Sixty years ago this month, in 1948, the first Aldeburgh Festival of Music and the Arts opened with a performance of Britten's cantata "St Nicholas". The Festival originated when the English Opera Company started running into financial difficulties due to the enormous costs of transporting an opera company around the world; it had proved impossible to find venues for performances in the UK. It was the tenor Peter Pears who suggested to Benjamin Britten and Eric Crozier (the latter was Britten's librettist for many of his operas) that maybe it would be a good idea to found a local festival in Suffolk, with a few concerts for friends. The first Aldeburgh Festival opened with the help of local benefactors and a grant from the Arts Council, and rapidly became an annual fixture which provided many opportunities to hear music in a way that could not often be emulated elsewhere.
The Aldeburgh Festival has always supported composers and visitors include Francois Poulenc, Toru Takemitsu, Hans Werner Henze, Harrison Birtwistle and many more. Harrison Birtwistle's opera Punch and Judy was first performed in the Jubilee Hall in Aldeburgh as were Britten's operas Albert Herring and A Midsummer Night's Dream.
The main Festival does not nowadays take place only in Aldeburgh. The main concert venue is now the Snape Maltings Concert Hall whose exquisite acoustics allow a pin drop to be heard at the very back of the hall better than one would hear it next to the stage! Singers and musicians who have performed at the Festival in the past include Kathleen Ferrier, Nancy Evans, John Shirley-Quirk, Heather Harper, the celloist Rostropovich, the pianist Richter. I remember in 1977 attending a concert in which Peter Pears sang some of the settings of Britten's folk songs, and Elly Ameling and Thea King gave a performance of Schubert's "The Shepherd on the Rock". Nowadays concerts range from early music right through to contemporary, there is always a Composer in Residence and artists such as the pianist Alfred Brendel make regular appearances.
When Britten died in 1976 the Aldeburgh Foundation appointed Rostopovich as the Artistic Director. Since that time the Artistic Directors have included the pianist Murray Perahia and the composer Thomas Ades. The Foundation continues to support young musicians in providing opportunities for advanced training and also to support contemporary composers in providing regular performances of their music. Musical education, encouraging young artists and helping living composers was considered of great importance by Benjamin Britten, and continues to be upheld to this day as one of the major cornerstones of the Festival and the Aldeburgh Foundation.
The Festival spreads itself fairly widely in Suffolk and there are always exhibitions of artistic works. The area around the Maltings Concert Hall is also very large and includes a restaurant (within the Maltings itself) and a cafe nearby, and there is plenty to see between concerts. If you choose to stay in Aldeburgh itself buses are supplied to take concert goers to and from their hotels as there are several excellent ones. However it's important to book well in advance - regular festival goers often book their accommodation from one year to the next! If you can't actually go to the Festival itself many of the concerts are broadcast on BBC Radio Three during and after it.
The Aldeburgh Festival goes from strength to strength and it is to be hoped that it will continue to flourish for many years to come.