Bream and Britten

As I’ve said before on this blog, I often get up very early. This week -as I often do- I’ve been searching the BBC iPlayer archives. My latest find has been the masterclasses given by the guitarist Julian Bream in 1978. One of them was devoted to the piece Benjamin Britten wrote for him: the Nocturnal after John Dowland Opus 70. It’s a piece I’ve really taken to as a result of watching the programme. The older I get, the more I seem to “get” Britten’s music and this piece brings together three things that interest me: Britten, the music of John Dowland and the nature of sleep.

With regard to the first, as with so much of Britten, I can’t help but hear the sea in this music – and the sea with its uniformity, its waves, its disturbances, has a fascinating imaginative relationship  with sleep. As for the music of John Dowland, its emotional impulse runs as an undercurrent through the whole work. It’s easy to fall in love with Dowland’s music, as I did when I first found myself playing his Lachrimae pieces. The Nocturnal is a set of variations on a Dowland song, Come, Heavy Sleep which we hear played on the guitar at the end of the work.

For anyone with the time and the staying-power, here’s the masterclass he gave on the work. After it, I’ve embedded the first of a series of shorter video of Julian Bream performing it:


5 thoughts on “Bream and Britten

  1. I have always found it worthwhile to stick with Britten because if you listen to it a few times it does begin to make absolute sense. It is pure English music at its best. As for Julian Bream – I have not heard of him for years but used to love his playing.

  2. Thanks for alerting me to the Bream master classes! Phrasing has always been the thing I admire most about Bream’s playing, so it was fascinating to see the attention he pays to tiny details, to shape the phrase. I still love Bream’s lute performances, even though his somewhat modernised lute didn’t fit the spirit of the times, that called for historical authenticity at all costs. His lute song recordings with Peter Pears are completely “inauthentic” but (I think) outstanding musical experiences.
    Bream playing the Britten Nocturnal brings back memories for me, as I was the tape operator at an early studio recording that he did for the BBC, probably in 1964. I’m sure I remember that he asked for a bit more of a more distant mic to be mixed in for the harmonics to give them a more “airy” feel. Of course it was a subtle effect, not to be noticed unless you were looking out for it.

    1. Thanks for that. Quite an anecdote!

      Regarding authenticity, it’s interesting to listen to performances of Nocturnal since Bream’s. One could argue that “authentic Bream/Britten” is already receding into the middle-distance. However, taste changes from decade to decade.We are eager to hear new sound-worlds, new interpretations.Who is to say what approach will be considered “authentic 20th century” two centuries from now? At what point will performers stop making their personal mark on the piece and start trying to recreate an authentic Bream performance?

      1. I’m glad to say that people have largely stopped talking about authenticity and the buzzword now is “historically informed” performance. We have to face it, no-one can know the original rhythm and phrasing of music written long before sound recording. Maybe for music written in the recording era, the argument will disappear: if you want an original performance you can listen to one (as we do in the pop music world.)
        In the end we rely on the performers. If historically informed performance is what turns on good players, then that’s what we’ll get. We’ll never know what sort of performances we would have been hearing, if the original “authenticity” protagonists had remained a minor sideline. But we can’t now go back and un-inform either performers or audiences.

  3. The drive to be authentic/historically informed does lead to some wonderful creative ventures. I can’t think of many concerts that have have left such a deep impression on me as Le Concert Spirituel and Hervé Niquet performing Handel’s Water and Fireworks Music at the Proms in 2012.

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