Playing the music anniversary game

'About twenty years ago ... a like-minded friend introduced me to a profound and wonderful book on Ancient Chinese philosophy called I Ching or the Book of Change. It is based on the teachings of Confucius, and was used in Ancient China as an oracle. The pith of this book is about nature and humankind's place within it. There are many references to our personal ancestors, a preoccupation reflected in an almost ritualized devotion and respect to their evocation.

This is in contradistinction to the present mode of thought in the Western world whereby we hanker after novelty and transient fashion - where maturity of age, and with it the possibility of insight and wisdom, is not only neglected but has been regrettably made redundant. It seems to me that to have the gift of access to an ancient spirit may very well be the most important influence on the artist's soul, though they must never underestimate the predominance of the cultural ambience that encompasses their life.'

John Cage wasn't the only modern musician to embrace the I Ching. The prescient words above were written more than ten years ago by one of our greatest living musicians. On July 15th, 2008 that musician, who is seen to the left of the photo above, is 75. But the chance outcome of the music anniversary game and the media's hankering after novelty and transcient fashion means his birthday will pass almost unnoticed. This is despite being acclaimed for his achievements in early music and having the following works written for him by a veritable who's who of twentieth century composers.

Reginald Smith Brindle El Polifemo de Oro (1956), Lennox Berkeley Sonatina, op. 52, no. 1 (1957), Tristram Cary Sonata (1959), Malcolm Arnold Concerto for Guitar and Chamber Orchestra, op. 67 (1959), Benjamin Britten Nocturnal after John Dowland, op. 70 (1963), Richard Rodney Bennett Five Impromptus (1968), Tom Eastwood Ballade-Phantasy (1968), Peter Racine Fricker Paseo (1969), Reginald Smith Brindle Variants on two themes of J. S. Bach (1970), Richard Rodney Bennett Guitar Concerto (1970), Malcolm Arnold Fantasy, op. 107 (1971), Alan Rawsthorne Elegy (1971), William Walton Five Bagatelles (1972), Humphrey Searle Five (1974), Lennox Berkeley Guitar Concerto, Op. 88 (1974), Hans Werner Henze Royal Winter Music (first sonata, 1976), Giles Swayne Suite (1976), Peter Maxwell Davies Hill Runes (1981), Michael Berkeley Sonata in One Movement (1982), Richard Rodney Bennett Sonata (1983), Michael Tippett The Blue Guitar (1984), Leo Brouwer Concerto elegiaco (Guitar Concerto No. 3) (1986), Toru Takemitsu All in Twilight (1987), Leo Brouwer Sonata (1990).

Julian Bream's early influences included Django Reinhardt and Andrés Segovia and he attributes some of his musical genius to the Sephardic Jewish background of his mother. While studying guitar at the Royal College of Music in London Bream worked as a freelance musician for the BBC playing incidental music for Elizabethan plays. In Tony Palmer's book Life on the Road Bream explains "I felt instinctively that this was a musical period in these islands rich in beauty, inventiveness, and vitality, and it seemed to me I had a possibility to help revitalize some of this music. I had a mission almost: to present this music in a way that was not of the museum, but of now, although still retaining the music's essential spirit". His success championing Elizabethan lute music led to the formation of the Julian Bream Consort, one of the first period instrument ensembles, in 1960.

But Julian Bream is much more than an early music specialist. During his three years National Service in the early 1950s he played electric jazz guitar in the Royal Artillery's dance band and realised, to use his own words "that the future of the guitar ... is every bit as important as its past." The list of modern composers who wrote for Bream is daunting and the photo above shows Sir Malcolm Arnold conducting him in the composer's Guitar Concerto. Bream was part of the legendary circle of musicians that revolved around BBC Controller of Music Sir William Glock in the 1960s and also included Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Igor Stravinsky and Bruno Maderna.

One of Sir William Glock's ground-breaking Thursday Invitations Concerts on the BBC's Third Programme comprised the Melos Ensemble, Peter Pears and Julian Bream in a programme of Dowland Songs, Beethoven's Serenade Op. 25 and Henze's Chamber Music of 1958. Britten composed his Nocturnal, after Dowland, Op. 70 for Bream and also his 1957 Songs from the Chinese, Op. 58 for the duo of Peter Pears and Bream, and my footer photo shows the two musicians at Aldeburgh in 1974.

Julian Bream is a true animateur and his TV work includes an eight part series from 1984 exploring historical perspectives of Spanish guitar music. His duo albums with John Williams reached new audiences for the classical guitar without indulging in novelty and transient fashion and were rewarded with gold and silver discs. My header photo shows Bream and Williams relaxing between sessions for a 1971 duo recording at Bream's Wiltshire farmhouse which was equipped with a recording studio. His farmhouse recently sold for £3 million, which is a lot of lute . Bream is a true maverick whose hobbies include cricket and classic cars. His two marriages have failed to survive his bon viveur lifestyle which included a serious car crash in 1984 that almost ended his career.

There can be few living musicians with such impeccable credentials in both the early and contemporary music fields backed by a stream of best-selling albums and decades of media exposure. So why is Julian Bream's 75th birthday receiving so little attention? Let's start by looking at the BBC. In Sir William Glock's day passion and vision decided what was played on the Third Programme. Today at Radio 3, if you're not booked at the Proms, if you're not a BBC New Generation Artist or you don't have a new release to plug you are in the musical wilderness. As I write a search on the Radio 3 website for 'Julian Bream' returns a first hit dated 26 February 2006. There are no tribute programmes on his birthday and the Radio 3 Artist in Focus on Bream's birthday is pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard who has a lacklustre new disc of the Art of Fugue to flog and is playing in three Proms, including the opening concert on Friday.

But it would be churlish to blame the BBC alone for the neglect of this important anniversary. From 1958 to 1990 Bream recorded a huge and important catalogue of recordings for what was then RCA and is now Sony BMG Masterworks. Of the hundreds of recordings Bream made for RCA just nineteen are curently available, and only three of those are from the definitive 28 CD Julian Bream Edition. Two of the nineteen discs are accounts of Rodrigo's ever popular but out-of-step concerto. The Sony BMG website makes no mention of his 75th birthday and there are no celebratory discs from them. The only release to mark his birthday is an over-priced double CD from Deutsche Grammophon of very early recordings. So are the ailing record companies to blame? Well, not exactly. Two emails to the guitarist's agent requesting information for this article have gone unanswered. Perhaps it's just our current cultural ambience.

But let's forget about playing the music anniversary game. For, as the I Ching tells us there is order in chance events. And I am confident that means Julian Bream's peerless guitar playing will survive long after the novelty and transient fashions that have temporarily displaced it. Today let's celebrate his maturity of age and all the insight, wisdom and glorious music making that it has brought us. Happy birthday maestro!

What is it about table tennis and contemporary musicians?
Header quote is from Julian Bream, the Foundation of a Musical Career by Stuart W Button. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk


Pliable said…
Email received:

To be fair (and you know I don't like being fair when it comes to the big labels), is it possible that Julian Bream holds some copyright on his BMG recordings, which just might prevent BMG from issuing them holus bolus, or are they just ignorant of their back-catalogue (I think I know the answer to that one). At least since DG now has controlling interests over the WESTMINSTER catalogue, we are seeing a number of those titles again, the Bream included, and for good or for bad.
I think guitarists of the past are being ignored all-together: Bream, Yepes, Ragossnig, Behrend, Segovia even.

David Cavlovic
Pliable said…
David, anything is possible with the major labels. But the fact that BMG have issued 28 titles in the Julian Bream Edition, deleted 25 and kept three popular titles available suggests they have the copyright but not the inclination to keep them in the catalogue.

But you are very right about the neglect of guitarists of the past. All part of the current hankering after novelty and transcient fashion.
Pliable said…
One interesting disc that is available is Craig Ogden's 1995 The Blue Guitar on Nimbus which features five contemporary classics written for Julian Bream -Tippet's Sonata for Solo Guitar, The Blue Guitar, Britten's Nocturnal, after Dowland, Richard Rodney Bennett's Five Impromptus, Walton's Five Bagatelles and Lennox Berkeley's Sonatina.
p&e said…
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Best regards, Ande

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