Julian Bream was one of the 20th century's premier guitarists. He popularized the instrument over much of the world, fundamentally shaped its repertory, and was also a key figure in the revival of lute music.
Bream was born in London's Battersea neighborhood on July 15, 1933, and grew up in the suburban Hampton area. Bream's father was a commercial artist and an enthusiastic jazz guitarist who gave his son his first lessons on the instrument, but Bream was largely self-taught at first, imitating Django Reinhardt records he heard at a pub owned by his grandmother and giving himself lessons from a manual by jazz guitarist Eddie Lang. Later, he had lessons from Boris Perrott of the Philharmonic Society of Guitarists. Bream was giving classical guitar recitals by age 14. He matriculated at the Royal College of Music at 16, ostensibly studying piano and composition, but he landed prestigious dates for guitar recitals. Bream made his debut at Wigmore Hall in 1951. He spent two years in the British army, joining the Royal Artillery Band and keeping a hand in music by moonlighting in London clubs. After his two-year term of service, Bream turned to the guitar full-time, touring Europe and then East Asia, India, Australia, and in 1958 and 1959, the U.S. He was often heard on film and radio drama soundtracks. Bream had taken up the lute while at the Royal College of Music, and he sometimes played that instrument in recitals. In 1960, he formed the Julian Bream Consort, one of Britain's first historical performance ensembles, with himself as lutenist; he took that group on tour to the U.S. as well.
From that point on, Bream was one of the world's top performers on both the guitar and the lute, appearing routinely in the world's top recital halls. His highly expressive style, influenced, he said, by Andrés Segovia and Francisco Tárrega, was popular among all kinds of audiences, and televised master classes and historical programs on the BBC boosted his appeal. He bounced back from a serious arm injury in a 1984 auto accident and appeared in 1991 at the BBC Proms, performing Malcolm Arnold's Guitar Concerto, with the performance was broadcast on BBC radio and television. Arnold was just one of a long list of contemporary composers to write new music for Bream; until he began commissioning new works, the guitar had played only a minor role in contemporary music. Other composers championed by Bream included Hans Werner Henze, Benjamin Britten (whose Nocturnal, written for Bream, has become a classical guitar standard), and Toru Takemitsu.
Bream made some 90 recordings, beginning in 1957 on the Deutsche Grammophon label with the album Julian Bream Plays Spanish Guitar Music. For many years, he was a fixture of the RCA Red Seal catalog. He made three duo albums with superstar guitarist John Williams and also recorded on the lute. Bream's long list of honors included six Grammy Awards, and he was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1985. He gave a 50th-anniversary recital at Wigmore Hall in 2001 and retired the following year; when he turned 80, he quipped that he was a better player than he had been at 70 but couldn't prove it. Bream was married twice, to Margaret Williamson and Isabel Sanchez, and had one adopted son; both marriages ended in divorce. Julian Bream died at his home in Wiltshire, England, on August 14, 2020.
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