Something in the Water: Aldeburgh Festival moments that made it famousStories
Towering silent sentinels afloat on the Alde. Projections on a nuclear power station. Night walks and alfresco piano recitals at dawn. Aldeburgh transformed into a living set for Punchdrunk’s Peter Grimes. The moments that make a festival can live with you forever. As we gear up for the 74th Aldeburgh Festival, we looked back at a few unforgettable highlights that made it famous around the world...
Their arms were branches of toxic hemlock, and fungus grew from their shins and shoulders
Arrival of Laurence Edwards’ Creek Men, 2008
Sculptor Laurence Edwards caused a stir at the 2008 Aldeburgh Festival with the arrival of a trio of giant Creek Men, huge figures cast in bronze, making their entrance on a large raft. They floated, towering in front of the Maltings, rising and lowering with the tide.
The great nature writer Robert Macfarlane describes the moment he first encountered the Creek Men in an essay for a show of Edwards' work at Messums, Cork St:
“The year was 2008, and these were Edwards’ Creek Men: a trio of giants, each eight feet high and a quarter of a ton in weight, stood on an iron raft. Their arms were branches of toxic hemlock, and fungus grew from their shins and shoulders. The surface of their skin was churned as a ploughed field after rain. Their akimbo stances, and the triangular formation of their arrangement, suggested – at least at first glance – a fierce, military intent. Browned and brutal, they seemed recently to have roused themselves, shuddering, from the marshland mud after a long torpor.”
Laurence Edwards returns to the Festival this year, in Remains to be Seen, a group show with Paul Benney and Kiki Smith.
Theatre or dance were always too limited a vocabulary to convey this vivid world. Circus was the key to unlock it
Struan Leslie, director of Illuminations
Illuminations, opening night of the Festival, 2016
Britten Pears Arts' CEO Roger Wright fondly remembers the night Snape Maltings Concert Hall was turned into a circus tent. Inspired by the hyper-sensual surrealism of Rimbaud’s poetry set in Britten’s song cycle Les Illuminations, director Struan Leslie's staging fused music and contemporary circus performance in an unforgettable performance.
It's a wonderfully potent setting for an opera whose every bar is permeated by the sea... a remarkable, and surely unrepeatable achievement
Dress rehearsal of Grimes on the Beach, 2013
The Aldeburgh Festival commemorated the centenary year of the birth Britten with a staging of his opera Peter Grimes on the beach at Aldeburgh. 1800 free tickets were given to local residents for the dress rehearsal, and that evening the sun set on one of the most unforgettable Festival moments of all time.
The subsequent performances have gone down in legend. The Economist reported: “It was a hugely ambitious project that few believed would work. Staging opera in the open air is hard enough; opera on a beach seemed all but unworkable. Surely the wind would drown out the voices, the audience would freeze, inevitably it would rain. In the end it was magical, and in quite unexpected ways.”
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A huge cult hit that will be talked about for years to come
The Borough by Punchdrunk, 2013
The same year, theatre company Punchdrunk presented The Borough, a “theatrical journey through Peter Grimes’s Aldeburgh”, with audiences given audio guides and sent off on individual theatrical journeys to encounter the characters from Peter Grimes, at one point entering a house to find Grimes’s friend Ellen Orford darning in her living room. Locals were enlisted as cast members, and real shops and cafes used as sets, leaving audiences uncertain what was real and what was not. Britten Pears Arts' COO Harry Young remembers the dramatic tension of being forced to hide in Ellen's wardrobe and the technical wizardry of Punchdrunk’s production team, who had every audience member’s footstep planned and choreographed.
Premiere of Birtwistle’s Punch and Judy, 1968
The premiere of Harrison Birtwistle’s Punch and Judy at the Jubilee Hall during the 1968 Aldeburgh Festival was seen as a turning point for opera. Causing some controversy at the time, it was one of “those moments” in British music history, says Britten Pears Arts' CEO Roger Wright. “Particularly important now as we reflect on Birtwistle’s life and work after his recent death.”
The audience were ridiculously polite and behaved as if it was all perfectly normal
Britten Pears Arts' Sarah Bardwell
Catalogue d’Oiseaux, 3.30am walk and piano recital, 2016
As part of the 2016 Aldeburgh Festival, Pierre-Laurent Aimard performed Catalogue d'Oiseaux – Messiaen's set of 13 piano pieces based on bird calls, composed in the late 1950s – in four indoor and outdoor recitals, beginning at dawn and ending at nightfall. Britten Pears Arts Executive Director Sarah Bardwell recalls "watching the sunrise and listening to the dawn chorus from the River View Café at 3.30am followed by Pierre Laurent Aimard performing Catalouge d'Oiseaux I – Sunrise by Messian at 4.30am was staggering and truly memorable. Of course the audience were ridiculously polite and not even the remotest bit surprised and behaved exactly as if it was all perfectly normal."
One of the most exciting platforms to appear in the UK in recent years... a collection of cold war hangars and runways provided the backdrop for a provocative line-up
Faster than Sound, 2008
In 2008 the abandoned Bentwaters Airbase in Suffolk was the backdrop for Faster Than Sound, an experimental offshoot of the Aldeburgh Festival, "joining the dots between genres and digital art forms". Britten Pears Arts' COO Harry Young remembers trying to round up audiences who wanted to keep partying, but had spread out across the 100 acre site...
Drowned in Sound gave this report:
"The highlight of the evening is undoubtedly a mysteriously named installation called ‘The Bunker’, situated a quarter of a mile away from the main event. Rather than openly advertising the installation, those intrigued enough by its vague mention on the programme have to figure out and track down the balaclava-clad man driving a Land Rover up and down the runway. Upon arrival at the bunker, we're greeted by more shadowy figures in guerrilla attire who lead us into the old, dark concrete building. We make our way haphazardly through the rooms of dusty cold-war relics towards the echo of music. We find its source in a dimly lit room reminiscent of an old jazz club with small tables and candles, wherein two women – one with a cello and the other set up with a microphone and laptop – create the most incredible dream-like ambient soundscapes."
Faster than Sound was later adapted and expanded into a programme of artist residencies, now culminating in a three-day programme, Festival of New.
Arriving at the airbase was an experience in itself, driving through security barriers past looming aircraft hangars and concrete bunkers, like the set for the denouement of a Bond movie
Such all-encompassing artworks make what normally goes on in concert halls, theatres and galleries look tame and prehistoric
Everlasting Light, 2011
Conceived and created by Netia Jones, Everlasting Light was a site specific performance of works by Ligeti, Gesualdo, Marenzio, Weelkes, Scelsi, Tallis, Vicentino, and Ryutis Mazulis at Sizewell beach and the Sizewell A nuclear power station. Projections used the nuclear power station as a backdrop. It rained so hard Britten Pears Arts' COO Harry Young remembers having to stand amongst the singers with umbrellas, but the audience didn’t seem to mind. The Times asked: "What had possessed what? Was this an arts event totally infused with the spirit of a place, or a place transfigured by the power of art?"
The Queen opens the new Snape Maltings Concert Hall, 1967
From its inception in 1948 the main base of Aldeburgh Festival was the 1880s Jubilee Hall in Aldeburgh. In 1965 Britten began the conversion of a nearby complex of redundant maltings building at Snape, working with the architectural firm, Arup. The state of the art concert hall eventually cost £127,000, seated 830, and was opened for the Festival in 1967 by H. M. Queen Elizabeth and H. R. H. the Duke of Edinburgh. At the opening concert Benjamin Britten conducted his new overture, The Building of the House.
On 7th June, 1969 the Maltings was gutted by fire. Britten wanted the hall rebuilt, “just as it was”, and remarkably it opened in time for the 1970 Festival. The Queen duly returned, commenting that she hoped not to be asked to come back a third time.
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Noye’s Fludde, 1958
The premiere of this one-act opera at the Aldeburgh Festival in 1958 was a pioneering example of community music making, still very much alive at the Festival today. The opera is written mainly for amateurs especially children, based on the biblical story of Noah and the Ark, and headdresses, designed by Ceri Richards, were a key component of the original production, worn by many of the schoolchildren who took part. The work is still performed today, and a production of Noye's Fludde is a key moment in Wes Anderson’s 2012 film, Moonrise Kingdom.
Music on the Meare, 2017
Britten Pears Arts' CEO Roger Wright recalls the considerable festival spirit shown by audiences in 2017, when they were asked to row to the festival platform. Nicholas Daniel was recreating the Festival’s premiere of Britten’s Six Metamorphoses after Ovid on Thorpeness Meare boating lake. Audiences were transported from the Jubilee Hall to the Meare in 1950s vintage buses.
Nicholas Daniel returns to the Festival in 2020 for a special performance celebrating 50 years of the Britten Pears Young Artist Programme.
A performance that bent over backwards to serve the music
Billy Budd by Opera North, 2017
Sometimes, the most memorable Festival moments have been purely about the calibre of the music. Britten Pears Arts' Executive Director Sarah Bardwell recalls, “one of the most powerful moments in the Concert Hall ever was the finale of the Aldeburgh Festival 2017…. It simply blew away the audience.” The FT agreed, reporting that the cast, including Roderick Williams in the title role were “unanimously outstanding”.
The last Festival to take place during Britten's life included performances by Andre Previn, Elizabeth Soderstrom, Sviatoslav Richter and the entire Rostropovich family. But perhaps best remembered is the premiere of Britten's Phaedra, sung by Janet Baker. The cantata for mezzo-soprano and chamber orchestra was written especially for her, and was rehearsed under Britten’s supervision. Despite Britten’s weak health during the time of composition, it resonates with power and drama.
Learn more about Phaedra in Work of the Week.
The 74th Aldeburgh Festival will take place from 9 – 25 June 2023. Sign up to our newsletter to hear what's happening first.
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