Born July 15, 1933, in Battersea, England; son of Henry G. Bream (a commercial artist); married Margaret Williamson (divorced); married second wife (divorced). Education: Attended Royal College of Music, London. Addresses: Office-- c/o Harold Holt, Ltd., 31 Sinclair Rd., London W14 0NS, England.

"It would be untrue to attribute the explosion of contemporary interest in the classical guitar solely to Julian Bream," Tony Palmer clarified in A Life on the Road, which he coauthored with Bream, "but there can be little doubt that his example as a performer, his choice of repertoire, his willingness to spend much of his life on the road proselytizing, has had a profound influence on the development and future of the guitar." Indeed it is Bream's playing of Elizabethan and Baroque lute pieces and his commissioning of guitar works from twentieth-century composers--a repertoire literally spanning centuries--that has showcased the versatility and vitality of the guitar and its family of instruments. This expansive approach, however, has piqued purists of the authentic music movement who disapprove of Bream's modern stylings on the lute; he quickly dismisses them. For Bream, playing music is not a show of technique but a passionate attempt to reveal to an audience a piece's spiritual and mystical qualities. "Ideally the performer has a special function," he theorized in A Life on the Road, "which is to bring the listener to the edge of that experience and to open the doors of this perception in such a way that those who wish to enter can."

Bream was born in Battersea, England, on July 15, 1933. Bream's first exposure to musical performance came from his father, Henry Bream, a commercial artist and amateur guitarist who taught his young son the basics of the instrument. But inspiration for Bream's future course came from recordings by the great Spanish classical guitarist Andres Segovia. Segovia was considered an aberration, as solo guitar was not commonly a choice for classical performance at the time, but Bream was determined to follow a similar musical life. Though his father urged jazz studies, Bream chose to enroll in the Royal College of Music in London with an emphasis on piano, composition, and cello, while doggedly focusing on the classical guitar. Unable to reconcile the conservative faculty to his pursuit, Bream left the college in 1952. He was subsequently drafted by the British Army where he played electric jazz guitar in the Royal Artillery's dance band for three years.

Bream earned money in college by playing incidental music for dramas--usually sixteenth- and seventeenth-century historical plays--broadcast by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). He had always been interested in the Elizabethan period of English history; in researching music for the plays, he was further drawn to the era's music and its popular instrument, the lute. "I felt instinctively that this was a musical period in these islands rich in beauty, inventiveness, and vitality," he recounted in his book. "And it seemed to me I had a possibility to help revitalize some of this music. I had a mission almost: to present this music in a way that was not of the museum, but of now, although still retaining the music's essential spirit."

In the early 1950s very few lute players or instructors existed. In lieu of training, Bream improvised by adapting his guitar technique to the lute. Traditionally the lute was played or plucked with the fingertips near the bridge, yielding the soft, intimate tone characteristic of a courtly instrument. Bream, however, played with his fingernails, plucking the strings between the fingerboard and the bridge, producing considerable differences in tone and dynamics--important aspects of any solo concert instrument.

Bream's first efforts in the mid-1950s captured both the public's ear and imagination. But his growing recognition, along with that of the lute, also brought out traditional lute devotees who were exceedingly critical of his guitar-based style. Bream was unmoved, confirming that his approach to music has always been to champion expression over technique. "It's the sincerity and the heart behind the friggery that is for me the vital clue," he has written. "I like to play the lute full-bloodedly, with passion, as well as with delicacy and, I hope, refinement." Almost 30 years later, William Ellis agreed. Reviewing a reissue of Bream's early works, Ellis opined in American Record Guide that the recordings still had "much to teach younger players of the instrument. Inherent in his occasional vibrato and wide dynamics (for a lute, that is) is an abundant musicality that more historically (or should I say 'politically') correct players would do well to study."

In 1960 Bream formed the Julian Bream Consort, an instrumental group based on Elizabethan models, largely because he wanted to experience the repertoire available to this setting of instruments. But he was not content to explore only the lute and its ancient music. "One thing you learn very rapidly in this business is that you are part of a continuing tradition," Bream noted, adding "that the future of the guitar, for instance, is every bit as important as its past." This insight prompted Bream to commission guitar pieces from such eminent modern classical composers as Benjamin Britten, Malcolm Arnold, and William Walton. All the works have greatly impacted the classical guitar community and one, Britten's Nocturnal, has since become a standard piece in the repertoire for modern guitar.

"I'm all for change and variety," Bream told Allan Kozinn in Guitar Review. "Your experience of life is to a large part distilled into your performing. As you grow older, you concentrate on aspects of music that you perhaps only touched on earlier." This vital propensity for change was no more evident than in the late 1970s and 1980s when Bream set his lute aside to once more concentrate on the guitar. He again commissioned new works, sought out standard pieces in the Spanish guitar literature he had overlooked, and filmed a video series, Guitarra!, which explored the development of the Spanish guitar and the repertoire.

Bream returned to the lute in the early 1990s, playing a slightly different, more historically correct form. But his approach to music hasn't changed; he still "believes that interpretive values are more important than authentic timbres," acknowledged Kozinn. Perhaps more than anything, it is Bream's lack of zealous devotion to the technical aspects of the guitar repertoire that truly allows him to express its intangible qualities. "There is no piece of guitar music that has the formal beauty of a piano sonata by Mozart, or the richly worked out ideas and passion of a late Beethoven string quartet, or for that matter the beautiful mellifluous poetry of a Chopin Ballade," he opined. "[But] I know that I can invest unsophisticated, naive, even corny guitar music with a poetry which can entice the ear, and with it create an experience that is perfectly valid for present-day musical circumstances. I only need a handful of notes, nothing special, and I'm away."

by Rob Nagel

Julian Bream's Career

Made professional debut, 1947; recorded incidental music for BBC radio plays, late 1940s-early 1950s; served in British Army, playing in dance band, 1952-55; began recording and touring career, 1955; made U.S. debut, 1958; formed Julian Bream Consort, 1960. Subject of television biography A Life in the Country, 1976. Author, with Tony Palmer, of A Life on the Road, Macdonald, 1982.

Julian Bream's Awards

Named commander of the Order of the British Empire; received Villa-Lobos Gold Medal, 1976; six Grammy awards; two Edison awards.

Famous Works

Further Reading


Visitor Comments Add a comment…

over 12 years ago

Please let me know Mr Julian bream`s e-mail address.

about 13 years ago

I'm amazed he wasn't made 'Sir Julian' years ago.

almost 15 years ago

he was my late mothers brother.....not much more i can tell anyone though any information would be appriciated

about 16 years ago

So, Julian is your cousin?

over 16 years ago

Julian's father was in fact Harry Bream, not "Henry" as you suggest (he was my Nan's brother)so I know I am right! So please correct your article accordingly. Thank you. Lisa Harris