On this snowy winter evening I’ve been listening to Benjamin Britten’s Nocturnal After John Dowland (1963), a twenty-minute piece for solo guitar composed for the English lutenist and guitarist Julian Bream (b. 1933). By turns dreamy and martial, restless and serene, this masterpiece of the modern guitar repertoire can be heard on Bream’s 1967 album 20th Century Guitar, one of forty CD’s in my newly-acquired Julian Bream: The Complete RCA Album Collection (2013). Released in conjunction with Bream’s eightieth birthday, this handsome boxed set is both a treasure trove of music for classical guitar and a tribute to a great musician’s lifetime achievement. And for this listener, the collection also evokes an enduring memory.
Deep in the winter of 1970, Julian Bream gave a concert at Alfred University. I was then a young assistant professor of English and a part-time lecturer in music. To my delight, I was entrusted with picking up Mr. Bream at the Rochester airport on the day before his concert, taking him to dinner, and getting him settled in the university’s guest apartment. Going well beyond the call of duty, I subsequently enticed Julian to join me for a few pints at the university’s (then) on-campus pub, where we stayed on until the closing hour. The topics of our rambling conversation included aspects of the guitar and guitar technique; his student days at London’s Royal Academy of Music, where he studied piano and cello; the jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt, whom he avidly admired; George Harrison, whom he’d met at a party the week before; his recent audience with Queen Elizabeth II, on the occasion of his receiving the OBE (Order of the British Empire) for his “services to music”; and the winter landscape of Western New York, which reminded him of the rolling farmland of Wiltshire, where he owned thirty acres and lived in a Georgian farmhouse. Toward the end of our conversation, he remarked that what he’d learned at the Royal Academy had been of limited use to him later on. Music itself had been his teacher. What mattered most, he felt, was having a passion for whatever one was doing.
Julian Bream’s passion for music, translated into artistic conviction, can be felt throughout his recordings, whether he is playing a Renaissance air, a Bach fugue, or a commissioned work by a contemporary composer. Musical passion is everywhere present in Bream’s rendition of the Nocturnal, which features bold, non-tonal intervals, sharply contrasting textures, and breakneck runs brilliantly executed. “A modern work,” Bream noted in 1974, “may have strange qualities which may be rather new for many listeners. So you really have got to muster up as much conviction in your performance as possible.” Muster it he did, time and again, and the force of that conviction, supported by impeccable phrasing and prodigious technique, distinguishes his performances from those of most of his contemporaries.
All the more poignant, then, was Bream’s decision, in 2011, to relinquish the making of music. In 1984, Bream had crashed his car into a railway bridge, smashing the bones in his right elbow. Fortunately, he soon recovered, relearning the guitar and continuing to perform until his retirement in 2002. Nine years later, however, as he was walking the fields around his home with his black retriever, Django, a neighbor’s dog knocked him down, breaking both his hips and injuring his left hand. After the first accident, Bream recalls, he had “refused to let go.” But after the second, he elected to do just that. “How much are you playing these days? ” the Guardian‘s Stuart Jeffries asked him in 2013. “Not at all,” he replied, adding that there was “nothing sad about not playing anymore.” Instead he was reading, listening to music, and taking walks with Django. Was he renouncing the world, asked Jeffries, “as Buddhists recommend?” “In a controlled way,” Bream replied. He had “cut away” the “excess stuff in [his] life,” moving from his country home to a bungalow in a nearby village. He’d had a “lovely life,” but now it was “time to let go.”
In an oddly parallel fashion, the trajectory of Julian Bream’s career resembles that of the Nocturnal, which consists of eight variations on the theme of John Dowland’s lute song “Come, Heavy Sleep” (1597). Reversing the usual order, Britten presents the variations first and the theme at the end. The variations are harmonically complex, their technical demands severe. “The Nocturnal was very nearly beyond me,” Bream later admitted, recalling the ten days he spent at Robert Graves’s house in Majorca, practicing the piece in a shepherd’s hut on the poet’s property. But in the closing section of the Nocturnal, the composer returns to his source, and the high drama of Britten’s variations is resolved in the simple beauty of Dowland’s song . “Slow and quiet (molto tranquillo),” the score prescribes. And though the song is tinged with melancholy, the mood is one of arrival and repose.
See Stuart Jeffries, “I’m a better musician now than when I was 70,” The Guardian, Friday, September 13, 2013.
To watch Julian Bream’s 1978 masterclass on the Nocturnal, in which he guides two advanced guitarists through the nuances and technical challenges of the piece, go to:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BpNZROHfP_k.