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Saturday morning quotes 5.28: Julian Bream

November 28, 2015

Many of today’s lutenists first became aware of the instrument and its music via the playing of Julian Bream through his many recordings and concerts.  As the first 20th-century lutenist to perform to large audiences giving lute and guitar equal billing on the concert stage, he not only introduced many modern listeners to the instrument and its music but also set a very high standard for technique, style and interpretation.

A rather tasteless hallmark of the early music revival is the sometimes gratuitous and unspoken, sometimes outright obstreperous need to reject the pioneering work of those scholars and performers who early on took the trouble to research, interpret and share their discoveries.  This sad syndrome has its roots in the typical youthful rebellion against whatever came before, but is carried forward by the tide of academics or hotshot performers attempting to make a name for themselves by curling a lip at those who sport the old hat.

Those of us with a sense of perspective admire and revere the work of scholars and artists who managed to pry open the door and remove the first layers of dust obscuring our understanding of music from the distant past.  Throughout his illustrious career as a performer and recording artist, Julian Bream has never claimed that his technique of playing the lute was anything other than his personal approach and a way to draw the most music from a quiet and intimate instrument.  What could possibly be more authentic?

We offer insightful quotes drawn from Ivor Mairants‘ 1960 interview with Julian Bream, both legendary performers and exemplary musicians.

“I began with the guitar and after 8 years picked up the lute.  The reason is that first and foremost I was interested in the music of the lute and while you can play the music on guitar, you can’t play it exactly the same way.  The sound of the lute is more abstract for contrapuntal composition…It is lighter in texture.  It has less possibility of colour than the guitar but the lute has a more touching quality of sounds; a little more ethereal.  Whereas the guitar has more of the quality of sound of this world – you know what I mean?  Also, the abstract polyphony of the sixteenth century masters was built up by linear composition in which each part is as important as the other.”

When asked if the lute will become popular again:

“Well, given time there will be a renaissance in lute music, chiefly because more and more music is being delved into in museums and more is being published…There is a terrific revival in early music and I think in many ways the lute is the queen of instruments of old music and providing enough good musicians (I mean, not frustrated guitar players) get on the lute and really make beautiful sounds and play the music beautifully, otherwise there can’t be the same renaissance as there is on the guitar.”

When asked whether he thought of himself as a guitarist or a lutenist:

“What I am really interested in is not so much the instruments as what can be got out of them. And not only that, I think the power of plucked instruments in these days of noise and bustle very important and I think they have very unusual powers, providing that the right people are behind the ‘machine’ (i.e. behind the instrument), and I think they are very arresting instruments and very personal. They affect people when they listen to it – you know, very spontaneous. And that is what interests me with these instruments, too. The contact – the power of contacting people.”

When asked whether he thought a lute solo could create the same enthusiasm in an audience as a virtuoso violin concerto:

“Yes, I found that you can. I think it’s another approach. You bring the audience to you. The instrument is intimate. You don’t go out to them, you only give the feeling that you go out to them, but in actual fact through some cunning devices and some artifice and also by the very nature of the instrument it brings the back rows of the hall to the front.”

– Julian Bream from a 1960 interview with Ivor Mairants, My Fifty Fretting Years: A Personal History of The Twentieth Century Guitar Explosion, Ashley Mark Publishing, Newcastle upon Tyne, 1980. p. 279.

Julian Bream’s music can be found and enjoyed through his many recordings and videos but we offer links to a few of our favorites including an informal music session circa 1960, a performance with great violinist Stephane Grapelli, and performing on the lute for Igor Stravinsky.



  1. Bringing the back row to the front is a performance inspiration for us all that Mignarda continues as Julian Bream describes. I have tickets from a Bream concert in Ithaca in the late 1970’s — during a blizzard — Dowland continues to draw us all in. Thank you Ron and Donna, for the Stravinsky link. Small world! love Susan of Elizabethan Conversaation.

  2. Christopher Barker permalink

    I have had my hands on a classical guitar since 1958 and a lute a few years later. It is interesting to hear today’s young guitarists bashing Segovia and young early music enthusiasts bashing Bream. I walk away from such conversations wishing I was young and fit enough to do a bit of teaching with my fist!
    Thanks so much for your comments.

  3. Ned Mast permalink

    Nuage, played by Mr. Bream and Mr. Grapelli, is a real treat. Thanks for reminding us of the great contribution to early music – and music in general – made by Julian Bream.

  4. Dan permalink

    I too was inspired by Julian Bream- although I did find the lute music on my own, as a young promising Classical guitarist- but when I got hold of the old Lumsden anthology and some guitar transcriptions of Dowland, my poor old guitar teacher (Peter C. Colonna, of South Philly- R.I.P., Maestro!) threw up his hands and proclaimed “I’ve lost him!”

    But it was the music that then inspired me to seek out Bream- recordings, concerts, his writings; which then inspired me to search for my first lute, Not Suzanne Block, Stan Buetons, Diana Poulton or any of that crowd way back in those first days- but I did finally meet with them all later.

    And I’m proud to say that I NEVER bashed Julian Bream (or Karl Scheidt, Conrad Ragossnig, or Narciso Yepes either) just because I “moved on”. I was lucky in that when I moved on to the more historically built lutes, I no longer had a classical guitar career to put on hold, so my own path just evolved naturally in that direction as it did for so many of us.

    But Bream is still, and will always be, an honored “ancestor/founder” icon in the lineage of modern lute play.

  5. David Hill permalink

    Bream’s recordings of Dowland are still some of the most dramatic, exciting and moving performances we will ever hear, on any instrument. The Bream-bashing in the UK seemed to come mostly from the next generation, in the 1980s – those who believed specifically that the Rooley/Consort of Musicke interpretations of Dowland et al had now become the last word in authenticity, and who specifically considered these beautiful white-sleeved albums as iconic ‘this is the way we must do this now that we are more enlightened’ performances. Not Rooley or the Consort themselves, note, but mainly a very noisy and outspoken faction amongst young students in their 20s whom I met in the 80s, who had been seduced by those CoM recordings and performances (they never listened to anything else, as they were proud to proclaim), and who considered that performance style at that time must have evolved to be ‘superior’ to the previous decade, mainly because their lutes were now smaller and lighter in construction. This variety of ‘more authentic than thou’ student was really quite hilarious, though painful to observe, and a little worrying, and the idea itself gradually infected record reviewers at the time. I recall Robert Spencer in a masterclass at Rooley’s Early Music Centre in the early 80s (referencing Bream) wisely telling us students that the lutenist should choose appropriately sized lutes for whatever size of venue one was playing in. He finished by saying: ”…and if I were paid to accompany Janet Baker in Dowland songs at the Royal Albert Hall, I would use the piano rather than the lute”, at which two of the ‘more authentic than thou’ singers audibly gasped as if he had uttered some shocking blasphemy in the Vatican. They were so disgusted that they did not return after the break. Bob was right, of course. He usually was.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

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