The spirit of Aldeburgh

The Aldeburgh festival, started by Benjamin Britten in 1948, a few years before the Wexford Festival, is multi-faceted, and the emphasis is almost definitely on music and the arts, and not just your average accumulation of exhibitions with dodgy depictions of floating swans, collies on amphetamines and jumping horses.

For example, facing Snape Maltings Hall, the main concert venue which is surrounded by the gorgeous and occasionally moody vistas of the North Sea and the tranquil River Alde, were huge images by Anya Gallaccio, inspired by Orford Ness, apparently the largest vegetated shingle spit in Europe.

Because the aura of the sea is ever present, whether walking along the attractive Victorian hub of Aldeburgh, or, further in land, at Snape, the work of Gallaccio is a reminder that Orford Ness is tenuously connected to the mainland, just about four metres above sea level.

Symbolically, the relationship between the sea and the land, is in essence tenuous. No one knows when the sea might just throw a wobble.

There were many exhibitions and installations at Aldeburgh of the highest quality: Lily Hunter Green’s Bee Composed (a piano with an a busy hive of bees), John Cage’s Music-circus at the Peter Pears Gallery, Chikato Goto’s traditional Japanese woodcuts at the Pond Gallery, a nod perhaps to Britten’s 1964 church parable Curlew River (1964), when his conception of musical theatre took a new direction, combining influences from the Japanese nō theatre and English medieval religious drama.

The Suffolk coast is the most beautiful setting for a musical festival: Snape Maltings rises like a liner: it dates back to 1846, was converted into a concert hall in 1967 and it looks out upon heath and marsh and the great River Alde, a winding signature under a huge and expansive Suffolk sky.

Britten the composer of course was fond of allegory and Church themes: besides the aforementioned Curlew River, two other religious parables, The Burning Fiery Furnace (1966) and The Prodigal Son (1968), followed. An earlier church-pageant opera, Noye’s Fludde (1958), made use of one of the medieval Chester miracle plays.

And then The Rape of Lucretia marked the inception of the English Opera Group, with Britten as artistic director, composer, and conductor. This undertaking gave rise to the Aldeburgh Festival, which slowly became one of the most important alternative English music festivals and, specifically, the centre of Britten’s musical activities.

The current director of Aldeburgh is Pierre-Laurent Aimard , who , according to a report in the Financial Times on the eye of this year’s Festival, stood accused of not being ‘quite English enough’, which can hardly be his fault.

The charge sheet against him is petty: he is closely aligned in spirit with the postwar European avant garde, which Britten had little time for. But, if the opera cognoscenti didn’t split hairs over such trifling matters, it wouldn’t be the blood sport we have all come to admire.

The Festival proper runs for the second half of June, with operas, recitals, film, concerts, masterclasses and lectures, in a plethora of venues, including Blythburgh Church, Aldeburgh Church, Britten Studio, Jubilee Hall and the concert hall at Snape Maltings where I attended a performance by Ensemble 360, wandering at the interval, ice cone in hand, like a blithe spirit, among the reeds and water and Gallaccio’s photographs.

 

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