Not neonatology: Julian Bream 1933-2020 RIP

Most of my readers probably don’t know that for a few years I have been struggling to learn Classical Guitar.

One of my inspirations is Julian Bream, who was fundamental in the UK in the recognition of the guitar as a genuine Classical Music Instrument. After I watched one of his performances on youtube 2 days ago I wondered if he was still alive, and discovered that he had died less than 24 hours previously. There is an obituary in the Guardian which describes his contributions to music.

Bream was a genius in his interpretations of early guitar music, and in particular his renditions of lute music that had been re-transcribed for the guitar. He then learned lute, and for a long period was recognized as the best lute player in the world.

I think he was at his best with the modern Spanish composers and also, in particular, with the Brazilian Heitor Villa-Lobos. Here he is with the Villa-Lobos preludes, out of order, of course, the prelude no1, the best known and my favourite, starts at about 2:48. The second starts at 6:35 minutes, and I think he plays it too fast, but that is probably jealousy!

Villa-Lobos was himself a guitar player and wrote some of what I consider to be the best modern guitar pieces. Only one of which I can almost play all the way through!

A part of Bream’s legacy is the many pieces for classical guitar that he commissioned from many leading composers, including William Walton, Michael Tippett, Malcolm Arnold, and Benjamin Britten. The Bagatelles for guitar by Walton are among the masterpieces of 20th-century guitar music; according to the story, Walton didn’t really understand the guitar and asked Bream to send him a chart to explain what the guitarist could do, and what stretches were impossible. The piece by Benjamin Britten even Bream acknowledged as being fiendishly difficult to play, almost too difficult even for him!

There is a great documentary about his life on Youtube which among other great moments shows him playing the lute for a Dowland song with the tenor Peter Pears (Benjamin Britten’s long time lover), improvising jazz guitar with a group in his apartment in London, playing and improvising in a group in India with Sitar and Tabla, playing the Britten Nocturne written for him, and playing with his friend and the other 20th century English Classical Guitar genius John Williams.

A boy from a poor “broken home” in London who affected the lives of millions.

Exactly the kind of thing that the bunch of seriously incompetent fools who are currently in power in the UK want to prevent. The most recent catastrophe of re-grading school leavers exam results (under cover of COVID) to give extra credit to the most privileged, and downgrade those who have struggled all their lives to overcome their disadvantages, will hopefully make voters in the UK sit up and take notice. The profoundly perverse tabloids in the UK, however, will, I am sure, try to pretend that this is all a communist plot!

Goodbye Julian Bream, bon voyage.

About Keith Barrington

I am a neonatologist and clinical researcher at Sainte Justine University Health Center in Montréal
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1 Response to Not neonatology: Julian Bream 1933-2020 RIP

  1. Brian Darlow says:

    Thank you Keith. I agree with all of this. I noted Bream’s death – being a Guardian reader – and realised I did not know he was (until then) still alive. Maybe there are some out there not familiar with his masterly playing who will now seek him out. Brian Darlow

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