just 13. During that post–World War II era when he began his career, there were plenty of obstacles in his path: Not only did he have to overcome the prejudices of classical musicians toward the classical guitar, but starting in the 1950s he also began giving recitals on the lute, which was just being revived in the modern era.
Early on in his lute-playing career, Bream performed and recorded Elizabethan music and the lute songs of John Dowland with the British tenor Peter Pears. Then, in 1961, he established the Julian Bream Consort, an ensemble of violin, alto flute, bass viol, pandora, and cittern, in which he played the lute.
Of course, the lute has its own technical difficulties and can be as unforgiving as the guitar. Players usually dedicate themselves to performing on either modern instruments or historic ones, and even today, there isn’t an internationally touring instrumentalist who would give a solo recital on the guitar one evening and then a completely different program on the lute on the following night, as Bream regularly did on his international tours. Or he might perform on the lute in one half of a concert and on guitar in the other half, and even premiere a new work the same night—all rendered with his uniquely attractive sound and exquisite musicianship.
Demanding as those concerts must have been, what always impressed me was Julian Bream’s pleasure in chatting with the audiences after his concerts. I remember one time at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London, I was turned away at the backstage as I and a number of audience members were going to greet the guitarist after his concert. Bream’s agent was close behind us and immediately took command: “Let them through, let them through!” she exclaimed, “Julian wants to see people.” That made us all very happy, and Bream was full of smiles and chatted to us all, signing our programs as he went along. That friendliness has served him well throughout his career.
Among so many standout career achievements and highlights, Bream’s duo collaborations with John Williams—which produced a pair of brilliant studio recordings, Together (1971) and Together Again (1974)—remain favorites of many fans of each of those great artists; indeed, those discs remain on the all-time bestseller list for classical guitar recordings. With a catalog surpassing 75 recordings since The Art of Julian Bream LP came out in 1960, he has taken on nearly every style imaginable, and almost single-handedly popularized many composers from different eras, from the Renaissance through the late 20th century. As a musician with such vision and openness to new things, he continues to inspire generations of players and composers to follow the paths he opened and established throughout his career.
Although Bream retired from performing a number of years ago, he continues to build on his outstanding legacy of commissioning works for the guitar by contemporary composers. So now, added to the modern classics he commissioned and premiered by Benjamin Britten (Nocturnal After John Dowland), William Walton (Five Bagatelles), Hans Werner Henze (Royal Winter Music), and Lennox Berkeley (Sonatina), as well as Richard Rodney Bennett, Michael Tippett, Malcom Arnold, Peter Maxwell Davies, Toru Takemitsu, and others, we have new works that he has commissioned from Harrison Birtwistle, Julian Anderson, and Olli Mustonen.
In fall 2007, Bream established The Julian Bream Trust, which for him had been “a long-cherished ambition that had remained dormant for years.” The idea behind the Trust was “the provision of financial assistance to the less well-endowed of our young and gifted music students, and especially to those whose principal instrumental interest lay in the study of the lute and guitar.” As well as supporting these young artists, Bream organizes recitals for which he chooses the program, and the artist is often premiering one of his recently commissioned works. For instance, on November 21, 2017, the young English guitarist Laura Snowden premiered Finnish composer, conductor, and pianist Olli Mustonen’s Sonata No. 2, for guitar, at The Julian Bream Trust concert at Wigmore Hall in London.
Over the years, I have had the great pleasure of interviewing Julian Bream a number of times, and many of those interviews, which were published in Classical Guitar magazine, are still available. Bream was the featured artist on the cover of the first issue of Classical Guitar magazine, published in September/October 1982, and also in the final UK issue of Classical Guitar magazine, published in December 2014—and in many issues in the intervening years.
One of my most memorable encounters with Bream came in 2004, when the weekly British magazine The Lady—founded in 1885 and still going strong—agreed to publish a then-current interview I’d conducted with Bream for an issue dedicated to Spain—“Secret Spain.” It is remarkable that in the eyes of the public, Bream, who is so English, is also so readily associated with Spain. This stems not only from his remarkable recordings of Spanish repertoire, but also from his eight-part British television series called Guitarra!, which left an indelible mark on all who saw it. In that series, he performed repertoire from the 16th through to the 20th century on vihuela, Baroque guitar, and modern guitar, ending with a performance of Joaquin Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, conducted by Sir Charles Groves. The Guitarra! series, with the subtitle A Suite of Programmes on the History of Classical Guitar in Spain—Devised and Presented by Julian Bream, was broadcast on prime-time television in the UK, Sunday evenings, in spring 1985. That close association of Julian Bream and the music of Spain lives on.
Alas, only part of the interview I did with Bream for The Lady was ever published, so I’d like to share a few nuggets from our talk here. When I asked him about his favorite guitar, he answered without hesitation, “You know, I thought that I loved the little guitar that José Romanillos made for me in 1973 more than any other; then comes the old Hauser that I got.” But the Romanillos was a Hauser copy, wasn’t it? “Yes, it was, but not like the Hauser that I had; it was an early Hauser…. I just had a special affection for the little Romanillos guitar. You know, they are very personal things, musical instruments. I found that I could sing away on the Romanillos guitar, and the Hauser that I played for 12 or 13 years [a 1940 guitar], never belonged to me; it belonged to the late Mrs. [Albert] Augustine. It was a very noble guitar with a different quality; I loved it for different reasons.”
I wondered if it would be difficult for him to say who his favorite musician is? “No, it’s very easy; one of my favorite musicians is [sarod player] Ali Akbar Khan. He was a great master. He was a wonderfully creative musician because he was making up the music extempore, which so many classical musicians can’t do; that’s why I loved his playing and him.” Bream first met Khan Sahib [a formal title of respect and honor conferred exclusively on subjects of the British Empire] at the Edinburgh Festival in 1962. “Then I went to India to see him, to hear him,” he recalled. And Django Reinhardt? “Well, music and musical styles cover such a vast area that to put a jazz musician alongside an Indian musician wouldn’t be fair. And then I have other musicians that I admire but they are mostly musicians whose work I knew and admired when I was a young man—in my 20s, I used to go to a lot of concerts and there were all sorts of wonderful artists, just after the Second World War in the late 1940s and early 1950s. I used to love that.”
Bream, famously, has always been a perfectionist. It is one of the qualities that makes him so special, and he is also demanding of those around him. In 2004, when the documentary DVD Julian Bream: My Life in Music, directed by Paul Balmer, was released, Bream was clearly happy with it, telling me in our interview that he had shown it to friends and they had all had good things to say, but he added: “You know, I’m never happy with the outcome of anything that is done in tandem with somebody else. I have very strong ideas of what I want, and so do writers and directors of films, and therefore I’ve always found the combination a difficult one because, naturally, nobody wants to do exactly what I want, because they want to do what they want, and so it’s a tug of war and it can be quite unpleasant.” Perhaps it is this uncompromising determination that produces music that reaches us in a deep and unforgettable way.
When asked by Gramophone magazine about music that he couldn’t live without, Paul McCartney of the Beatles said, “I still listen a lot to Julian Bream playing Britten’s Suite of Courtly Dances from his opera Gloriana—partly because it’s on the instrument I know, but mostly because it’s just lovely music, and Bream has everything.”
Let’s drink to that: Happy 85th birthday Julian Bream—from us all!