The Aldeburgh Festival of Music and the Arts is an English arts festival devoted mainly to classical music. It takes place each June in the Aldeburgh area of Suffolk, centred on Snape Maltings Concert Hall.
History of the Aldeburgh Festival
The Festival was founded in 1948 by the composer Benjamin Britten, the singer Peter Pears and the librettist/producer Eric Crozier. Their work with the English Opera Group (which they had founded with designer John Piper in 1947) frequently took them away from home, and it was while they were on tour in Switzerland with Albert Herring and The Rape of Lucretia in August of that year, that Peter Pears said “Why not make our own Festival? A modest Festival with a few concerts given by friends? Why not have an Aldeburgh Festival?” The English Opera Group would provide a core programme of opera productions, but the vision was soon widened to include readings of poetry, literature, drama, lectures and exhibitions of art. The first festival was held from the 5 June 1948 to the 13 June 1948 and used the Aldeburgh Jubilee Hall, a few doors away from Britten's house in Crabbe Street, as its main venue, with performances in other venues such as Aldeburgh's fifteenth-century church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul. It featured a performance of Albert Herring by the English Opera Group; Britten's newly-written Saint Nicolas, op.42; and performances by Clifford Curzon and the Zorian String Quartet.
Over the years the festival grew and took in additional venues in nearby Orford, Blythburgh and Framlingham. However, the lack of a large venue was holding back the further development of the Festival until one of the largest mid-nineteenth century maltings in East Anglia, at Snape, a village just outside Aldeburgh, became available. Britten, who had lived in Snape in the 1930s, had the vision that the largest of the malthouses could be converted into a Concert Hall. Most of the building's original character, such as the distinctive square malthouse roof-vents, was retained. The new concert hall was opened by the Queen on 2 June 1967, at the start of the twentieth Aldeburgh Festival.
Two years later, on the first night of the 1969 Festival, the concert hall was destroyed by fire. Only the shell of the outer walls remained. For that year the Festival was moved to other local venues and only one performance was lost. By the following year the hall had been rebuilt and once again it was opened in the presence of the Queen, this time at the start of the 1970 Festival.
The new Concert Hall at Snape Maltings became the main focus for the Aldeburgh Festival, although performances continued to be held at all the former venues. For the first six years of the Aldeburgh Festival, the joint Artistic Directors remained Britten, Pears and Crozier; in 1955, Britten and Pears were in sole charge, then the following year they were joined by Imogen Holst, who remained a member of the Artistic Directorate until her death in 1984. After Britten’s own death in 1976, the artistic direction of the Festival was shared; many world-class musicians joined the artistic team, including at various times Philip Ledger, Colin Graham, Steuart Bedford, Mstislav Rostropovich, Murray Perahia, Simon Rattle, John Shirley-Quirk and Oliver Knussen. In 1999, a sole Artistic Director in the Britten mould – composer, solo performer, accompanist and conductor – was appointed in Thomas Adès, joined in 2004 by composer John Woolrich, first as Guest Artistic Director then as an Associate Artistic Director.
From the beginning, the Festivals were characterised by an eclectic range of music, from the classics – Bach, Haydn, Mozart – to contemporary work, with young composers in particular being commissioned. By 1982, Britten–Pears archivist Rosamund Strode calculated that the Festival had to that date presented new works by over 75 composers, with world premieres of 15 operas. Concert goers were over the ensuing years to see new works not only by Britten himself, but by composers such as Lennox Berkeley, Richard Rodney Bennett, Elliott Carter, Hans Werner Henze, Alfred Schnittke, Toru Takemitsu, Michael Tippett, Mark-Anthony Turnage and Malcolm Williamson, many of whom came to the Festival as composer-in-residence. Later, young composers continued to be encouraged with the foundation of the biennial Benjamin Britten Composers’ Competition. Many new works were presented under the baton of Oliver Knussen, himself a notable contributor to the new works presented at the Festival.
Imogen Holst introduced early choral music, and soon works by European composers rarely heard at that time in England were in the repertoire, such as Berg, Mahler, Schoenberg, Poulenc, Boulez, and Webern. Later, Copland, Dutilleux, Lutoslawski and Kodaly were to come to the Festival. In contrast, John Dankworth and Cleo Laine, Joyce Grenfell, Peggy Ashcroft and actors from the Royal Shakespeare Company made regular appearances; Princess Grace of Monaco came to take part in a poetry recital. Richter played for HM Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother.
The size and capacity of the Concert Hall enabled the Festival to present full-scale orchestras for the first time, and for many years Simon Rattle brought his City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra to Snape. There was a strong connection with Russian music: Rostropovich and Sviatoslav Richter became frequent visitors, and in 1970 Shostakovich’s 14th Symphony - dedicated to Britten - had its first performance outside the USSR at the Concert Hall.
Peter Pears, in addition to his role as joint Artistic Director, was a regular performer, often accompanied by Britten, and often appearing in no fewer than ten different concerts during the Festival. Janet Baker, Julian Bream, Osian Ellis, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, John Shirley-Quirk and Robert Tear were amongst the regular performers in the early days, followed later by Alfred Brendel, Ian Bostridge, Thomas Allen, Philip Langridge and Ann Murray.
The Concert Hall proved very capable of being turned into an opera stage. The Royal Opera presented A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the first season, and on 16 June 1973, the first performance of Britten’s final opera, Death in Venice, was given at the Concert Hall, with Pears in the role of Aschenbach. In 1976, in what was to be Britten’s last Festival, Janet Baker sang the premiere of his dramatic cantata Phaedra in a festival that included performances by André Previn, Elizabeth Söderström, Sviatoslav Richter and the entire Rostropovich family.
In 1979, Rostropovich conducted the Britten–Pears School in a performance of Eugene Onegin (with Pears as guest in the role of M. Triquet, and Eric Crozier as the valet Guillot). In subsequent years, the School regularly performed an opera during the Festival.
The festival today
The organisation responsible for running the Aldeburgh Festival changed its name to Aldeburgh Music in 2006.
Thomas Adès was succeeded as Artistic Director of the Festival by Pierre-Laurent Aimard in 2009. In 2009, a suite of new spaces at Snape Maltings, including the Hoffmann Building’s Britten Studio and the Jerwood Kiln Studio, was opened with the premiere performance of Harrison Birtwistle’s The Corridor.
The 2012 Festival, had Oliver Knussen as Artist in Residence, and the typically eclectic programme included new productions by Netia Jones of Knussen’s Where the Wild Things Are and Higglety Pigglety Pop!, a concert series exploring the work of Helmut Lachenmann, recitals by Menahem Pressler, Ian Bostridge, Peter Serkin, Miklós Perényi, Dezsö Ránki and the Arditti and Keller Quartets, the CBSO with the UK premiere of a work by Elliott Carter, as well as dramatised performances with film at the Leiston Long Shop Museum, the complete screening with live accompaniment of Britten’s 1930s film scores, a promenade performance of John Cage’s Song Books in the Hoffmann Building under the banner of #Faster than Sound, and open-air community events on Aldeburgh Beach.
The centenary of Britten’s birth will be held between November 2012 and November 2013, and the 2013 Festival, the 66th, will feature a new production by Tim Albery of Britten’s opera, Peter Grimes, the complete Church Parables in Orford Church and new works by Harrison Birtwistle, Wolfgang Rihm, Judith Weir, Magnus Lindberg and Richard Rodney Bennett.
In addition to the annual Festival, Aldeburgh Music also runs the Britten-Pears Young Artist Programme (formerly the Britten-Pears School for Advanced Musical Studies), Aldeburgh Residencies - a programme offering bespoke training and development opportunities to UK and international artists – Aldeburgh Young Musicians for exceptionally talented young people between the ages of 8 and 18, The Jerwood Opera Writing Programme, for the development of new opera, as well as an extensive education programme. Aldeburgh's artist development programmes feed heavily into the June festival and other events throughout the year.
The Aldeburgh Festival retains a unique character, largely due to its location in rural Suffolk. It also continues to emphasise the presentation of new music, new interpretations and the rediscovery of forgotten music. It has seen the premières of several works by Britten (A Midsummer Night's Dream in 1960; Death in Venice in 1973) and also Harrison Birtwistle's Punch and Judy in 1968, The Io Passion in 2004 and The Corridor in 2009.
The Aldeburgh Festival has always included the visual arts as well as music, and a number of exhibitions are curated each year to accompany the music programme. From 2011, the main exhibition of contemporary art has been promoted under the title SNAP, at various locations around the Snape Maltings site, organized by Abigail Lane. In 2012, featured artists included Glenn Brown, May Cornet, Brian Eno, Ryan Gander, Maggi Hambling, Mark Limbrick, Emily Richardson and Gavin Turk.
- Quoted in Benjamin Britten: A Biography by Humphrey Carpenter, 1992
- Article in 1982 Aldeburgh Festival Programme Book
- 65th Aldeburgh Festival Booking Brochure
- Aldeburgh Music
- ITV Local Anglia's entertainment show All Angles on Aldeburgh Festival June 2008
- "Big Beach Jive" - Video of Aldeburgh Festival event 2012