What is it about Bream?

I was recently talking with Bret Williams on his podcast The Classical Guitar Insider. After leaving a very entertaining session, I immediately regretted two things. Firstly I swore to much. I don’t really know why, but perhaps it will leave me out of favor with the feint of heart. Secondly, I answered a pretty great question, poorly.

220px-Julian_Bream_1964Bret asked me “What is it about Bream, Williams and Segovia, that makes people so passionate about them?” (or something to that effect) In my caffeine induced fervor I replied that I see an identifiable struggle amongst the three of them, which inherently made them human and therefore appealing. Segovia struggled as a flag bearer for our beloved magic box, Williams struggled against a pre-ordained role that he was reluctant to take on, and I believe Bream struggled with the instrument, as many of us do, technically. Now, I am not saying that Bream was anything but an  incredible musician and guitarist, but I do believe that he did not possess the seemingly effortless technique that some players seem to have today, and I love that about his playing, he always seemed to be right on the edge of his abilities.

So, as I said, that was the answer that I regretted.

Having thought about that question some more, I think there is something much bigger at play, and that is standardization and homogenization.

In the very successful mission to improve all aspects of the classical guitar, we as a community have enjoyed better playing, better compositions, and better teaching than ever before. Ergonomics, technique, musicianship, sight-reading, and many other facets are undeniably improving and at a very rapid rate. But, as with all gains, there is some loss, and I believe we have lost a great deal of individuality in guitar playing. And, it is that distinct individual style that made the playing of Bream, Williams, and Segovia so enchanting.

With fewer other guitarists around to deem what was right or wrong, fewer competitions to rank players without errors, and fewer university programs to teach a standardized curriculum did the earlier generations benefit from a greener pasture of creative freedom that resulted in more individual playing? And, if so, was the trade worth it?

What do you think?

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6 Responses

  1. Have you had the opportunity to see this programme?:


    Some of the early footage is astonishing for it's virtuosity, particularly the Arnold concerto in the 60s. It was a revelation for me.

  2. Marc Morin says:

    Good attitude boys. That's the way, staying aside of the (numerous) ones bashing everyone and the greatests on the faceless web. Humble and clever. Respect.
    On my side, Bream has always been a model to me, an inspiration. I have lots of good reasons for calling him a great musician and a pioneer. But he doesn't need that from me, or from anyone else.
    Take care guys 😉

  3. I truly think that above and beyond style there is the heart of the musician who is being considered. The individualism in the rendition typical of that guitarist being so considered becomes more of a question of a combination of several factors that cannot be simplified with ease unto the creative freedom to blossom into great, great talent the size of these three cited guitarists: Bream, Segovia and Williams. In our present day considerations these three are the pioneers in the evolution of classical guitar as a popular instrument, a weighty one indeed thanks to their hard work in promulgating this instrument through their perfections of it. Having set the standards and example for succeeding classical guitarists, these musicians have made an imprint of excellence that will be a foundation for the development of a new generation of classical guitarists now that the art itself is by that foundation open to proliferation and newly found popularity. I have found virtuosity in my searchings in other lesser known guitarists, and it is difficult to consider the questions of comparative measure of talent once a certain virtuoso passage is cognized as such. At that point where the musical sense, the actual ear for music, is so pleased that there could be no search for a greater, more pleasing expression at the moment it is heard, where actually is the individual who is playing the instrument? Is the instrument not giving forth instead its most replete actuation of the music being heard as if the artist and the instrument together have met the deepest interpreation of the music being rendered? And in that sense, is the individual, the classical guitarist, not fused so quintessentially with the language and the voice of the guitar that the individuation of the player stands now only in what is being heard, no matter the path taken for that musician to have achieved such an apical realization of musical expression? The sense of perfection of a musician may come across as indicative of a line between technical knowhow and ease in language; but don't let that deceive you. I once saw that in Bream in a video just before he was about to play, but I was projecting also my own sense of helplessness unto the question of artistic perfection upon him. It was my ignorance that fooled me. What I then witnessed drove me to leap into the study of the music I heard him play; I had discovered Bream most repletely, and he lifted me way beyond, giving me the pathway to attempt to learn the music I worshipped through his own interpretation and rendering. Similarly, I study by listening to John Williams because he sees the music he plays so minutely. Williams thus communicates to me in his understanding of music as a language a more quintessential message. This communication that I can hear in his renditions drives me to learn also how to give the message I hear that he is capable of reflecting to my ears. I can say that these are indeed towering individuals in their own respective rights; but how they became such is I think a question of surrendering their individuality unto the message of the music itself, and this is admittedly paradoxical to some. Music must have a message. And if it is seen by the player most intimately, then the message written into the music by the composer is more likely to be heard by the witness of that music, both the player and the concert-goer or whatever. Individualism leads to another, higher level of musical capability perhaps in the light of this power of music to actually give a more hidden message; this more hidden message, being more subtle yet awesomely powerful, is one that may only be uncovered if it is first understood by the one who plays it and analyzes it from a soulful heart for its greatest worth in possible or potential statement. Take for example Cutting's "Greensleeves" played by Bream — guitar or lute, he masters the strings. I heard this for the first time by Bream and could not rest my energy without setting up a way to learn also what I had just heard. ( I have the piece on hand, and when a piece I am writing is finished, I will delve into it.) This is another example to me of perfection of art by Bream that binds me to my total, boundless admiration of his musicianship. Bream has studied broadly in two channels so as to achieve the music he has presented to the world: his periodic knowledge — of Renaissance music — and his devotion to the lute besides the guitar. This coupling of an understanding of music as it evolved through time and via instrument as well simply cultivated in him a source of knowledge that sets him apart in his interpretations and artistic sensitivities. I can Bream's knowledge of the Renaissance come through for him in his rendition of Bach's "Bourree in E Minor." He understands what motivated Bach in Bach's own time frame of reference; for certainly Bach also built upon what he heard, what had come up from the recent past for him. Maybe these three giants were simply placed at the start of the musical evolution of the classical guitar in our recent history because that is what it took to open up the stairway to musical heaven that they created through their respective prowess and genius. For if the individual loses a sense of egoistic engagement in music in deference to sheer love for finding the deepest meaning in the music through perfection, interpretive analysis and soulful level of rendition, then is it not the case that the highest level of musical expression can be then realized by that individual? Times may change; however, the message behind the notes across centuries transcends time if the music is of superior quality. In the same way, current day musicians must emulate these maestros. These maestros allow the musical ear to be nurtured and cultivated by Bream in particular for me since I was reared on Bream quite from a field — New York City classical music radio– and by Williams and Segovia as well. Bream is more minute in his keen awareness of what he demands and expects from himself; however, regard the outcome. My favorite composer, Bach, is uncovered by Bream's musical parsing; when he plays Vivaldi, he finds the finest way to express in the music, affecting the entire orchestra with whom he plays. He is like some lighttower shining forth the highest truth of the truth intended by the composer. And if I can praise John Williams enough, then I would have to be equally eloquent in words as he is in classical guitar where words yet fail me before I start. And Segovia is from another world all together — I cannot name it, but he is definitely other-worldly. His conceptualization musically endlessly flows as he plays so effortlessly what he sees. Indeed, we are blessed by these classical music greats. They have shown us the way, and we have only to search for what we can find by their guideposts. It will be difficult to expect more of others past the uniqueness of these three geniuses; and I am only speaking as a beginner to this intriguing instrument, the classical guitar. So far, this is what I have seen. One may deem this comment as my opinion; yet I speak only through my eye for perfection and how to best achieve it: listen and emulate. However, one cannot listen and emulate without doing precisely what you say: use the tools at hand.
    Marilynn Stark
    May 3, 2014

  4. Steven Mark Ward says:

    I don't see the three as being in any sort of conflict or competition. They all pretty much marched to their own beat. All three were natural charmers, two still are. 🙂 Some people would never say that about Segovia but they probably never heard him speak in public or private in his native Spanish. I am fluent in Spanish and Segovia struck me as coming across as almost two personas, one English speaking which he spoke well but was not the same expressive and spontaneous personality when speaking his native tongue.

    I once spent almost 4 hours with Segovia, along with about 17 other students, but it was not a master class, it was a university concert where almost nobody showed because it was in the middle of a campus Vietnam anti-war protest. We hunkered down in the music hall until it was safe to leave. 🙂 Segovia played and talked, we listened, and he asked us many questions… he was really interested in what we had to say and he gave us lots of advice. 🙂 Segovia was not a flag bearer, he was on what he saw as essentially a holy mission going well beyond a standard bearer. It was his way or forget it. This was his failure and at the same time his success. In those formative years of raising the status of the classical guitar to a concert instrument, a lot of mistakes were made which leaves us with some probably permanent negative baggage, but on the other side, Segovia was pioneering and breaking new ground all the time. He wasn't perfect, but he succeeded in the main part of his mission, both because of and in spite of himself. A man to admire and to forgive, if one thinks his attitude of seeing himself as the one true absolute authority was hard to swallow and needs forgiveness. I say to those critics, take a chill pill and give him the credit he is due and understand the portion of his legacy that is negative, was done in a vacuum at the time. Of course his Spanish cultural patrimony factors heavily into all aspects of his life but this is something difficult for others outside his native culture of his era to understand.

    Now for those performing in the hear and now, (pun intended) they should be subject to a higher standard and criticism, and I'm not speaking about musicality, but about public professional persona. Of course, we're all individuals, we are all imperfect, and those who go first always end up doing the heavy lifting.

    On an interesting note, Williams to this day says he doesn't know how to improvise, he says he was taught to reproduce classical music note for note as best he imagines it was originally written to be performed. Bream on the other hand loved to improvise and said so. Sadly, Bream had an accident with one hand a while back and officially announced his retirement from playing shortly thereafter, but he had a good, long run, a fine career. Williams can improvise, he is just getting over thinking that "improvise" is a dirty word. Simon, feel free to say "improvise" as often as you wish but toss out all those other four letter anglo-saxon derivatives… they are noise that lowers the verbal signal-to-noise ratio. 🙂

  5. Alvaro Mendizabal says:

    Awesome Article Simon! Funny enough we were just chatting with @gohar precisely about that. As musicians we love to speculate with esoteric and magical words such as 'talent', 'genius', and 'musicianship' as the reasons why these artists 'made it'. Yet none of these concepts are neither tangible nor does it exist a consensus on how to measure them. From a managerial point of view, I believe that Segovia, Bream and Williams all had what I call in my lectures the "3 Pillars": Management, PR, and Labels. This is the hat trick that pretty much every artist since them has lacked. Many guitarists have had a sweet Record deal, but lacked the top management firm to push them, others have been in the top management firms for years but lacked the Labels to put them at the forefront of the profession. Once you have them all, a virtuous cycle begins which allows the artist to transcend. The only guitarist in the last 30 years with this hat Trick has been Milos Karadaglic, and his results are nothing short of amazing. So, why have guitarists stopped thriving to obtain these pillars and instead concentrate on other credentials (competitions, DMA's, etc)? Maybe it will be the topic of my next article.

  6. Rob Watson says:

    What is it about Bream? Complete and Utter commitment in the moment when he plays, this is what I always experience. Thus, he creates many many moments of trancendance for me.

    Even with, as you rightly pointed out, his struggles and his limitations, I can say I rarely heard him take a shortcut (e.g. can’t-cut-it-rubato). Truly music first, guitar second.

    Love your playing and your ideas, Simon. From a fellow Yale guitar grad (2004).

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