Emma Baker meets the influential guitarist
To celebrate our special guitar issue (July), we reprint this revealing interview with Julian Bream from January 2007...
Sixty years ago, the classical guitar was little more than a musical curiosity in Britain, despite the work of Segovia in Europe – a small-voiced, exotic instrument that wasn’t to be taken seriously. But then a determined Londoner changed everything. Julian Bream’s single-handed mission was not only to get the guitar accepted as a mainstream classical instrument, but also to resurrect the legacy of the Renaissance and Baroque lute. Now 73 and retired from the concert and recording circuit, the man and his extraordinary career are celebrated in an absorbing DVD, 'Julian Bream: My Life in Music'.
I meet him at his home on the Wiltshire-Dorset border, where he lives alone except for his canine companion, a friendly black retriever rather endearingly named Django, and a couple of classic cars. It’s the sort of beautiful house that you usually find has been converted into a boutique spa hotel these days. We talk in his drawing room by an open fire, Django slumped comfortably at my feet. In the walled garden the lower branches of a large Japanese maple are turning deep crimson against a view of hills beyond. It’s a country life fantasy, and one that Bream has been living for the past 42 years, since he left London. But this peace and tranquillity is a necessity rather than a luxury. Bream’s south London vowels and unpretentious manner mask a serious, sensitive artist with an abhorrence of the fast-moving consumer world. He has no mobile phone, email or answering machine, preferring a more measured pace of life. 'That’s why I liked making the DVD. It’s a serious sit-down, at over two hours long, but I’ve been told it’s compelling viewing. But when you see the occasional musical documentary on the television often everything is so rushed that there is an intensity that’s quite foreign to the music.'
Bream retired in 2002. 'I felt I had done enough – I’d been on stage for 55 years – and also that my work wasn’t as consistent as I would have liked it to be,' he explains. 'Sometimes I would play well, and that would give me pleasure. But I could also do a concert which was rather uninspired or could be technically not as good as it should be. I couldn’t live with that at all. So that’s when I stopped. But I still have a daily routine – scales and arpeggios, a couple of Villa-Lobos studies and one or two of passages from the Concierto de Aranjuez or Britten’s Nocturnal – the ones that I never could play,' he says disarmingly. 'It keeps everything oiled, because I still like to do the occasional short concert within a 10-mile radius of here.'
He’s also turned to writing. 'I’m doing a book of memoirs and one on interpretation of the works written for me over the years. I think that would be useful because I knew the composers and how they wanted it to go.'
Bream’s first lessons, in jazz guitar, came from his father Henry, a successful commercial artist and talented amateur musician. After receiving his first classical guitar at 11, he made his official recital debut at 13. Accepted into the Royal Academy of Music to study piano and cello, he was to a great extent self-taught as a guitarist. But success came quickly: he made a name for himself in broadcasting while still in his teens, playing both lute and guitar. Lutes were difficult to come by in post-war London. He remembers his first. 'My father brought home a lute one day which he said he’d bought off a sailor on the Charing Cross Road for two quid. I’m sure it fell off the back of a lorry.'
His blossoming career was interrupted by National Service. 'I eventually joined the army band. I took up the jazz guitar again and played the electric guitar, too. I’ve always been a big fan of jazz, of great performers like Dizzy Gillespie and Benny Goodman, who I used to know quite well, although I wasn’t naturally a great jazz player. So things kept going, in spite of being in Her Majesty’s forces. After I came out of the army my career just exploded.' One of the first composers to write specifically for Bream was Malcolm Arnold: the Serenade for Guitar and Strings of 1955. Bream explains how it came about. 'I was rung up by the Richmond Community Orchestra who asked me to do a concert. I said I’d be delighted but, as far as I knew, there were no pieces for guitar and string orchestra. Two days later the phone rang and it was Malcolm Arnold. He said: ‘I hear there’s no work for guitar and strings and I’d like to write you a short piece, but could you show me how the classical guitar works since I’ve not written for it before?’ He came round to my flat the next day, which was a Saturday, and the piece arrived in the post on Tuesday morning. It was perfect. The writing for the strings is so subtle you hear the voice of the guitar quite easily, so I was thrilled.'
The first performance was a memorable one. 'The tiny stage was so full of string players there was no room for me. But I spotted a grand piano so I asked someone to bring it up flush with the stage. I sat on top of that piano and played, with Malcolm conducting, standing by my side.' Bream felt the Serenade would make an ideal central movement for a concerto. 'I tried very hard to twist Malcolm’s arm to write two movements either side but he didn’t want to do that. Eventually, in 1958, I changed tack and wrote to him: "I’d love you to write a concerto. I’m not very rich but I’ll give you thirty quid." And he said, "When do you want it by?"'
The Concerto inhabits a darker, more intense place than the Serenade. With its sinuous blues melody and a brooding, slightly sinister undercurrent that’s typical of Arnold, the central movement is a homage to guitarist Django Reinhardt. 'When Malcolm wrote concertos to commission, he’d create a musical portrait of the dedicatee. He knew I was interested in jazz and Django Reinhardt in particular, so the slow movement has that lovely blues atmosphere. The last movement relates to my lute playing – it’s written in various modes, some transposed. There is one section which isn’t modal, but Malcolm called it the "Aldeburgh mode" because we first performed the Concerto at the Festival.'
It was during National Service in 1952 that Bream made his first appearance at the Aldeburgh Festival and met Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears. 'I was at a party after the concert and Peter said he was interested in doing some lute songs. In fact, he said "Let’s try some now", so we did, completely spontaneously, at the party. That was the beginning of a very important musical relationship. I learnt a lot from Peter about phrasing like a singer, which is what we all try to do on instruments.' He learnt other skills, too. 'Peter had impeccable manners and I was so embarrassed because I was so uncultivated. Manners were rather important in those days – they oiled the machinery of social life, so I picked up from him what it was like to be a half-way civilised person.'
Bream initially had to steer Britten away from the lute and towards the guitar as he persuaded the composer to write a solo piece for him. 'The guitar was foreign to him, but he eventually got interested in it,' he explains. 'He and Peter did a vast number of concert tours together, and while he was in the middle of his compositions these tours were really an interruption. I was often asked to go along and accompany Pears in lieu of Britten, which was a great pleasure, but Britten then felt perhaps he ought to write something for me. He first did a set of folksongs with guitar, then a song-cycle, Songs from the Chinese, which is beautifully written for the instrument, so he’d already done his homework. It was only a question of time before a guitar solo came along. The Nocturnal is based on a Dowland song so that again represents the two elements in my life: the lute and guitar.’
The Nocturnal after John Dowland (1963) plays on Britten’s preoccupation with night, dreams and sleep. It takes the form of theme and variations, but in reverse: Dowland’s lute song 'Come Heavy Sleep' is transformed through eight variations before being quoted in full. How did Bream feel about being presented with a masterpiece?
‘I felt I had a tremendous responsibility that I had to discharge as well as I could. I worked on the piece very, very hard and I had to improve my technical approach so I could play it, if not with consummate ease, at least in a way which was convincing. I went to Mallorca, to the house of the poet Robert Graves, and he loaned me a hut in an olive grove which looked down over the Mediterranean. It was the most wonderful place and I spent 10 days in that hut preparing the piece.' More new works followed: William Walton’s vital and angular Five Bagatelles (1971), and dedications from Maxwell Davies, Tippett and Henze, among others. Does he have a favourite? 'The Nocturnal, undoubtedly, although there are passages in Tippett’s Blue Guitar that are very dark and intense, a quality that resonates with me and suits me. It’s a different intensity to Britten’s music.'
But not all composers Bream encountered were willing to write for him. The DVD shows footage of a meeting with Stravinsky that is, quite frankly, excruciating to watch. 'I was on tour in Toronto with a camera team and was asked would I like to meet Stravinsky and play him something on the lute and I said "Of course!" But when I got there the poor chap was just about to conduct the Symphony of Psalms in a recording session; they rolled me on and it was obvious that this was just not what he wanted. He was obviously annoyed and I don’t blame him. I had total sympathy for him. But it was the most embarrassing moment of my career.'
A musician’s worst nightmare, however, became reality for Bream in July 1984 when he lost control of his open-top MG car and hit a railway bridge, smashing the bones his right elbow. He attempted to drive home to phone for help but lost consciousness behind the wheel. 'I lost so much blood I fainted. The car came eventually to a halt halfway up a bank. Oil was pouring onto the engine and causing a lot of smoke but somebody happened to be looking out of their window, nipped down to investigate and found me unconscious, hanging out of the car. I was taken to Salisbury and operated on straight away.' The two-and-a-half hour operation was to reattach damaged nerves and tendons. 'It was done under local anaesthetic so I was able to talk to the surgeon all the time, and he did a very good job. I still have various nuts and bolts in my wrist.' He made a full recovery. 'I set myself a highly disciplined schedule which focused my mind and fingers, and I was able to undertake a US tour three months later.'
Bream has always had ambivalent feelings about America. 'The first time I toured there I found it exhilarating, but there was something – I found it difficult to put my finger on it. It’s only latterly that I’ve realised it was because I was plunged into the middle of a consumer society. That’s why I could never live in America, even though I was a considerable success there.'
His American triumphs included a contract with RCA. His discography, starting in 1955, is vast, taking in everything from lute songs to new commissions for guitar. During the 1970s, Bream was at the peak of his career – his recordings sold half a million copies in the UK alone. He became a household name when he duetted with John Williams. Bream is philosophical about his success. 'At certain times, there’s a certain type of music in the air, and at that time it was the guitar. All you had to do is put up your hands and grab it.'
His fame and popularity spawned a new generation of players, so what does he think of them? 'The standard is very high. They don’t have to struggle for recognition these days, but it makes things a lot less interesting. But then I enjoyed being a pioneer, because I was passionate about the guitar and getting it accepted as a normal classical instrument. It was just something I had to do, and that really made all the difference.'
He breaks off when the phone rings. 'Doctor’s appointment,' he explains on his return. 'I’ve been with this place for a year now, but they keep calling me Sir Julian. It’s all rather embarrassing because I can’t find the way to tell them it’s just Mr Bream.' But then this is one of the greatest British musicians of the 20th century. Perhaps those who compile the honours lists should take the hint.