Beautiful obituary of the wonderful classical guitarist and lutenist Julian Bream. Some of this story I knew already.
Almost as he started his long love affair with the guitar, Julian Bream was aware he was doing something disreputable. When he was caught as a teenager practising Bach in the Royal College of Music, he was warned not to bring that instrument into the building again. It lowered the tone.
Even the Army shared the snobbery
Signing on to do his National Service in an army band, he was told he could play piano and cello, fine, but the guitar only “occasionally”.
And it is not just rock musicians who sleep in the van before driving back up the M1 (note: an Austin, rather than a Transit)
Audiences clapped long and hard when he performed in the Wigmore Hall at 18, in 1951, but as he toured round Britain in the mid-1950s, sleeping in his Austin van to save on hotels, not many came to hear him.
Those from the home of the guitar were no less enthusiastic about this man from those Isles.
And from Spain, the spiritual and historical home of the guitar, came the loudest scorn of all. An Englishman playing a guitar, said one virtuoso, was a kind of blasphemy.
What I didn’t know was that he was essentially self-taught. This is common in rock, folk, and jazz and blues, but I assume rare in Classical music. Although Segovia was moderately well known, perhaps the lack of popularity of the guitar in the UK made this necessary. Readers of this rag will know that I am fascinated by autodidacts and what skills you can — and cannot —learn to a high level without formal instruction. My prejudice is also-taught: the energy needed to acquire mastery alone is worth so much more than the competence gained on the transactional shoulders of others. Passion and perspective are worth more than 50 IQ points, as they say.
There are limits, however. In this video he talks about his fingers and technique:
‘Unfortunately the Almighty bequeathed me with a very clumsy pair of hands… and very slow’ (link)
He had form on the lute as well, playing with the nails rather than the fingers, and again faced the distain of the ‘experts’.
Below, a video on why Bream thought of himself as a meat and potatoes Englishman.