Monday June 15 2020

Britten, Pears and writer and producer Eric Crozier first discussed the idea of holding a festival in Aldeburgh in Summer 1947 while touring abroad with the newly formed English Opera Group. Troubled by the expenses of running a touring opera company, they wanted to establish a base for the Group at home. On their return to England, the feasibility of an Aldeburgh Festival was considered further with local residents; the feedback was positive and a Festival Committee appointed to arrange the first Festival.

In our Archive we hold the earliest minute book of this Committee which records the decisions made and details organised from 1947 to 1955 over the first eight Aldeburgh Festivals. It makes fascinating reading, giving a vivid picture of the Festival taking shape. In particular the minutes illustrate the community’s enthusiasm for its new local Festival with many providing support financially or in other ways.

Front cover of the Aldeburgh Festival Executive Committee minutes.

The Committee’s first meeting was held on 27 October 1947 chaired by the Countess of Cranbrook and including the Mayor of Aldeburgh, Colonel Colbeck, who was at that time living at the Red House. Britten already knew Fidelity Cranbrook through her work as president of the Suffolk Rural Music School of which he was Honorary Music Advisor. He and Crozier used the names of her five children, together with those of two cousins, for the names of the children in their opera The Little Sweep which premiered at the 1949 Festival.

The very first agenda item discussed was a name for the Festival – ‘The Aldeburgh Festival’ was agreed on then later expanded to ‘The Aldeburgh Festival of Music and Painting’ before settling on its final title.

Minutes of the Committee’s first meeting.

Next item on the agenda was finance. It was agreed that prominent local people and businesses would be approached to provide guarantees, up to at least £1000, for the first Festival in 1948 – a system that was repeated for many years and also frequently called upon. It was also put forward that the Arts Council of Great Britain might give a guarantee of up to £300.

Issues of finance dominated the Committee’s second meeting held at Britten’s home at 4 Crabbe Street in November 1947. Crozier even suggested that to reduce costs they could cut opera productions entirely! Quite sensibly it was felt that this would do away with the very object of the Festival. It was then suggested to perform the opera Albert Herring without an orchestra which would cut the cost of the production by half with Britten agreeing to make an arrangement of the music for two pianos to enable this. However this never happened as Britten and Pears offered to donate the fees for their recital towards the cost of an orchestra.

Minutes from the meeting in December 1947.

From December 1947 onwards a representative of the Arts Council attended meetings, reporting at his first meeting that a guarantee of £500 would be provided thus beginning a long association of the Festival with the Council and generous support that would last many years.

Programme was also discussed at the first meeting with the English Opera Group’s representative Anne Wood agreeing that the Group would draw up a skeleton programme for the first Festival. It was intended that performances of opera by the English Opera Group would form the nucleus of the Festival and that the Group would also drive the artistic direction and provide singers and instrumentalists for recitals and chamber music. The format of the Festival which largely endures to this day was agreed upon – a mixture of opera performances, recitals, concerts, lectures, tours, walks, exhibitions and films at the cinema plus, in the early years, a dance.

At the January 1948 meeting we see the first mention of involving local performers which was so fundamental to early Festivals. The Committee arranges a meeting for conductors of local choirs and choral societies interested in the first performance of Saint Nicolas – leading to the formation of The Aldeburgh Festival Choir – as well as approaches to certain schools.

The meetings continue with Committee members working hard arranging finances, programme, publicity, ticket sales, hospitality and transport – detailed practicalities increasingly being discussed as the first Festival approached. The possibility of obtaining additional petrol for Festival purposes was discussed with rationing still in place until 1950.

Minutes of the first General meeting (on the left) and further Committee meeting (on right).

A well-attended Committee meeting on 5 August 1948 reported on the success of the Festival and ‘the universal desire that the festival should be repeated from year to year’. This is reflected in the minutes of General meetings also pasted into the book, the first of which was held in November 1948 with about 80 members of the public present. Lady Cranbrook began by thanking those who had helped financially and in other ways with the 1948 Festival and Crozier felt the success of the Festival was perhaps largely due to the fact that it was a local Festival. Suggestions received at the meeting for the next Festival included an event to involve local fishermen as well as a tea party.

And so the minute book continues – throughout we see the local community actively supporting its Festival, a communal activity, with the whole town involved in one capacity or another, perhaps providing accommodation, stage building, putting up posters, singing or providing the audience. The minute book reveals a Festival anchored in its location, in its local environment.