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Julian Bream

John Mills remembers his friend and colleague, Julian Bream, who died in
August 2020

When Julian Bream passed away in August, the guitar world lost one of the most celebrated and historic figures in its history. His contribution, not only to the guitar but of course also to the lute is immense and monumental. When we consider all those wonderful recordings, films, DVDs, guitar editions, commissioned works, master-classes, and in recent times the founding of the Julian Bream Trust, which supports composers and young gifted soloists, this is an extraordinary body of work, enough for three lifetimes, indeed many of those who knew him felt it was he was in fact living three lifetimes in one!


In this article, I would like to touch on, through some anecdotes, how it was to spend time with Julian occasionally away from the guitar world.

Aside from listening in awe at a number of recitals at the Wigmore Hall in the 1960s, I first came as it were face to face with Julian in 1970 when I played for him in a master-class at the University of Warwick. The focus, passion and ‘drive’ with which he approached music was something which must have rubbed off on the two hundred or so in that large lecture theatre that day, and I have been privileged to observe this intensity countless times since.

During my twenty years or so at the Royal Academy of Music, Julian gave a number of memorable master-classes, on works by for example Britten, Walton, Sor, Villa-Lobos, Mompou, Berkeley, Moreno Torroba, and of course Bach. However, what I also remember a number of times was returning by train with Julian to Salisbury where we went our separate ways.  During these trips, he spoke a great deal about composers with whom he had worked, also about various guitar makers, and many other topics. At six o’clock one autumn evening following a master-class, finding ourselves amidst the chaos of a Waterloo rush hour, Julian asked if I had anything for the journey? As I only had orange juice and a sandwich, he pushed the guitar case containing the precious Hauser into my chest, and announced he was going off to find provisions. As I also had my guitar, plus music case, it became near impossible to keep everything together with the sea of urgent humanity rushing past desperate to make an escape. Luckily a few minutes later Julian appeared clutching a pack of six cans of cider, and a huge bag of crisps, declaring ‘don’t bother with sandwiches, this lot will do you good!’’

Mention of food reminds me of an incident involving a good friend way back around 1950 or so. He bore a striking resemblance to Francisco Tarrega, and was an extremely polite and refined professional artist, taking weekly lessons from Julian, conducted with teacher and student perched on an ancient, creaky bed. In one such session on a dreary, damp autumn evening, in the middle of the lesson Julian suddenly asked if my friend was hungry? Not at all fazed by this extraordinary question, he replied ‘well slightly I suppose.’ Julian then reached under the bed and extracted an already open tin of peaches, and the next five minutes were spent devouring these....a strange interlude.

This same artist many years later had completed a set of small oil paintings of Julian, and these were to feature in a special event at a small gallery in Hampshire to which we were both invited. Having collected Julian late morning, we set off, but I quickly discovered he had other views on the route being taken as several times I was instructed to make suddenly announced turns as Julian wanted to show various architectural examples on the way, all very nice, but resulted in delays. Eventually we came to a pub to have a ploughman’s lunch, but this was no ordinary pub, as it had classical music playing through the speakers. Two elderly well spoken gentlemen were singing the praises of the music......’Jolly nice to hear a bit of Beethoven don’t you think?’ Julian hearing this became immediately incensed and going up to them announced ‘Can’t you tell the difference, that’s not Beethoven, it’s Brahms!’ I had to quickly break up this happy exchange! Later, at the rather exclusive gallery, with some thirty or so guests, and much chit-chat, champagne and cheese on sticks, Julian signalled across the room that he had had enough. I mentioned that quite close was a preserved heritage railway, complete with steam trains, something close to both our hearts, and so shortly afterwards we were enjoying afternoon tea on the platform. When later a magnificent, large steam engine came into the station, pulling several carriages bursting with passengers, Julian went up to speak to the driver. ‘Look at that guy,’ he said, ‘during the week he is probably doing some awful office job, but today he is a king!’


Julian very kindly donated a number of fabulous and precious items to The Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama, including a Gary Southwell guitar, many beautiful 19th & 20th century oil paintings, as well as his collection of lute manuscripts, many of which I had never heard of before! There was a special opening ceremony for the paintings, and Julian I think was quite overcome, saying they looked splendid in the Weston Gallery, the main recital venue in the Sir Anthony Hopkins Centre.  He gave one of his last recitals in that same venue, a truly memorable evening, and a very moving occasion. For most of his visits to Cardiff I was able to drive him, and on this occasion we were running very early for some reason. ‘Why the rush John?’ he asked, ‘are you trying to make me nervous?’  


Another such visit was when Julian made a social visit, part of which was to answer questions from the guitar students. Of course it was a highly enlightening and inspirational hour, which unexpectedly he concluded with a question himself. The final question was along the lines of how can we find a way to better understand the music of Bach? Julian thought for a minute and then said ‘now tell me, do you believe in God?’ That was the end of the session. However, we nearly didn’t make it to the college, as when going down the M4 at 70 mph, I was suddenly aware of a tremendous gale in the car and terrific noise. Glancing across, I saw that Julian had half opened the passenger door, whereby I enquired if he was getting out?  ‘Oh, it’s the door handle, I thought it was to open the window!’ Now, I know I only drive very old cars, but they do have electric windows. Thank goodness for seatbelts though!


There were other car journeys to the Wigmore Hall or St. John’s Smith Square, for the recitals in his Julian Bream Trust series.  These were held during November, and the first time in gathering gloom we were heading in along the Westway a couple of miles out from Paddington. Julian had not been along that road for quite some time, and he was quite shocked. ‘You know, seeing all this it makes you think, God really gave up here!’ Another year, another route, the M3. Coming down a slight slope, Julian was appalled by the ‘river’ of hundreds of headlights coming the opposite way, three or four lanes of them. In fact the traffic was so bad we gave up and left the car at Woking, as the train would be much safer. Unfortunately this one was packed with teenage school children, and to my dismay found Julian sitting amongst these, all busy on their phones, with game-show sounds and effects blaring around him. At Waterloo we had to urgently find a taxi, and only arrived at the venue ten minutes before the recital. This sort of thing can be very wearing, but he took it well.

The return trip was not always easy, a late departure, 11.30 or so, then road-closures meaning detours and getting lost a couple of times. Once, we discovered we had nothing to drink in the car, not even water. Service stations came and went, but by this time, the shops were closed. The next year, I made sure we had plenty on board, from water through to two bottles of wine. We were coming back via the M4, again due to road works, and at about 2.00 a.m., pulled into Reading Services. Cobie my wife, and my son Richard headed in to get coffees, while I procured from the back of the car the wine, a white and a red. So there was this surreal situation of sitting in the back of the car with Julian, going through the wine, plastic cups, and the top of a shoe box as a tray!  To her disgust, when she came back Cobie realised we had finished both bottles, and she would have to drive!  We got back at 4.30 a.m., safely.

Visiting ‘Broad Oak’ Julian’s large country house, where he lived for just over forty years, was always interesting – lovely meals, and long discussions on a range of topics from music, through antiques, guitars, paintings, fine wine and of course cricket. Inevitably, if the weather was fine, out would come the cricket net and stumps on the large back lawn, and Julian then would set about bowling his devious leg-breaks. Trying to keep these out not having held a cricket bat for thirty years was not easy!

Several times I went with Julian to cricket matches, including the shorter form of the game with all its razzmatazz, music, fireworks, dancing, things which he abhorred.  In fact I think he believed the world was going mad! So it was reassuring to eventually take him to an ordinary county game at Taunton about four years ago, where there was none of this; just calmness, good cricket, a ripple of applause now and again, and with the occasional announcement over the public address. Julian said he would provide a packed lunch, so a large plastic carrier appeared at 1.00 o’clock with all sorts of what he termed ‘goodies.’ Amongst these were cans of beer, (alcohol-free for me as the driver,) plus a huge pork pie about eight inches in diameter. Slightly worried, I ventured the comment that pork pies were not exactly good for me; straight away back came the answer ‘not this’s organic!’ And it was superb!



His descriptions of meetings with people like Villa-Lobos, Segovia, Stravinsky were illuminating. Of course the Stravinsky incident is on film and well-known, but when he played for Villa-Lobos, Julian was shocked to find the composer’s reactions were not the best. Indeed he did not agree with the interpretations of his music, saying they were more European than he wanted. Shocked, Julian told him the recording of the ‘Five Preludes’ was already out, to which Villa-Lobos said he couldn’t help that. However, the story has a happy ending, because Villa-Lobos later bought a box of 25 of the LPs to give as Christmas presents. With Segovia, Julian said he had been able to try the great Hauser guitar used by the maestro, saying it was simply the most incredible ‘machine’ he had ever played! It simply did everything, though he was surprised by the somewhat high action. He was however not that impressed by Segovia’s teaching, saying it was too much based on demonstration. Indeed when attending the Segovia master-classes in Sienna in the 1950s Julian apparently left on the second day. He did though always express the highest regard for Segovia in terms of what he did for promoting the instrument and gaining acceptance and recognition for it in the concert hall, plus his highly distinctive style of playing.

Mention of Hauser brings us to Julian’s changing tastes in instruments over the years. Always very concerned over clarity of tone and balance, the superb David Rubio guitar he used in the 1960s fulfilled those requirements, but something lingered with him from playing Segovia’s Hauser, and when Rubio, who had been installed in the building adjacent to ‘Broad Oak’ left to open his own workshop at Duns Tew, Oxfordshire, Julian brought in the Spaniard Jose Romanillos, with the aim of building a lighter more bass-oriented instrument, using Torres and Hauser as the inspirational makers from earlier times. Thus came the lovely 1973 Romanillos guitar which Julian used for many years, before acquiring, on loan from Rose and Albert Augustine of the celebrated string company in America, a beautiful Hauser guitar, which he used in the closing decades of his performing career. On this same theme, when the Julian Bream Trust was instigated, Julian ordered a number of instruments from well-known British luthiers using the Hauser pattern, many of which have now been donated to educational establishments and players, and this generosity, plus the recital series and commissioning of new compositions, means that Julian’s incredibly valuable legacy will continue into the future.

We have therefore lost a truly great artist and musician, and we will sadly no longer see that characteristic confidence and swagger as he emerged on stage. For me, I am eternally grateful for Julian’s support and friendship over the years, and he will remain a continuing inspiration. I will conclude the article with this observation........on a radio interview following Julian’s passing, John Williams said that we have reached the end of an era. The modern guitar age is believed by many to have started with Manuel de Falla’s haunting ‘Homenaje – le Tombeau de Claude Debussy’ composed in the late summer of 1920. Exactly a century later in the late summer of 2020 saw the death of Julian Bream; the end of an era indeed.


                                               John Mills

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