Michael Berkeley’s tribute to Julian Bream

Composer Michael Berkeley remembers Julian Bream

I got to know Julian when he was working with Lennox on various pieces, but especially the Guitar Concerto. He loved Lennox, and his method with living composers was always to tell them to write what they wanted to hear, and let him work out how to realise the music and then present options for discussion. So it was with me when I wrote my Sonata in One Movement for Julian to premiere at the 1982 Edinburgh Festival. I would visit Julian at his home near Shaftesbury and we would work hard on improving my manuscript. Then a good bottle of wine would be opened, the ‘Old Box’, as he called his guitar, would be put to bed in its case, and Julian would regale me with stories of his great hero, Django Reinhardt, who lost fingers in a terrible fire, yet overcame the injuries with a technique Julian found miraculous.

In many ways I have always seen Julian’s gifts as Beethovenian, compared to the Mozartian facility of the other great guitarist of the age, John Williams. It was not unlike the difference between Tippett and Britten. Julian had to shed blood and tears to get what he wanted from the music, but, in so doing, reaped a valuable, profound and unique reward.

He had an elegant calligraphic hand, and I have just found a letter from him, thanking me for an Impromptu I wrote to celebrate a milestone birthday (now happily recorded by Craig Ogden, along with Lennox’s guitar music and my Sonata).

Julian Bream with Lennox and Freda Berkeley at Cherryfield Cottage, Tisbury, August 1976 (courtesy Humphrey Stone)
Julian Bream with Lennox and Freda Berkeley at Cherryfield Cottage, Tisbury, August 1976 (courtesy Humphrey Stone)

Julian maintained, and exploited, a cockney sense of humour and accent, and he was beady-eyed about who was in and who was out at Aldeburgh. Pettiness at the Britten court led to some amusing anecdotes, as well as some savage ones. William Walton played this game too, and during the period when Bream was out of favour at Aldeburgh, he used to make mischief by asking Ben and Peter why Julian was no longer a festival regular. ‘My dear,’ came the disapproving reply, ‘his Dowland – it’s slipping!’ After a couple of years Julian was considered to have hitched up his Dowland, and was reinstated. But William loved to tease Julian about it, and couldn’t resist quipping, ‘How’s the Dowland then, Julian – still slipping?’

When Julian Bream came to record his Private Passions with me for Radio 3, Julian chose Janácek and Fauré, as well as Django, lute and tenor music by Dowland (played by Peter Pears and Julian) and a Spanish folk song by de Falla (with Victoria de los Angeles and Gerald Moore).

He was an original, much liked by the ladies, and an exceptional artist who put his instrument on the map by expanding its repertoire like no other.