Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Julian Bream

"It would be untrue to attribute the explosion of contemporary interest in the classical guitar solely to Julian Bream," Tony Palmer clarified in A Life on the Road, which he coauthored with Bream, "but there can be little doubt that his example as a performer, his choice of repertoire, his willingness to spend much of his life on the road proselytizing, has had a profound influence on the development and future of the guitar." Indeed it is Bream’s playing of Elizabethan and Baroque lute pieces and his commissioning of guitar works from twentieth-century composers—a repertoire literally spanning centuries—that has showcased the versatility and vitality of the guitar and its family of instruments. This expansive approach, however, has piqued purists of the authentic music movement who disapprove of Bream’s modern stylings on the lute; he quickly dismisses them. For Bream, playing music is not a show of technique but a passionate attempt to reveal to an audience a piece’s spiritual and mystical qualities. "Ideally the performer has a special function," he theorized in A Life on the Road, "which is to bring the listener to the edge of that experience and to open the doors of this perception in such a way that those who wish to enter can."

Bream was born in Battersea, England, on July 15, 1933. Bream’s first exposure to musical performance came from his father, Henry Bream, a commercial artist and amateur guitarist who taught his young son the basics of the instrument. But inspiration for Bream’s future course came from recordings by the great Spanish classical guitarist Andrés Segovia. Segovia was considered an aberration, as solo guitar was not commonly a choice for classical performance at the time, but Bream was determined to follow a similar musical life. Though his father urged jazz studies, Bream chose to enroll in the Royal College of Music in London with an emphasis on piano, composition, and cello, while doggedly focusing on the classical guitar. Unable to reconcile the conservative faculty to his pursuit, Bream left the college in 1952. He was subsequently drafted by the British Army where he played electric jazz guitar in the Royal Artillery’s dance band for three years.

Entranced by Elizabethan Music
Bream earned money in college by playing incidental music for dramas—usually sixteenth- and seventeenth-century historical plays—broadcast by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). He had always been interested in the Elizabethan period of English history; in researching music for the plays, he was further drawn to the era’s music and its popular instrument, the lute. "I felt instinctively that this was a

musical period in these islands rich in beauty, inventiveness, and vitality," he recounted in his book. "And it seemed to me I had a possibility to help revitalize some of this music. I had a mission almost: to present this music in a way that was not of the museum, but of now, although still retaining the music’s essential spirit."

In the early 1950s very few lute players or instructors existed. In lieu of training, Bream improvised by adapting his guitar technique to the lute. Traditionally the lute was played or plucked with the fingertips near the bridge, yielding the soft, intimate tone characteristic of a courtly instrument. Bream, however, played with his fingernails, plucking the strings between the fingerboard and the bridge, producing considerable differences in tone and dynamics—important aspects of any solo concert instrument.

Lute Technique Reproached
Bream’s first efforts in the mid-1950s captured both the public’s ear and imagination. But his growing recognition, along with that of the lute, also brought out traditional lute devotees who were exceedingly critical of his guitar-based style. Bream was unmoved, confirming that his approach to music has always been to champion expression over technique. "It’s the sincerity and the heart behind the friggery that is for me the vital clue," he has written. "I like to play the lute full-bloodedly, with passion, as well as with delicacy and, I hope, refinement." Almost 30 years later, William Ellis agreed. Reviewing a reissue of Bream’s early works, Ellis opined in American Record Guide that the recordings still had "much to teach younger players of the instrument. Inherent in his occasional vibrato and wide dynamics (for a lute, that is) is an abundant musicality that more historically (or should I say ‘politically’) correct players would do well to study."

Part of a Continuing Tradition
In 1960 Bream formed the Julian Bream Consort, an instrumental group based on Elizabethan models, largely because he wanted to experience the repertoire available to this setting of instruments. But he was not content to explore only the lute and its ancient music. "One thing you learn very rapidly in this business is that you are part of a continuing tradition," Bream noted, adding "that the future of the guitar, for instance, is every bit as important as its past." This insight prompted Bream to commission guitar pieces from such eminent modern classical composers as Benjamin Britten, Malcolm Arnold, and William Walton. All the works have greatly impacted the classical guitar community and one, Britten’s Nocturnal, has since become a standard piece in the repertoire for modern guitar.

"I’m all for change and variety," Bream told Allan Kozinn in Guitar Review. "Your experience of life is to a large part distilled into your performing. As you grow older, you concentrate on aspects of music that you perhaps only touched on earlier." This vital propensity for change was no more evident than in the late 1970s and 1980s when Bream set his lute aside to once more concentrate on the guitar. He again commissioned new works, sought out standard pieces in the Spanish guitar literature he had overlooked, and filmed a video series, iGuitarra!, which explored the development of the Spanish guitar and the repertoire.

Bream returned to the lute in the early 1990s, playing a slightly different, more historically correct form. But his approach to music hasn’t changed; he still "believes that interpretive values are more important than authentic timbres," acknowledged Kozinn. Perhaps more than anything, it is Bream’s lack of zealous devotion to the technical aspects of the guitar repertoire that truly allows him to express its intangible qualities. "There is no piece of guitar music that has the formal beauty of a piano sonata by Mozart, or the richly worked out ideas and passion of a late Beethoven string quartet, or for that matter the beautiful mellifluous poetry of a Chopin Ballade," he opined. "[But] I know that I can invest unsophisticated, naïve, even corny guitar music with a poetry which can entice the ear, and with it create an experience that is perfectly valid for present-day musical circumstances. I only need a handful of notes, nothing special, and I’m away."

Selected discography
An Anthology of English Song, Decca, 1955.
A Bach Recital for the Guitar, Westminster, 1957.
The Art of Julian Bream, RCA, 1959.
(With the Julian Bream Consort) An Evening of Elizabethan Music, RCA, 1962.
Baroque Guitar, RCA, 1965.
Lute Music From the Royal Courts of Europe, RCA, 1966.
20th Century Guitar, RCA, 1966.
Classic Guitar, RCA, 1968.
Elizabethan Lute Songs, RCA, 1970.
Romantic Guitar, RCA, 1970.
Julian Bream Plays Villa-Lobos, RCA, 1971.
(With John Williams) Together, RCA, 1971.
The Woods So Wild, RCA, 1972.
Julian Bream ’70s, RCA, 1973.
The Lute Music of John Dowland, RCA, 1976.
The Music of Spain, Vol. 1, RCA, 1979.
Dedication, RCA, 1981.
The Music of Spain, Vol. 5: The Poetic Nationalists, RCA, 1982.
Guitarra: The Guitar in Spain, RCA, 1985.
Bach: Suites for Lute, RCA, 1986.
(With the Julian Bream Consort) Fantasies, Ayres, and Dances, RCA, 1988.
Two Loves, RCA, 1989.
La Guitarra Romantica, RCA, 1991.
Also released iGuitarra!: The Guitar in Spain With Julian Bream, Vols. 1-4 (video series), Home Vision, 1984.

Bream, Julian, and Tony Palmer, A Life on the Road, Macdonald, 1982.

American Record Guide, January 1985; September/October 1991.
Chicago Tribune, February 19, 1987.
Economist, January 11, 1992.
Guitar Player, June 1990; January 1992.
Guitar Review, Spring 1990.
New York Times, March 25, 1990; April 3, 1990.
Stereo Review, December 1986.

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