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August 14, 2020

The End of an Era: Julian Bream, an English classical guitarist and lutenist, passes away at the age of 87.

It is with our deepest sorrow to inform you that Julian Bream, one of the most influential classical guitarists of all time, passed away today at his home in Wiltshire at the age of 87.

Julian Bream was an English classical guitarist and lutenist. He was one of the key figures in renewing popular interest in the lute.

Bream was born in Battersea, London and was brought up in a musical environment in Hampton. Bream described his parents as both “conventional suburban”, but in another way “very unusual”. His father was a commercial artist, with an “extraordinary talent for drawing” and a “natural musician” according to Bream. Bream would lie under the piano in “ecstasy” when his father played. His mother, of Scottish descent, was a very beautiful women who, according to Bream, didn’t like music, but was a warm-hearted person. His grandmother owned a pub in Battersea, and Bream spent much time there during his youth. His father played jazz guitar and the young Bream was impressed by hearing the playing of Django Reinhardt; he would later call his dog “Django”. Bream began his lifelong association with the guitar by strumming along on a small gut-string Spanish guitar at an early age to dance music on the radio. He become frustrated with his lack of knowledge of harmony, so read instruction books by Eddie Lang to teach himself. His father taught him the rudimentary basics. The president of the Philharmonic Society of Guitars, Dr. Boris Perott, gave Bream further lessons, while his father became the society librarian, giving young Bream access to a large collection of rare music.

NPG x131672,Julian Bream,by Roger Perry

On his 11th birthday, Bream was given a 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 cello at the Royal College of Music. In 1947, aged 13, he made his debut guitar recital at Cheltenham.

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.

After three and a half years in the army, he took any musical job that came his way, including playing background music for radio plays and films. Commercial film, recording session 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 and since has done much to bring music written for the instrument to light.

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.

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 other parts of the world. Bream performed for the Peabody Mason Concert series in Boston, first solo in 1959, and later with the US debut of his Consort. In addition to master classes given in North America, Bream conducted an international summer school in Wiltshire, England. Bream has recorded extensively for RCA and EMI Classics. These recordings have 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.

From the beginning of the 1990s Julian Bream continued his recording career with EMI Classics, featuring music by J. S. Bach, a Concerto album (with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Sir Simon Rattle), and discs devoted to contemporary works and guitar sonatas. 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/Sony Classical released My Favorite Albums, a 10-CD set of albums chosen by Julian Bream himself.

A highly successful biographical film, A Life in the Country, was first shown on BBC TV in 1976. Bream also presented a series of four master-classes guitarists on BBC TV. BBC TV has presented a programme about Julian Bream’s life as a concert guitarist. In 1984 he made eight films on location in Spain for Channel 4, exploring historical perspectives of Spanish guitar music.


In 1991, BBC Radio and TV broadcast Bream’s BBC Prom performance of Malcolm Arnold’s Guitar Concerto. He also participated in a recital and concerto performances of works by Tōru Takemitsu at the Japan Festival in London with the London Symphony Orchestra.

During the 1992-93 season he performed on two separate 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 an arrangement by Leo Brouwer 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.

In 1997, in celebration of the 50th anniversary of his debut, he performed a recital at Cheltenham Town Hall. A few weeks later, the BBC dedicated a special television tribute This Is Your Life programme to Julian Bream, filmed after a commemorative concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London.

In recent years, his engagements have included a Gala solo performance at the Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool, a Kosovo Aid concert at St. John’s, Smith Square, London, with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields recitals at the Snape Proms, Aldeburgh, and at the Norfolk and Norwich Festival and a tour of UK National Trust properties in summer and autumn 2000.

In November 2001 he gave an anniversary recital at Wigmore Hall, celebrating 50 years since his debut there in 1951. 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.” It became “Gramophone DVD of the year”. His series Guitarra! was made for British television and charts a journey across Spain.

Bream’s recitals are 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 has stated that he has been influenced by the styles of Andrés Segovia and Francisco Tárrega. Bream’s playing can be characterised as virtuosic and highly expressive, with an eye for details, and with strong use of contrasting timbres.

Commenting on his career, Julian Bream said: “I devoted my life to music for a reason, and the reason wasn’t because I wanted to get on or make money, but to try to fulfill myself and also to give people pleasure. That’s been my credo.” We will all miss him and always remember him.

Comments (19)

How sad. Bream was, in my estimation, the greatest classical guitarist in modern times, fully eclipsing Segovia. His recordings have influenced my life and the lives of many guitarists. His combination of incredible technique and expressive artistry have been approached, but never exceeded, and a huge generation of guitarists have been influenced by his playing. His recordings of the Bach suites, Villa Lobos Preludes, etc. are amazing. The videos “Guitarra” are a seminal work outlining the history of the Spanish guitar.

He will be missed but he will also be celebrated for years to come.

James Tener

What a pity that there is no mention of the work he did after retiring from performing. The Guardian obituary from London didn’t mention it, which is unforgivable. The Julian Bream Trust commissioned new works from Leo Brouwer and Harrison Birtwistle and then he mentored guitarists such as Laura Snowden and Andrey Lebedev to perform extraordinary concerts with new works and also what might be considered the Bream repertoire. These were mainly at Wigmore Hall where Bream himself played some astonishing recitals.

I just heard the news and I was floored. As I got t older he became a huge inspiration to me. I listen to his music everyday. In my opinion he was the greatest classical guitarist and musician of all time. Self taught guitarist, lutenist and other instruments. He also played Jazz and was a fan of Django Reinhardt. Commissioned more pieces I believe than any other guitarist increasing the classical guitar repertoire. RIP to the greatest of all time you will be greatly missed Julian Bream.

This is a tremendous loss to the classical guitar community and music world in general. Maestro Bream’s contributions to the guitar repertoire along with his prolific recording output will keep his inspiration going for many years to come. His bringing the renaissance lute and it’s music out of obscurity itself would have been enough of an accomplishment. If you were lucky to see Bream in the days when he split hjs concerts between lute and guitar it was a wonder to behold. From Britten to Francesco da Milano in the same concert played at the top of his virtuosity, extraordinary!
A line from an interview he did with Guitar Review back in the 60’s has always stuck with me (forgive me if it’s not exact, going by my fading memory) “It’s the spaces between the notes, that’s where angels dwell”

It is with profound sadness to hear of the passing of Julian Bream. His 50+ years on the planks were filled with wonderful music from across the last four centuries, always exploring and pushing the envelope for classical guitar and lute. I remember first seeing him play during the ‘70s at Town Hall in NYC, half the program was renaissance lute followed by “modern” classical guitar. From Britten’s Nocturnal to Barrios’s La Cathedral they was an extraordinary performances. While his approach and technique were eclectic, the sonorous tones from his Romanillos or Hauser guitars were unmatched over the years.

RIP Maestro!

So very sad to hear of the death of the brilliant guitarist and lute player Julian Bream. At the early age of 14 he so influenced me to play classical guitar. I am 73 now and still play most days. I still have a few of his LP’s bought many years ago which I treasure, now days I have the CD’s. He will be so missed by guitarists, a wonderfully expressive player who squeezed every single nuance out the piece he was playing and showing the full capabilities of the classical guitar. RIP Julian.

Sad to hear the news. I had the chance to shake his hand at Jordan Hall in NEC. He was very kind. His book back in the early eighties was one of my favorite reads. Coincidentaly I have been listening to the “Art of Julian Bream” album a lot lately. I downloaded it from iTunes about a month ago. Truly one of my favorite players and biggest influences.

It was Julian Bream’s rendition of Leyenda that inspired me to start classical guitar lessons which a few years later brought me to USC when Christopher Parkening held the Master class. I was a Brooklyn street kid and it was my college enrolled brother who brought home the album (and a Segovia one too) and when I heard that song it blew my mind (so smooth) and made me want to play it. That decision changed the course of my life forever as I have remained in Southern California for 47 years since. Always felt while Parkening was brilliant, it was Bream who had the most expressive performances (especially facially) and he seemed immersed in whatever song he was playing. Got to see him live a few times in Lincoln Center and the Ambassador Auditorium here as well. Will celebrate his playing rather than mourn his passing. This link shows that album cover and has the recording. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TmCDNyTfEco

Sadly I never heard him live but I have listened to many recordings and what strikes me was the nuances he got from the music, perhaps sometimes stretching the score to achieve it but the results speak for themselves. Listening to other artists the music is not as alive! This on top of what he did to promote the lute and classical guitar made him a giant of the industry.

Julian Bream was not only a great guitarist, he was also one of the defining figures in the lute revival. For many years he was the classical guitarist, the most famous since guitar supreme god Andrés Segovia. In any case, few have promoted the classical guitar as successfully as Julian Bream. It was partly thanks to the many tours and recordings of Bream that the instrument in classical music was definitively taken for granted.
R.I.P. Mr. Julian Bream, Thank you for your wonderful guitar and lute music

Had the opportunity to hear Maestro Bream in the early 90’s in Kansas City. God has blessed us all with his incredible gift to be enjoyed for all time. Thank you Sir for your excellence and passion. RIP and may God Bless.

Verdrietig nieuws. Onlangs werd nog ter gelegenheid van 87 verjaardag oude opnames ten gehore gebracht. Bream heeft voor mij persoonlijk zeer veel betekent. Ben door hem gitaar gaan studeren en heb hem enkele malen mogen ontmoeten. Ook heb ik door hem een Romanillos gitaar aangeschaft. Ik koester de mooie herinneringen aan de vele concerten die ik mocht bijwonen. Veel dank voor wat hij voor de gitaar, gitaarmuziek en vele gitaristen heeft betekent.

Today I feel the absence of one of the corner stones of greatness. Julian was a musician of magic and humor. His range of color was a mile wide and he always played as if he was in possession of an inside joke with the composer. A few years ago I attended a Bream recital and experienced one of those magical moments. Julian approached a passage of music( I don’t remember the piece) with a profound sense of wit and irony accompanied with a facial expression that seemed to say “Am I really playing this?” Of course he was, brilliant and passionate. I will miss and remember.

Back in the spring of this year, I finished re-reading for the third time, my signed copy of the very entertaining, and illuminating book Julian Bream wrote, called A Life On the Road, co-written with Tony Palmer, and a book that I would highly recommend. As I finished it, I wondered how much longer he would be on this earth…and now I know. Between 1972 and 1984 I was privileged to see him in live recitals five times and got to speak with him after two of those. The last time, at a recital in Dallas, I asked to see his footstool, and he had the most surprised and amused look. As a guitarist and woodworker, I was intrigued with the clever wooden locking mechanism of his footstool, possibly made for him by Jose Romanillios, and later I made one for myself out of bubinga wood. Every time I pull that footstool out to use, I think of Julian Bream and his quizzical look when I asked to see that. We will not see his likes again…an incredibly expressive and dynamic performer who made the music come alive more than any other player, in my estimation! RIP Julian Bream.

twanged notes*
(in memory of Julian Bream)
by Ruth Esther Gilmore

the sparkle of twanged notes
the cracks of my marble shoes
the throb of a dragon or gaudi’s moulded spires
the reflection of a movement
fingered in the bull’s eye

where every rhymed toe obscures
spheres of charcoaled song
with the ever-beckoning sea of pearly lips
liberated courage waves above
vibrant crowned hair

a pocket-picker miming me
shorn of money
tender balmy nights running down my spine
regrets laced with hunger
visible in my music

delete the silence of octaves
climbing higher
seeping through my smouldering flamenco soles
my fingers keep on plucking
my fiery guitar

*from the book “braving life in these uncertain times” (Geest-Verlag) by Ruth Esther Gilmore

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