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Julian Bream – An Obituary
by Zane Turner
Julian Bream died peacefully at his home in Donhead St Andrew on August 14, 2020, aged 87 years.
Internationally acknowledged as one of the finest guitarists of the 20th century, Bream was born in Battersea on July 15, 1933. After spending his youth as a Londoner, he moved to Wiltshire, initially sharing his time between there and Chiswick, London. In 1966 he purchased a Georgian farm house, Broad Oak, in Semley where he lived in relative solitude for forty years. With the passing of time he sold Broad Oak House and moved to a smaller dwelling in Donhead St Andrew, where he lived until his death.
Julian Bream was a remarkable man in many ways, and just as attention-getting vocally as when playing his guitar. He spoke freely about almost every aspect of his career, and touched on allied subjects with erudition and ebullience. One could never mistake his playing: it has great musicianship and a sound/tone that is unique to him. Bream was an autodidact, exposed only very briefly to Segovia and then not in a technical context. He learned the plucked instrument by trial and error, and it was this schooling that produced such an individual and unique style of playing; a process, in the main, also shared with Andrés Segovia. Today, with a high degree of formalisation in teaching of the guitar, it is now often impossible to identify an individual player, as each sounds a clone of their individual institution.
Like men of intellect, Julian Bream was very aware of his mortality and the need to imbue it with meaning. His favourite poem was, Ithaca by Constantine P. Cavafy.Those familiar with this work will know that it is a metaphor for life, demonstrating that, in the end, it is not the destination but the journey that matters. It endows wisdom, gives us experience, knowledge and maturity. We may conjecture that for Bream this was a paradigm for the way in which he lived his rich and accomplished life. During one interview he dwelt on his preoccupation with the sound that plucked instruments make when the string is engaged. ‘The apex of the sound is at that moment, and then it begins to die quickly. In a phrase of six or seven notes we are dealing with six or seven births and deaths. We hate death and don’t know how to deal with it, so sustain on this life as long as possible.’
He spent much time in the shepherd’s hut on the Semley property, writing about his life as a 20th century troubadour, He always felt that the greatest pleasure is derived from giving it to others.
To describe the guitar legacy of Julian Bream as magnificent is probably inadequate. His contributions to the guitar’s growth in popularity as a true concert instrument, and the expansion of its repertory, are immense. He rejuvenated interest in the Renaissance lute and his recitals often shared equally between lute and guitar. He was also a master of the Baroque guitar, and vihuela. Much of the important contemporary guitar repertory is directly attributable to him. He collaborated with composers such as William Walton, Benjamin Britten, Hans Werner Henze, Richard Rodney Bennett, Alan Rawsthorne, Lennox Berkeley, Malcolm Arnold, and Toru Takemitsu among others. Nocturnal after John Dowland Op. 70, written for Bream by Benjamin Britten, is considered to be one of the most influential contemporary works for solo guitar.
Bream was also a champion of extending the guitar’s role beyond that of a solo instrument. He performed with famous musicians such as singers Peter Pears and Robert Tear, violinist Stephan Grapelli, sarod player Ali Akbar Khan and harpsichordist George Malcolm. With guitarist John Williams he played and recorded many duets. Bream felt that although they played ‘like chalk and cheese, together, as an ensemble, they could create magic’. Bream also formed the Julian Bream Consort, dedicated to the performance of Elizabethan music.
Julian Bream had an encyclopaedic knowledge of guitar construction and design. Although these aspects of the guitar have changed significantly in past decades, Bream appeared to embrace the concepts of Antonio Torres (1817-1892) in his choice of instruments. He did not like an instrument that ‘dictated to him’. Especially favoured instruments were those of Herman Hauser and son, although he played and owned many instruments by different luthiers. These included instruments by Robert Bouchet, Manuel Ramirez, Hernandez and Aguado, David Rubio, and Jose Romanillos, among others. His close collaboration with Romanillos produced fine instruments particularly favoured in the post-1970 part of his career. Probably his greatest material loss was an extraordinary instrument by Robert Bouchet which was stolen from his car.
To attend a live Julian Bream recital was a special experience. In 1967, as part of an Australian tour, he played a single Tasmanian recital in Launceston
(see signed programme above). I was fortunate to be present in the prime front row position. The concert was half lute and half guitar, the lute taking position before intermission. A couple of elderly ladies in the front row became rather fascinated and vocal in response to a Bream hallmark: facial contortions during each and every piece of music.
I spoke briefly with him at intermission during which he kindly answered a couple of questions, including one about the relatively unknown luthier David Rubio, then domiciled in New York, who made the guitar he was currently playing. Rubio later moved to the UK, and became a big name in construction of various stringed instruments. Bream graciously truncated the conversation: ‘I must get on with my practice’.
Bream’s love of cricket is well documented, and he appreciated the sound of leather on willow. He was always aware of the potential for the game to damage his hands, but persisted, regardless. Ironically it was not cricket which almost ended his playing career, but a car accident. His elbow was badly damaged and despite an initial negative prognosis, he persisted and returned to the concert platform.
To celebrate the 50th anniversary of his debut recital in Cheltenham, in 1997 Bream gave a recital in the Cheltenham Town Hall. His final recital was at Maddermarket Theatre, Norwich on May 6, 2002. A subsequent accident involving a dog damaged his hand irreparably and he was unable to play again.
It is indeed fortunate that Julian Bream was active during a period when his legacy could be so extensively documented and recorded for posterity. There is a large discography of more than forty recordings, DVDs detailing his life in music, and many interviews and examples of his playing on sites such as YouTube. The biography, A Life on the Road by Tony Palmer is also a valuable resource in learning more about the man, and his life in music.
The record of this musician’s journey to Ithaca will be internationally discussed and treasured by future generations of guitar aficionados.
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