The Aldeburgh Festival of Music and the Arts was founded in 1948 by Benjamin Britten, Peter Pears and the writer and producer Eric Crozier. They first discussed the idea of holding a festival in Aldeburgh while travelling abroad with the newly formed English Opera Group during August 1947. Troubled by the expenses of running a touring opera company, they wanted to establish a base for the English Opera 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. It was agreed 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 instumentalists for recitals and chamber music. The first Aldeburgh Festival of Music and the Arts was held from 5th to 13th June 1948 with a varied programme of choral, orchestral and chamber concerts, recitals, exhibitions and lectures and three performances of Britten's opera Albert Herring.
It had been Britten's and Pears's intention that the festival should be an annual and growing event and this was achieved partly through their active involvement. They regularly performed at the festival, the former often appearing as conductor as well as pianist. They invited the participation of a number of visiting foreign composers, including Copland, Henze, Kodály and Poulenc. Britten composed new works to be premiered at the festival, including the operas The Little Sweep, Noye's Fludde, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Death in Venice and the three church parables.
Many of the founders' friends, including some of the world's leading musicians, regularly performed at the festival, some of them coming to Aldeburgh to premiere works written specifically for them by Britten. Fruitful friendships were established at the festival with artists such as Dennis Brain, Julian Bream, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Osian Ellis, and especially with the Soviet artists Rostropovich, Galina Vishnevskaya and Sviatoslav Richter.
Britten's music has always taken an important place in festival programming, however concerts also regularly include new and recent works by other British and also foreign composers. Britten and Pears were named as artistic directors in 1955; this team was later expanded to include, at various dates, Imogen Holst, Philip Ledger, Colin Graham, Steuart Bedford, Murray Perahia, Mstislav Rostropovich and Oliver Knussen.
The audiences outgrew the parish churches, halls and private houses of East Suffolk used as festival venues and the need for a dedicated festival concert hall became apparent. It was decided to convert part of a disused maltings at Snape, funds were raised and Arup Associates were appointed architects. The new concert hall at Snape Maltings was opened by the Queen on 2 June 1967, the first day of the 20th Aldeburgh Festival. With these new facilities festivals could be planned on a larger scale than previously possible.
Over the years activities at Snape Maltings have continued to grow, events increasingly being organised at different times of the year rather than concentrated in a single June festival. These have included concerts during spring weekends and at Easter, a Snape Maltings Proms season and an October Britten festival. Today Aldeburgh Music provides an extensive year-round programme of events and performances in addition to the thriving annual Aldeburgh Festival of Music and the Arts.
Britten and Pears were keen to involve young artists in the activities at Snape Maltings Concert Hall and to give them the opportunity to study with leading musicians. Pears directed master classes for singers from 1972 onwards and the success of these and further courses for string players led to the foundation of the Britten-Pears School for Advanced Musical Studies in 1977.
The School grew to offer a varied programme of practical and academic courses for young musicians and singers at the start of their professional career and master classes have been taught by many distinguished visiting faculty members, including Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Murray Perahia, Robert Spencer and Pierre Fournier. The successor of the school, the Britten-Pears Young Artist Programme, continues to provide training for outstanding young professionals from around the world and also manages courses for the Britten-Pears Orchestra, formerly The Snape Maltings Training Orchestra.