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Theme: Aldeburgh and its extended family

The Aldeburgh Festival has been a pilgrimage for lovers of classical music and culture since 1948.
Every June it brings together new commissions, world-premières and international stars on the stretch
of Suffolk Coast which so bewitched its founder, the composer Benjamin Britten.

Britten founded the festival with the singer Peter Pears and the librettist/producer Eric Crozier. Their
work with the English Opera Group, founded in 1947, 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 core programme of opera was soon widened
to include readings of poetry, literature, drama, lectures and art exhibitions. The 1948 festival used
the Aldeburgh Jubilee Hall, a few doors away from Britten’s house in Crabbe Street, as its main
venue, with performances in other spaces such as Aldeburgh’s 15th 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; and performances by Clifford Curzon and the Zorian String Quartet.
The festival grew and expanded to nearby Orford, Blythburgh and Framlingham; but the lack of a
large venue was restricting the festival’s further development until the large mid-19th century
maltings at Snape, a village just outside Aldeburgh, became available. Britten, who had lived in
Snape in the 1930s, believed 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 Queen opened the new hall on 2 June 1967, at the start of the 20th 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 was opened for
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; musicians who joined the
artistic team included Philip Ledger, Colin Graham, Steuart Bedford, Mstislav Rostropovich, Murray
Perahia, Simon Rattle, John Shirley-Quirk and Oliver Knussen.

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, archivist Rosamund Strode calculated that the Festival had to that date
presented new works by over 75 composers, with world premières of fifteen operas. New works were
not only by Britten, 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.
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 Kodály came to the Festival. In contrast, John
Dankworth and Cleo Laine, Joyce Grenfell, Peggy Ashcroft and actors from the Royal Shakespeare
Company made regular appearances.

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 Richter were frequent visitors, and in 1970 Shostakovich’s 14th Symphony, dedicated to Britten, had its first performance outside the USSR.

Peter Pears, in addition to being joint Artistic Director, was a regular performer, often accompanied
by Britten. Janet Baker, Julian Bream, Osian Ellis, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, John Shirley-Quirk and
Robert Tear were among the regular performers in the early days, followed later by Alfred Brendel,
Ian Bostridge, Thomas Allen, Philip Langridge and Ann Murray.

The Concert Hall was capable of being turned into an opera stage. The Royal Opera presented A
Midsummer Nights Dream in the first season, and on 16 June 1973, the first performance of Britten’s
final opera, Death in Venice, was given at Snape Maltings, with Pears in the role of Aschenbach. In
1976, in what was to be Britten’s last Festival, Janet Baker sang the première of his dramatic cantata
Phaedra in a festival that included performances by André Previn, Elisabeth 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.

Today, Britten Pears Arts presents a year-round programme from its base at Snape Maltings, but
Music Preserved’s collection focuses on the golden period between 1948 and 1976 when Britten was
its driving force.

Nicholas Payne

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Music Preserved offers you the choice of listening to many of the rare, historically and artistically interesting recordings in its collection.