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Remembering Julian Bream and his Wiltshire connection

Julian Bream

15 July 1933 – 14 August 2020

Julian Bream, who lived in Wiltshire until his death last year at the age of 87, was part of a tradition that recognised both the past and the future of the guitar. He commissioned and played first performances by composers such as William Walton, Michael Tippett and Toru Takemitsu. He recorded pieces on guitar as well as classical lute and revived an interest in this instrument; he also revived an interest in many pieces of music dating from the Tudor era which have since become more regularly played in concerts and schools.

Benjamin Britten created his celebrated “Nocturnal” (1963) with Bream in mind, a set of variations on “Come, Heavy Sleep”, a theme by the Elizabethan composer John Dowland, and this fits perfectly with Julian’s style.

Bream was mainly self-taught in the guitar and said of the instrument “it cuts across the whole gamut, from classical to pop and folk”. Through his life he made over 35 recordings and many were reissued in 2013 to celebrate his 80th birthday. Winning four Grammy awards he was a frequent finalist. His father had given him an old guitar for his 11th birthday which inspired him and along with the family records, which included Django Reinhardt and Segovia, Bream was inspired to play.

From 1947 he studied piano and cello at the Royal College of Music and learnt about harmonising, composition and counterpoint. After leaving the college he played the electric guitar in a large dance band and learnt the skill of improvisation. But his love veered towards compositions by Renaissance composers and the lute music of Elizabethan composers especially. His playing style, plucking the strings with his fingernails suited the sound the lute could produce.  He saw the lute as more ‘natural’ to northern Europeans and the lute influenced his skill with the guitar. He loved Elizabethan music and wanted others to enjoy it too.

In 1951 he made his debut at the Wigmore Hall and on one occasion he met the Australian guitarist John Williams, who became a friend and frequent collaborator. In the mid-1960s Bream moved from London and relocated to Broad Oak House near Semley. He was busier than ever and regularly toured at home and abroad. He made all the arrangements himself and it was not unusual for him to load his van with all the touring paraphernalia and drive from Wiltshire to Southern Italy on his own, stopping to play recitals en route.

He toured for several months a year from the 1960s until the 1990s after which he became semi-retired and his public appearances then became quite rare. There was at least one more recital at the Wigmore Hall to celebrate his 70th birthday and this was followed by his full retirement. He set up a foundation to help young musicians, but by his own admission described himself as a “very bad teacher” and he continued to commission new work and play for his own pleasure until 2011. He enjoyed the Wiltshire countryside and landscape, dogs and cricket and his home features in the DVD ‘My Life in Music’. He was awarded an OBE in 1964 and a CBE in 1985 and in 2013 he received the Gramophone magazine Lifetime Achievement Award.

Apart from residing in Wiltshire another association he had with the county were his concerts at Wardour Castle, playing at the Chapel of All Saints there. Some of these concerts were recorded and televised and are available online to enjoy.

Material published for Local Studies at WSHC

It is this connection that made us consider his work, looking at the influence of the county as a creative haven, a place of peace and tranquillity where he was happy and content. Creative Wiltshire, part of the NHLF Collecting Cultures project allowed us to acquire examples of his work.

Bream’s knack of connecting with people is underlined by the inspiration he provided for one of our ARTeologists, Maris Cole. She felt compelled to examine his work and listen to his music, which in turn provoked mark making as a response to the music he loved so much. This idea of translating an emotion, a feeling, and recording it on paper is a tribute to the great man. Maris says: –

“When I listened to Julian playing pieces of music from different composers, cultures and times I decided I would try responding intuitively by making marks on paper as I listened. I found that I needed to listen closely and often so that I could pick out and use nuances, rhythms, emphases and patterns in my mark making. I experimented with monochrome marks and then colour as suggested to me by the music. I became particularly fond of guitar pieces by the Spanish composer Granados and the Brazilian Villa-Lobos. I envisage these experiments leading me to new work in other mediums. “

Maris Cole in response to Julian Bream’s music

Maris admits that she only knew of Julian as a classical guitarist and is not knowledgeable about music, but we were thrilled that she felt inspired to react in such a unique way. This is just what we hoped items from our growing Creative Wiltshire collection would ignite, a genuine and deep creative response. Maris exhibited her pieces of work at Lacock, Trowbridge and Chippenham during the Creative Wiltshire project and we hope that they in turn inspired others.

 So ‘thank you’ to Maris for your creativity and ‘thank you’ to Julian for your very deep-rooted love of music and for inspiring us all. A wonderful legacy to leave us.

Andrew Collins and Joy Bloomfield


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