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Saturday morning quotes 7.51: Julian Bream (1933 – 2020)

August 15, 2020


We see daily many lamentable indications that ours is a civilization in decline, with scant evidence of a basic standard of human decency in public and at large.  Standards of communication have disintegrated to the point that trivial tweets by twats are now the norm, and artistic standards are now measured by number of hits (frequently obtained through deceptive means) rather than quality of content.  If we care about standards at all, we must look to the past for benchmarks.  We must rediscover a time when there was a basic standard of decorum, when people (especially public figures) could speak in complete sentences (and were expected to speak the truth), and a time when artistic standards were measured by something more concrete and demonstrative than “likes” on social media.

The world lost a person who represented artistic integrity and a high artistic standard in music for plucked strings when the legendary Julian Bream passed away Friday August 14, 2020.  Mainly a concert guitarist with a background in jazz, Bream was an evangelist for the lute and its music, and he used the concert stage as a means of spreading the word to an audience who expected a high artistic standard and in return were treated to the rare sounds of ancient music performed with eloquence and virtuosity.

Like many other lutenists, my first experience with the sound of the lute was a recording by Julian Bream from the album depicted above, heard in the 1970s at the home of enlightened friends who were a few generations older.  My initial impression was that the music had dimension and vitality, and I began to probe into then scarce writings about the instrument and its music.  Having already written an homage to the man and his approach, we can do no better to pay our respects than re-post the text below, featuring excerpts from Bream’s 1960 interview with Ivor Mairants (1908 – 1998).

Julian Bream, posted 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.

We urge you to visit the original post and read the insightful comments from friends and colleagues, found at the bottom of the page.  We honor the memory of Julian Bream, a pioneering performer of the music we love.  Requiescat in pace.

  1. Alan Hoyle permalink

    Thank you for this touching and informative tribute. As you say, so many of us owe our passion for the lute to Julian Bream – in my case, it was an impulse purchase of his LP ‘The Woods So Wild’, in July 1976 I was lucky enough to see Julian Bream perform live – just once, with his revived Consort in the mid-80s; the concert took place in a converted Non-Conformist chapel in Bolton, Lancashire, England. Among the musicians were James Tyler on cittern and Robert Spenser on bandora (switching to lute occasionally to play duets with Julian Bream.) Robert Tear was the tenor voice. All these fine musicians are now lost to us – though, of course, they leave a treasure-chest of fine recordings. For some the datedness of these recordings will be a problem: they are not HIP – how could they be? I am very happy that I am not put off by this – though, I have to say that I do prefer, say, Jacob Heringman playing Francesco da Milano to JB – but I believe that Julian Bream would have shared that view. We owe him so much.

  2. Chlovena Byrd permalink

    Sometimes I despair, especially when I read “trivial tweets by twats”!! But then I read your scholarly and thoughtful words, and regain hope!! Thank you for continuing to be a light in the encroaching darkness of 2020. Your old friend, Chlovena

  3. Thank you for this tribute to Julian Bream — and for the links.

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