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In my opinion, musicians become successful not just because they are good or they play well but because they bring something new and unexpected to the music world.

The best example of this is Julian Bream.

Today, when many classical guitarists talk about Bream, they mainly discuss his playing, analyze his sound quality, and expressivity, among other things.

That is without a doubt an important and useful exercise, but it is not the most important thing about Bream.

In my opinion, the biggest contribution Bream made to the guitar world was through embracing both the “old” and the “new.”

The Old

While Bream began by learning jazz guitar, it didn’t take long for him to adopt the two instruments which he would later became famous for — the classical guitar and the lute.

In fact, by the early age of 19, he was already playing the lute in London’s iconic Wigmore Hall!

At the time when he first started giving lute recitals, many guitarists were playing the music of John Dowland but few of them were actually aware of what a lute even sounded like.

Bream’s lute recitals and recordings were just the beginning of his efforts to open the music world’s mind to the possibilities of early music.

In 1960, he went on to found the Julian Bream Consort — a period instrument ensemble — which led a great revival of interest in the music of the Elizabethan Era.

The ensemble was also a large influence on the movement of “Historically informed performance” which is well known today. However, at that time, those ideas were revolutionary.

The New

If you were to stop reading this post here, you might assume that he devoted his life to studying only “old” music.

However, as most people know, this is quite far from the truth!

Besides studying early music, he was also an avid collaborator with 20th century composers which led to a major increase of the guitar repertoire.

While Segovia was also a prolific commissioner, working with composers like Manuel Ponce and Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Bream was able to go outside the guitar realm and attract composers such as Toru Takemitsu, Richard Rodney Bennett, and Benjamin Britten.

These were absolute giants in the classical music world when Bream approached them.

Bream even went as far as meeting with Igor Stravinsky in Toronto. As this historic video shows, he played the lute for him and even tried to persuade him to write a composition.

Unfortunately, as we all know, he was not successful. It is really a pity, but it shows how Bream cared about the instrument and was in constant search of new music and innovation.

Could you imagine if a legendary composer like Stravinsky wrote a guitar piece? How would it be? Unfortunately, we will never know…

More Than a Guitarist

As you see, Julian Bream, in my opinion, was way more than “just a guitarist.”

He saw at the time what other people did not see — by studying the “old” and the “new” he could expand the borders of the instrument.

He showed that the guitar world encompasses more than just Turina and Albéniz.

Yes, he did play Spanish music, releasing an LP in 1985 titled Guitarra: The Guitar in Spain, but he did not stick to that. He learned the guitar repertoire and then expanded it.

We, the guitar community, are eternally grateful to him for that.

English guitarist Laura Snowden discusses her experience studying Britten’s famous “Nocturnal” with Julian Bream himself. Watch the full interview, now on tonebase!

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Dave McLellan

Concert & Chamber Guitarist

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