What makes a festival so magical? How can we enrich our musical life with a touch of this special formula? Britten Pears Arts' CEO, Roger Wright, reflects on the special place Aldeburgh Festival has in the hearts of musicians and music lovers around the world... and how, after 73 glorious years, it's still a place for friends to make music together.
Image | Music on the Meare. Photo Brian Seed
Lord Harewood wrote in the introduction of the Programme Book of the first Aldeburgh Festival in 1948: “Since the war ended, the festival in this country has become something of a national habit. There have been festivals of contemporary music, of ancient music, of English music, of choral music; new festivals, old festivals; festivals in usual and unusual halls; in industrial towns and in watering-places; festivals to honour the old and festivals designed for the young. Some of them have been original in their intention, some frankly imitative. Some of the programmes have had shape and purpose, others have been too exclusive or the opposite. The Aldeburgh programme has been planned with a view to avoiding the mental indigestion which is the result of an overloaded programme as well as the emptiness of the imitative.” He went on, “local patriotism, with its enhanced sense of physical relationship with its surroundings and its intimate local associations, finds its point of contact with the national and international. One hopes that visitors to Aldeburgh may feel that the hosts have at least not hired the entertainment for their guests, but have provided it themselves.”
That personal and characterful introduction sets the post-war scene for that first Aldeburgh Festival, and describes the context in which the 1948 festival emerged. The reference to the ‘hosts’ providing the entertainment might in other circumstances seem parochial, but when those hosts are international figures Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears, it clearly is not. This reference by Harewood highlights one of the special features of the Festival that continues to this day, namely that it is a place for friends to make music together.
Having musicians of such calibre and international acclaim as Nicola Benedetti leading the programming of the 2022 Festival gives it a strong profile, as well as allowing the continuation of this intimate music making. Nicola is a member of the Kaleidoscope Chamber Collective and she will play Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time with members of that ensemble. She has invited her violinist colleague Yume Fujise to play Bartók with her and, in addition to other performances, she will close the festival with a concert with her own Baroque Orchestra.
There is a spider’s web of connections between musicians throughout the Aldeburgh Festival programme. Mark Simpson (who wrote his recent Violin Concerto for Nicola) appears as composer and clarinettist, and cellist Laura van der Heijden plays with both Nicola and Mark as well as performing the Walton Concerto with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. It is a continuation of that tradition of friendships in the Festival which has included so many great artists over the years – Amadeus Quartet to Dennis Brain, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau to Sviatoslav Richter – and on it goes.
In that first Aldeburgh Festival there was new work – Britten’s cantata St Nicolas, and his opera Albert Herring, fresh from its first performances in Amsterdam and Lucerne. In addition to concerts by Britten and Pears, the renowned pianist Clifford Curzon was scheduled to appear and there were lectures by distinguished speakers including E.M. Forster, William Plomer, Tyrone Guthrie and Sir Kenneth Clark, together with an exhibition of works by John Constable. A parochial line-up this certainly was not.
Since then, there have been various characteristics that have typified the Aldeburgh Festival. One of the many beauties of the festival is the clarity of its founders’ vision, and the way in which this vision has been respectfully acknowledged even as it is constantly reinterpreted for successive generations.
Some of the defining traditions that continue to underpin the festival programming are:
- Featured musicians: composers and performers who have an active role in shaping the festival’s character each year
- New music (and this year the festival presents more premieres than it has ever done)
- The music of Britten (never a dominant presence, but always there, as a fundamental part of the programming)
- A festival that is rooted locally but whose impact is national and international
- The sense of deep connection between music and place
- A vibrant visual arts programme
This year’s 50th anniversary cohort of Britten Pears Young Artists have been performing and planning together, sharing ideas and helping to bring to life the new works for the festival. The way in which time is found for friends and colleagues to work together in the inspiring surroundings of Snape and Aldeburgh is the essence of Britten Pears Arts. There are chance encounters too, through our residency programmes, and the rest of our year-round activities. The serendipitous ‘collision’ of musicians, whether at Snape Maltings or the Red House or both, and the new work and collaborations that emerge as a result give our organisation a distinctive role to play – an exciting by-product of Britten and Pears’ intention to build a creative campus here.
There is another facet to our festival spirit that has also been consistent throughout its history, but which is now more apparent and necessary than ever. Namely innovative and stimulating programming that responds to, and celebrates, the multi-dimensional outlooks and experiences of so many of today’s musicians.
Tom Morris is the former artistic director of California’s Ojai Festival with which the Aldeburgh Festival co-produced events in 2019. In a thought-provoking series of observations he called ‘jump-starting creativity’, he noted that ‘the most interesting artists today in terms of defining creativity are those whose talents, interests, and drive are multi-dimensional – artists who practise their art in multiple ways – as performers, conductors, composers, curators, producers, mentors, educators, writers, thinkers and as leaders. Not only do they practise their art in multiple ways, but their creativity thrives at the unexpected intersection of genres and traditional roles. The challenge is that such artists face a classical music industry which is almost uniformly one-dimensional in structure and practice.’
I had the pleasure of working with Tom in 2019 on our respective festivals and before that when he ran the Cleveland Orchestra. Often our conversations centred around the special nature of festivals and the distinctive way in which they can be programmed. Festivals offer the opportunity to showcase and truly reflect the creativity of musicians and their range of interests. They can also put down a marker for the way in which other areas of performance might best develop. As Tom also observed, ‘it is good that there now seems to be an enlarging pool of presenting organisations and performance venues which have the imagination and drive to think differently’. Festivals can be a model to counteract the challenge that multi-faceted musicians face where ‘their engagements only present one of their multitudinous talents, with the result that the totality of their creativity remains hidden, isolated and unencouraged’.
Thinking of musicians who have recently been featured in Aldeburgh Festival and who will be helping us curate events in future festivals, I am struck by the wide range of their interests and the way in which they are often driven by the desire to make music with friends. As I’ve noted, this is not a lazy or cosy option, but instead a spirit of like-minded experiment and exploration and the joy of shared experience. Festivals like ours work together with musicians to set and lead agendas – not to follow them. Think of the trend- setting musicians recently here, for example the violinist Patricia Kopatchinksaya in 2018, the soprano and conductor Barbara Hannigan in 2019 and the soprano Julia Bullock, who should have been with us in 2020 but will be a featured artist in the 2024 Festival. All of them are international performers with deep and authentic questing musical personalities that can’t be contained by, or celebrated in, single appearances.
All of which resonates with Harewood’s words in that introduction to the first Aldeburgh Festival. Aldeburgh remains a unique festival with an enhanced sense of physical relationship with its surroundings, and its intimate local associations finding points of contact with both the national and international.
There is still plenty of ‘music making with friends’ and, at the same time it suggests various ways in which our musical world and programming can be invigorated.
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