Remembering Julian Bream

Anyone who can spell the word “guitar” likely knows of the formidable Spaniard of the gut string, Andrés Segovia.  But too few know enough about the Brit who cast just a smidge less of a shadow in the world of classical guitar and lute, and maybe a far more progressive one at that. Julian Bream passed away this week at the age of 87.

Bream was regarded as one of the instrument’s most formidable, influential and soulful players, a flawless technician with incomparable tone and technique on guitar and, later, the lute.  Unlike the traditionalist Segovia who was his inspiration, Bream worked to push classical guitar beyond its Spanish roots by commissioning dozens of works from major composers like Malcolm Arnold and Benjamin Britten, whose “Nocturnal” (1963) is one of the most popular pieces in the modern guitar repertoire.  On the traditionalist front, he was the first to revive major works of Spain’s Fernando Sor and Mauro Giuliani of Italy, two important 19th century guitarist-composers, and to serve as the prime interpreter of the lute works of the legendary John Dowland. His painstaking transcriptions, which are a key parcel of the classical teaching lexicon today, included Bach suites and Scarlatti sonatas, as well as works by Purcell, Cimarosa, Diabelli and Schubert.

Julian Bream: Benjamin Britten’s Noctural

Bream’s initial interest in guitar came about not through the classics but the gypsy jazz of Django Reinhardt.  After receiving his first gut string guitar from his father on his 11th birthday, Bream quickly became a child prodigy. He won a guitar competition the following year which enabled him to study at the Royal College of Music (piano not guitar), before making his debut guitar recital one year later in 1947. 

By the mid-1950s, Bream’s career was in full swing, with many tours in Europe, Asia, Australia and North America, as well as a busy slate of recordings.  Bream has a massive discography on the RCA Victor and EMI Classics labels, recordings which earned him four Grammys among other honors.

What cannot be underestimated is Bream’s impact of reviving interest in that hard to handle, many stringed medieval cousin of the guitar, the lute. Bream took up the Renaissance lute in 1950 in order to play 16 century works by Thomas Morley, John Dowland and other Elizabethan composers.  In 1959, he formed the Julian Bream Consort, a string, wind and lute ensemble, to perform and record Elizabethan ensemble music, which he also did in a popular duo partnership with singer Peter Pears.  Bream’s success as a lutenist inspired a generation of young musicians, including Paul O’Dette, Stephen Stubbs and Hopkinson Smith, to set aside the modern guitar and concentrate on the lute and other early stringed instruments.

Julian Bream Plays Dowland

Bream’s influence as a musician went far beyond the world of classical music and into the world of rock and jazz, where appreciation of his skill and soul transcended the genre.

One of his most fervent admirers is the astounding Dutch guitarist Jan Akkerman. Voted Best Guitarist in the World in 1973 over Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, and others by that British bible of rock, Melody Maker, Jan is a man with a wide stylistic discography. He’s perhaps best known for the pioneering shred and yodel classic, “Hocus Pocus,” by his former band Focus.

“I was recording with Focus in Chipping Norton in Oxfordshire and got fed up with the whole scene so I jumped in my car to escape it all,” begins Akkerman.  “I wound up in The Tews, in a little village near the Rollright Stones, a beautiful spot in a valley full of 12th Century houses, real Robin Hood style.”

“When I switched on the radio, what I heard was The Julian Bream Consort on BBC1, playing lovely Elizabethan lute music, which really ran my bell,” he continues.  “You look at ten Dutch paintings and seven of them will have a lute in them.  It really struck a chord with me, emotionally and musically, and I became slavishly devoted to locating old sheet music and practicing the instrument, so much of it the music that Bream performed.”

“At that time, Focus was touring like crazy, so I would bring the lute along with me and woodshed on flights, in limos, like a madman.  I used some of Julian’s concepts on my album Tabernakel, but with my own rock-style twist.”

Jan Akkerman – Tabernakel “Brittania” John Dowland

“What made Julian a great player for me is he played the lute in a classical guitaristic way, with a much cleaner sound which I happen to love,” continues Akkerman. “I saw him in concert once in the Netherlands and what occurred to me was he possessed an ungodly fluidity and lyricism and a sort of sense of humor from the guitar faces he threw too as he played, which I like to do.  I would say, along with Django, he is my all-time favorite.  If you want to hear what classical guitar is all about, just listen to his album, Julian Bream: 20th Century Guitar.

Julian Bream Documentary “My Life in Music”

Andres SegoviafocusJan AkkermanJulian BreamluteMelody Maker