The Rich Life & Long Lasting Legacy of Julian Bream

By Graham Wade | From the July 2008 issue of Classical Guitar

Julian Bream turned 75 years old on 15 July, 2008. After a performing career extending from his debut in Cheltenham in 1947 to his final professional concert in 2002 at the Maddermarket Theatre, Norwich, he has for many years come to represent the concept of the ultimate dedicated classical artist. In a stridently commercial age, he has stood unflinchingly for the intrinsic values of the concert guitar, the quiet instrument which we listen to as we would to a speaking voice, unamplified, subtle, intimate, beautiful, expressive to the point of tears.

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

Julian has taken us into previously untraveled regions of the musical imagination. Early on he took up the sixteenth century lute, transforming its repertoire into a living, breathing contemporaneity where we empathised with the sensibility of the Renaissance. He resurrected the Broken Consort, that exciting blend of so many colours and moods, and brought it to the concert hall and recording studio, and we felt united with the glorious Elizabethans, listening to music worthy of Shakespeare and Raleigh and the great Queen Bess herself.

As a guitarist, he brought us the quintessence of Spain and South America. In the 1950s his opening pianissimo of Leyenda by Albéniz or the first distant tambura effect of Fandanguillo stirred the imagination and to hear the Villa-Lobos Preludes was to be transported to Rio de Janeiro years before one could ever hope to visit that exotic city. Then there were the Bach “lute suites,” full of a subdued intensity and the steadily unfolding logic of the suite, its emotional centre in the Sarabande uncluttered by excessive ornamentation, the essential music allowed to breathe. He also brought to public attention the Prelude, Fugue and Allegro, giving many performances, with recordings at the beginning and finale of his dazzling career. At the same time he changed our awareness of the Chaconne (which from the 1930s had been the personal fiefdom of Segovia), recording this work in the 1950s for the Westminster Label and again in the 1990s for EMI, a further superb interpretation being available on Testament SBT-1333, recorded 20 November, 1975.

In the 1960s new worlds were discovered. Britten’s Nocturnal was at first an enigma, where we held our breath waiting for the revelation at the end which came like peaceful sleep after troubled dreams. In the early 1970s, Walton’s Bagatelles took us through a kaleidoscope of expressiveness, beginning and culminating in brilliance but passing en route through introspection, Cuban rhythms, and the strange beauty of harmonics.

As a practitioner of the guitar concerto, Julian Bream invigorated a hitherto fairly slim tradition but also consolidated the few excellent works available. His several recordings of Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez are among the finest you will ever hear, for he made this masterpiece very much his own, beginning when he was young, performing it for the BBC, and thereafter playing it dozens of times throughout the world. Julian of course inspired composers such as Arnold, Berkeley, Bennett and Brouwer to write concertos for him, and also brought to life eighteenth century examples of the genre by Vivaldi, Kohaut and Handel, as well as Giuliani’s little gem.


Julian achieved miracles of expressive poignancy, uniting ambitious contemporary concepts with the human heart.

In modern music Julian’s formidable intellect met every challenge from Britten, Berkeley, Henze, Tippett, Takemitsu, Maxwell Davies, Fricker, Searle, Ohana, Gerhard, Brouwer, etc. head on. In the wrong hands these pieces can lead to an arid academicism, a triumph of technique over sensibility. Yet from within their intricate vocabulary, Julian achieved miracles of expressive poignancy, uniting ambitious contemporary concepts with the human heart. How was this done? Perhaps simply by a concentrated immersion in the music and a unique process of identification with every note played. As the inspirer and begetter of so many virtuosic pieces it became his destiny to edit and develop them to the highest possible standards.

Julian Bream’s capability has always been to understand the inner structure of a composition, like an actor who brings to a dramatic role many layers of meaning previously unrealised. He shaped entire works in his mind before he ever laid a finger on them, his musicality being a product of intellect and feelings in perfect fusion. His concert performances and recordings are manifestations of his precise awareness of how each phrase fitted into the overall design.

A frequently asked question concerns the extraordinary tone quality Julian coaxed from the guitar. Perfect nails, exquisite vibrato, and the experienced caress by his right hand fingers of the strings of the best guitars on earth certainly created wonderful resonances. But to arrive at such immaculate sound is itself a process of the inner imagination. Nothing outstanding happens in music by accident. The performance of ethereal sounds is something a great player arrives at by a journey where the destination may not at first be fully known. But much of the mystery of tone par excellence is bound up with the secrets of phrasing, the inspired articulation of musical sentences, paragraphs, and chapters. To arrive at such a place is the product of much endeavour. It cannot be done easily. And while nature supplies the essential physical equipment of strong hands and athletic fingers, the rest is attained by intelligent intense determination over many years.

As Segovia used to point out, few people understand what sacrifices are required to establish instrumental mastery. Many promising aspirants in the profession fall by the wayside after a while. For Julian Bream there was never any easing up or loss of focus. The round of concerts, editions, and recordings continued year by year in seemingly inexhaustible progressions. Nothing diverted him from his central mission. Neither was he ever seduced into compromise with the commercial world of the “music industry.” Julian Bream’s success was achieved on his own terms, the principles by which he valued his art.

Critics long ago ran out of superlatives to describe Julian’s concerts and recordings. Yet even some guitarists are less knowledgeable than they should be about his editions, some fifty of which were published over the years. Careful study of these will reveal many aspects of the way his interpretative instincts co­ordinated with technical elements of left and right hand fingerings. His editions of Britten’s Nocturnal, Tippett’s The Blue Guitar, Walton’s Bagatelles, Berkeley’s Sonatina, Henze’s Royal Winter Music, Arnold’s Fantasy, Rawsthorne’s Elegy, Brouwer’s Sonata, Takemitsu’s All in Twilight, etc., constitute a lasting testimony to the glories of the guitar in the twentieth century. Yet many others from the historical Faber Series also radically influenced the nature and substance of guitar recitals.

Julian both transformed the classical guitar into a truly contemporary form of expression and also made us aware of the significance of plucked strings throughout the last five hundred years of European music.

Times have changed and the cultural and social climate has changed. It seems unlikely that classical guitarists in future will receive the public esteem which Julian Bream and John Williams achieved in their extraordinary careers. For those of us involved with the guitar through the exciting decades from the 1950s onwards, Julian’s 75th birthday will be an occasion for nostalgia and retrospection of the “good old days,” that legendary golden age of the classical guitar.

It is not possible to summarise the range and depths of his accomplishments briefly. But what can be said is that Julian both transformed the classical guitar into a truly contemporary form of expression and also made us aware of the significance of plucked strings throughout the last five hundred years of European music. This total empathy with music of the present and the past is a rare gift. As a guitarist he was at home in every epoch, playing Milan or Albéniz, Buxtehude or Rawsthorne, J.S. Bach or Francisco Tárrega. He was also the master accompanist with singers such as Peter Pears and Victoria de los Angeles as well as an instinctive ensemble player with string quartet, consort, harpsichord, and orchestra. In company with John Williams, he made a lasting contribution to the evolving history of the guitar duo.

Julian Bream is deeply loved by the guitar fraternity and the general public. He has inspired a lasting affection afforded only to the greatest instrumentalists. His very presence on the concert platform was always cherished, giving his audiences so many experiences to remember. Thus everybody who reads this article will have their own memories and perspectives of Julian Bream, having attended recitals and listened to recordings. He has reached each of us in a very special way. Moreover, the recent DVD, Julian Bream, My Life in Music, has ensured that he remains close to his public with the inclusion not only of clips from past performances but also considerable biographical content.