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“Life as a perpetual weekend” — that is one way to define the dream of what life might be when the demands of our working lives lessen their grip.
With the luxury of available time, the chance to enjoy and expand the cultural side of life is high on many people’s wish lists. Of the riches on offer in Britain, music festivals are among the most exciting.
The word festival often evokes muddy fields, screeching crowds and dripping tents. Yes, Glastonbury is famous for that — although there, as at Womad (where you can relish world music) and the increasingly popular Latitude (a wide range of rock, pop and more) there is now a selection of “glamping” (glamorous camping) options that make it far more comfortable.
The luxury yurt can be a whole experience in itself, but nonetheless these stay-on-site festivals are not for the faint hearted. However, if it is an item on your bucket list, there are literally dozens of choices countrywide, each with a slant towards a particular musical genre, be it electronica, heavy metal, or dance.
Beyond the rock and pop scene, music festivals come in a much wider range of styles, types, and levels of comfort. From Cornwall to the Orkneys, in cities or deep in the countryside, inside barns or stately homes, Britain’s music scene is amazingly diverse.
Perhaps the most famous of all is the Edinburgh Festival. There are now a whole pack of festivals taking place there at once — including the Fringe (mainly devoted to theatre and comedy), a fine book festival, world-class art exhibitions and more. For three weeks in August the Scottish city becomes a sort of wraparound cultural experience, and the music offerings of the International Festival itself (mostly classical concerts and some opera) are usually inventive and of very high quality.
Other large and very well-established events — such as London’s BBC Proms, which brings a glorious plethora of music to the Royal Albert Hall throughout the summer — probably need no introduction, and smaller events may be more interesting to seek out. But a glance at a list of festivals, or at their programmes, can be baffling. There are two main ways to select a preference: by a favourite genre of music, or because of a beautiful and interesting destination. With luck, the two can be combined.
If classical music of varied sorts is what most appeals, possibly the current leader of the field is the Aldeburgh Festival, which in June fills not only the famous concert hall at Snape Maltings in Suffolk, but also nearby village churches and other evocative venues. Sited on the edge of the reedy coastline, Snape’s dramatic surroundings are part of the atmospheric power of the place. Music takes place all year: later in the summer, the Snape Proms branch out into jazz, world music, and more.
The spirit of place is even more powerful at St Magnus on Orkney. As the festival takes place across the midsummer equinox, the moody northern twilight is the backdrop to the musical offerings in St Magnus cathedral — from chamber music to opera and song — and the island’s ancient sites provide fascinating visiting by day.
At the other extreme of British Isles, Prussia Cove at the tip of Cornwall is a glorious setting for a series of concerts given by international musicians attending seminars and workshops: small, choice, and very much worth a leisurely trip.
Perhaps contrary to all expectations, opera seems to grow in popularity — especially the country house opera houses that have multiplied over the past few years. Glyndebourne, in Sussex, has long been famous for its peculiar British notion of getting all dressed up in black tie to picnic in a sometimes very damp garden, but the charm of the format is undeniable and it is now rivalled by summer seasons of opera at Garsington in Oxfordshire, Longborough in Gloucestershire’s rolling Cotswolds, Grange Park in Surrey (not to be confused with The Grange in Hampshire) Nevill Holt in Leicestershire and several others.
These are not so much festivals as seasons, with productions dotted through the calendar from June to September, but there is often an opening weekend on which you can catch two productions. Offerings usually highlight Mozart and Handel — though Longborough has a Wagnerian focus — and this year Grange Park moves into more popular territory with Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma.
While such big-production musicals need the full staged treatment, folk music can thrive on a bale of hay (and often does). The Green Man festival, which takes place in mid-August, is among the most successful and has moved far beyond its folk roots to host big names across the genres in its stunning setting in the Brecon Beacons.
Jazz, on the other hand, is essentially an urban genre. Cheltenham Jazz festival, established some 20 years ago, usually hosts a punchy international line-up over an intensive few days in May — a chance for full-body immersion in the genre. As in Edinburgh, the fringe scene in pubs and clubs around the town will also introduce younger and lesser known talents.
Cheltenham is a festival city, with a long-established classical music bonanza in June — specialising, over the years, in contemporary premieres — and fine science and literature festivals at other moments in the year.
What differentiates festival going from simply attending a concert or a gig is this sense of destination, and immersion. There is a qualitative difference. Whether it is the journey to a distant corner of these islands, a country house or a muddy field, or perhaps combining music-going with a daytime pleasure such as walking or exploring a new district — or even the discovery of different music, or of familiar music in a special setting — giving it time is essential.
The sense of entering another world and living it fully is the core of the festival experience. Music, like every art form, richly repays the quality of attention it is given.
Jan Dalley is the FT’s Arts Editor