Wednesday August 19 2020
Guitarist, lutenist, communicator, source of inspiration: Julian Bream was a musician who fulfilled a number of important roles. He spent most of his eighty-seven years as an advocate for the classical guitar. He played a considerable part in the instrument’s renaissance during his lifetime as a player and commissioner of new works.
Bream’s artistry took him around the world where he played to vast audiences. We’re pleased to say that Aldeburgh held special significance for him: he performed here between 1952 and 1986 and was a welcome guest in The Red House on numerous occasions. Retirement from the concert platform resulted in fewer journeys to Aldeburgh, although he made one final trip in the spring of 2003 at a time when film-makers Paul Balmer and Judy Crane were making a documentary about his life. They asked him to return to Suffolk to discuss on camera his connection with Benjamin Britten, Peter Pears, and the Aldeburgh Festival. They even managed to lure him briefly out of retirement to play some of the music Britten had composed especially for him. We are fortunate to have those remembrances on film.
During the early 1950s he began to take an interest in the music of John Dowland, a key composer for the lute during the Elizabethan period. Bream was a self-taught lutenist, although he made a number of transcriptions of Dowland’s work for the guitar.
In 1952 his passion for early music was given a forum during his first appearance at the Aldeburgh Festival. He performed a Dowland Fantasia, three transcriptions (originally for harpsichord) by Henry Purcell, and a Gavotte from the sixth Cello Suite by Bach. He also played music by Haydn, Turina and Villa-Lobos, as well as a duet with flautist John Francis (Ibert’s Guitare). Over the years concerts at Aldeburgh would include solo recitals, as well as performances with Bream’s own chamber group, the Julian Bream Consort, which he formed in 1960.
He appeared with baritone Frederick Fuller in a 1955 Festival concert, but it is perhaps his 1957 performance at Great Glemham House that marks a turning point. This was an occasion to celebrate the quarter-centenary of the sixteenth-century composer Thomas Morley. Choral works were sung by Imogen Holst’s Purcell Singers, and there were performances of lute songs by Bream and Peter Pears.
Bream’s collaborations with Pears would last another two decades. The guitarist was one of the first of what could be described as Pears’ ‘alternative recital partners’, their performances and tours often enabling Britten time to concentrate on composition. ‘Do you want to do a concert with me in Canterbury on July 8th (Festival)’ Britten asked Pears in March 1957. ‘I’m not mad keen, because it’s a work period – but shall I suggest Julian Bream?’ Britten realised the guitarist was establishing a rapport with Pears in recital, and was happy to call on him to take his place. Later that year, during a tour, Pears wrote from Wolfsgarten, ‘Julian has been marvelous [sic] – playing v. well & charming every one by being his natural self.’ Their tours and recordings are an important element of the mid-century early music revival. Bream recalled, during his 2003 visit to Aldeburgh, that Pears had exactly the right timbre, the perfect voice for music of that period.
Britten’s song cycle Songs from the Chinese for tenor and guitar was composed especially for Pears and Bream. It premiered at Aldeburgh in 1958. Acknowledging Britten’s busy schedule, Bream quipped ‘One usually had to wait ten years’ if you were commissioning a piece from him. The haunting and beautiful Nocturnal after John Dowland, Britten’s only work for solo guitar, was one of the first pieces to be published by Faber Music in 1965. Bream had first performed it in the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh in June the previous year. Like many works Britten wrote for specific musicians, correspondence in the Archive tells of the composer’s desire to know what the instrument was capable of doing. (‘Give my love to Julian,’ he wrote to Pears in February, 1959, ‘& thank him very much for doing the Chinese songs fingering – I’d never realised what a task it was,’). Nocturnal has since become a staple of the twentieth-century guitar repertoire. Bream retained the fair copy made for him by Imogen Holst in 1963, but his 2003 trip to Aldeburgh acquainted him with the composition draft, which he had never seen before.
Nocturnal is one of several major pieces Bream commissioned from composers such as Lennox Berkeley, William Walton and Richard Rodney Bennett. His zeal to increase the number of works written for guitar has enriched the repertoire considerably. His final gift from Britten was the long-awaited publication in 2008 of his arrangement for voice and guitar of the Second Lute Song of the Earl of Essex from the 1953 opera Gloriana.
Bream was an advocate for the guitar and, with other players such as John Williams, did an enormous amount to popularise its place in the concert hall. His lively personality and sense of humour were means of communicating his enthusiasm for music. After a long day’s filming in Aldeburgh in 2003, he modestly quipped ‘A cup of tea for the old musician?’. His return to The Red House brought back recollections, which at times were emotional for him, of a musical partnership that was a vital aspect of his life. Significantly, it resulted in a great legacy of published works and recordings which he has left for us all.