Julian Alexander BreamCBE (15 July 1933 – 14 August 2020) was an English classical guitarist and lutenist. Regarded as one of the most distinguished classical guitarists of the 20th century, he played a significant role in improving the public perception of the classical guitar as a respectable instrument. Over the course of a career that spanned more than half a century, Bream helped revive interest in the lute.
Bream was born in Battersea, London, England, to Henry and Violet Jessie (née Wright) Bream. At the age of two he moved with his family to Hampton in London, where he was brought up in a musical environment. His father was a commercial artist and an amateur jazz guitarist, who was unable to read music but had a finely attuned ear and could play a lot of popular music. His mother, a homemaker of Scottish descent, had a warm and loving personality, but no interest in music. His parents divorced when he was 14. His grandmother owned a pub in Battersea, and Bream spent much time there during his youth. The young Bream was impressed by the playing of Django Reinhardt; he later named his dog "Django". Bream played the piano and cello as a child and Reinhardt inspired Bream to take up guitar.
Bream began his lifelong association with the guitar by strumming along on his father's jazz guitar at an early age to dance music on the radio. He became frustrated with his lack of knowledge of jazz harmony, so read instruction books by Eddie Lang to teach himself. His father taught him the basics. The president of the Philharmonic Society of Guitarists, Boris Perott, gave Bream further lessons, while his father became the society librarian, giving young Bream access to a large collection of rare music.
On his 11th birthday, Bream was given a small gut-strung Spanish guitar by his father. He became something of a child prodigy, at 12 winning a junior exhibition award for his piano playing, enabling him to study piano and composition at the Royal College of Music. He made his debut guitar recital at Cheltenham on 17 February 1947, aged 13; in 1951, he debuted at Wigmore Hall.
Bream's father had reservations about his pursuing classical guitar. He claimed Bream would find it difficult to earn a living unless he played jazz or something similarly modern. His father's remarks made Bream more persistent and committed to becoming a professional classical guitarist. Bream played the guitar first, then the piano for his audition at the Royal College of Music, even though the guitar was not taught at the institution at the time. When the college accepted Bream, he was advised not to bring his guitar. Bream brought along his guitar regardless as he played for late-night performances. When the school's director discovered he was playing the guitar in one of the school's practice rooms, Bream was asked again to leave his guitar at home. Bream's response to the request was to leave the college.
Leaving the RCM in 1952, Bream was called up into the army for national service. He was originally drafted into the Pay Corps, but managed to sign up for the Royal Artillery Band after six months. This required him to be stationed in Woolwich, which allowed him to moonlight regularly in London with the guitar.
Bream in 1964
After three and half years in the army, he took any musical jobs that came his way, including background music for radio plays and films. Recording sessions and work for the BBC were important to Bream throughout the 1950s and the early 1960s. He played part of a recital at the Wigmore Hall on the lute in 1952. Bream pursued a busy career playing around the world. His first European tours took place in 1954 and 1955, followed (beginning in 1958) by extensive touring in the Far East, India, Australia, the Pacific Islands and many other parts of the world. His first North America tour was in 1959. 1960 saw the formation of the Julian Bream Consort, a period-instrument ensemble with Bream as lutenist. The consort led a great revival of interest in the music of the Elizabethan era. In 1963, Bream performed for the Peabody Mason Concert series in Boston with the US debut of his Consort.
During the 1992–93 season he performed on two occasions at the Wigmore Hall – at their Gala Re-opening Festival, and at a special concert celebrating his 60th birthday. In the same period, he toured the Far East, visiting Hong Kong, Taiwan, Korea and Japan, and performed the premiere of Leo Brouwer's arrangement for guitar and orchestra of Albéniz's Iberia at the Proms. In 1994 Bream made debuts in both Turkey and Israel to great acclaim, and the following year played for the soundtrack to the Hollywood film Don Juan DeMarco.
Bream's recitals were wide-ranging, including transcriptions from the 17th century, many pieces by Bach arranged for guitar, popular Spanish pieces, and contemporary music, for much of which he was the inspiration. He stated that he was influenced by the styles of Andrés Segovia and Francisco Tárrega. Bream had some "sessions" with Segovia but did not actually study with him. Segovia provided a personal endorsement and scholarship request to assist Bream in taking further formal music studies. Bream's work showed that the guitar could be capably utilized in English, French, and German music.
Bream's playing can be characterised as virtuosic and highly expressive, with an eye for details, and with strong use of contrasting timbres. He did not consistently hold his right-hand fingers at right angles to the strings, but used a less rigid hand position for tonal variety.
Bream met Igor Stravinsky in Toronto, Canada, in 1965. He tried unsuccessfully to persuade the composer to write a composition for the lute and played a pavane by Dowland for him. The meeting between Bream and Stravinsky, including Bream's impromptu playing, was filmed by the National Film Board of Canada in making a documentary about the composer.
Bream recorded extensively for RCA Victor and EMI Classics. These recordings won him several awards, including four Grammy Awards, two for Best Chamber Music Performance and two for Best Classical Performance. RCA also released The Ultimate Guitar Collection, a multi-CD set commemorating his birthday in 1993.
Despite his importance as a classical guitarist, however, many of his RCA recordings (including the series of 20th-century guitar music) were out of print for several years. In 2011, RCA released My Favorite Albums, a 10-CD set of albums chosen by Julian Bream himself. In 2013, RCA issued Julian Bream: The Complete RCA Album Collection, a 40-CD set which also includes two DVDs with The Lively Arts – Julian Bream: A Life in the Country, the 1976 BBC film; and four BBC shows: Omnibus: Anniversary of Sir William Walton , The Julian Bream Consort (1961), Monitor – Film Profile of Julian Bream , and The Julian Bream Consort (1964).
Television and video
A film, A Life in the Country, was first shown on BBC TV in 1976. In it, the narrator and Bream discuss his beginnings and his life as a concert guitarist. Bream also presented a series of four master-classes for guitarists on BBC TV.
In 1984 he made eight film segments on location in Spain for Channel 4. The collection of segments ¡Guitarra! A Musical Journey Through Spain explored historical perspectives of Spanish guitar music.
The 2003 DVD video profile Julian Bream: My Life in Music contains three hours of interviews and performances. It has been declared by Graham Wade "the finest film contribution ever to the classic guitar" and it became "Gramophone DVD of the year".
Bream's first wife was Margaret, daughter of the writer Henry Williamson, with whom he adopted a son. After their divorce he married Isabel Sanchez in 1980. That marriage also ended in divorce.
He lived for over 40 years at Semley, Wiltshire, at first dividing his time between there and Chiswick, London, then moving permanently in 1966 to a Georgian farmhouse in Semley, living there until 2008. In 2009 he moved to a smaller house at Donhead St Andrew, Wiltshire. Bream was keen on the game of cricket and was a member of the Marylebone Cricket Club.
Bream died on 14 August 2020, at his home at Donhead St Andrew, at the age of 87.
Pieces written for Bream
Many compositions were written for Bream, including:
^ abcdJeffries, Stuart (13 September 2013). "Julian Bream: 'I'm a better musician now than when I was 70'". The Guardian. ISSN0261-3077. Retrieved 20 July 2019. In 1964, he was awarded the OBE for his services to music. By then, he had won the first of four Grammy awards in the US. In the 70s, 80s and 90s, he became one of classical music's bestselling and most prolific recording artists. [...] He will be awarded the Gramophone lifetime achievement award on 17 September .