Tom Mckinney meets guitarist Julian Bream on the eve of his 80th birthday to discuss his career and a defining composition by Benjamin Britten that helped to elevate him and his instrument onto the global stage.
Julian Bream is arguably the most important guitarist of the second half of the twentieth century: pioneer of the burgeoning period instrument movement and champion of new repertoire for the guitar. The archetypal eccentric Englishman with a huge personality and incredible musical ability, Bream had a massive impact on the global musical scene from the 1960s, becoming a genuine a household name with appearances on prime-time television and platinum record sales.
His performances at the Aldeburgh Festival in the 50s, especially his recitals of Elizabethan songs with Benjamin Britten's partner the tenor Peter Pears, eventually led to Britten writing what is perhaps the guitar's finest work - the Nocturnal after John Dowland, an unsettling and often disturbing set of variations based on the song Come Heavy Sleep by John Dowland. It was a landmark moment: that a composer of Britten's stature should write such a substantial and significant piece of music for the guitar, changed at once the perception of the instrument and its subsequent repertoire. At that time the guitar was still a minority instrument, inseparably linked to its Spanish heritage. Bream pounced on the opportunity to play Nocturnal worldwide, almost utilising it as a bargaining chip to coax many other major composers into write for guitar, such as Walton, Tippett, Henze, Takemitsu and Maxwell Davies.
With contributions from guitarist Craig Ogden, Britten expert Mervyn Cooke and Bream biographer Tony Palmer, we will hear about the legacy of the Nocturnal and of Julian Bream's remarkable contribution to the guitar's history.