Britain is a nation bursting with song. While this most musical of islands has nurtured numerous world-class singers and bands, it almost bursts with festivals and concerts all year round. Here’s five favourite escapes for music fans. Add yours below.
Shetland’s legendary folk festival
Despite a surprisingly diverse live music scene, Shetland is best known for its world-class fiddle tradition. So venerated are its performers that the islands’ mythical Trows are said to kidnap them for their nocturnal gatherings.
Since 1981, local talent has been joined by performers from around the globe for the hugely popular Shetland Folk Festival. Hosted in large, well-maintained village halls across the islands, this springtime event spans four days with performances every day from early afternoon onwards. The emphasis tends to be on boisterous fun rather than steps being followed correctly – Shetland tunes are traditionally composed for dancing and locals pride themselves on playing faster than elsewhere in Scotland. But some of the best performances take place in the wee small hours, when well-oiled musicians and audiences trickle back from the outlying venues to the Festival Club in Shetland’s capital, Lerwick, for ad hoc jams till 3 or 4am.
At festival time, pop into The Lounge Bar at lunchtime on Saturday to hear guest musicians join the relaxed sessions upstairs. If you’re visiting at other times of the year, there’s still always plenty on: try Wednesday and Thursday nights at The Lounge or Tuesdays in the nearby Douglas Arms.
Shetland Folk Festival, late April to early May, www.shetlandfolkfestival.com
The Proms, London
As much a part of the British summer as a rain-sodden Wimbledon, the Proms can also lay claim to being the biggest classical music festival on the planet: a 58-day epic watched by millions around the globe. In recent years, Proms have been themed around John Williams’ film scores and Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, and the annual Doctor Who Prom – complete with daleks – is a sure-fire sell-out.
If you’re planning to go to several concerts, it’s more affordable to prom, which means queuing for a £5 standing ticket up in the gallery or in the arena, right by the stage. Eight weeks of concerts culminate in the raucous end-of-term party that is the Last Night, when a core of die-hard prommers – armed with Union Jacks and klaxons and sporting straw boaters – attempts to raise the roof with patriotic sing-alongs in the Rule, Britannia! vein. Last Night tickets are in high demand, so consider joining the misty-eyed, flag-waving hordes at the open-air Proms in the Park in London’s Hyde Park and other cities nationwide for big-screen link-ups to the main event.
The Proms, Royal Albert Hall, London SW7 www.bbc.co.uk/proms.
A global gathering in the Welsh hills
In the north Wales countryside a Filipino choir in pink and blue chiffon poses for a photo. Rajasthani musicians in turbans relax between shows, as a group of traditional Scottish dancers hurries by. Ukrainian folk singers enjoy the sunshine, while a gaggle of South African students head for lunch. A nervous Patagonian ensemble prepares to perform.
At first glance, it appears an unlikely scene. But every year, during the second week of July, around four thousand singers, dancers and musicians from more than fifty countries arrive in the verdant Dee Valley to compete in the six-day Llangollen International Musical Eisteddfod.
Eisteddfods are Welsh festivals of competitive music, literature and performance dating back to the twelfth century. There are many Eisteddfods staged throughout Wales, but the Llangollen International Musical Eisteddfod is slightly different. During the days, accomplished performers compete in a range of categories, including choirs, folk dancing and instrumental works. Shortly afterwards, the judges reveal their “adjudications” – which range from technical jargon to acerbic asides – and announce the winners. In the evenings are the main concerts. But arguably the most enjoyable part of the Eisteddfod is simply wandering around outside the pavilion, taking in the melange of national costumes, languages and cultures.
A celebration of Benjamin Britten on the Suffolk coast
Few composers have been so tied to a single place as Benjamin Britten, who loved the Suffolk coast his whole life: “I belong at home – there in Aldeburgh. I have tried to bring music to it in the shape of our local Festival; and all the music I write comes from it”.
Today the Aldeburgh Festival remains very much Britten’s baby, a celebration of classical music established by him in 1948, along with singer Peter Pears and writer Eric Crozier, and inspired by the same sky-domed landscapes. Indeed, little has changed in this part of Suffolk since Britten’s day, a crumbling coast of shallow estuaries, grey seas and humble fishing towns. Snape Maltings, where the festival has been based since 1967, has also retained its Victorian character, despite evolving into a major tourist complex replete with shops, galleries, cafés and even boat tours up the Alde estuary.
Britten’s aim was to present new music and new interpretations of older or forgotten pieces, and today it’s the festival’s smaller concerts that reflect this heritage best. The young talent taking the Britten–Pears Programme composers course supply a range of new work, while the youthful Britten–Pears Orchestra offers fresh, dynamic takes on a range of classical pieces. Britten still features of course and his masterpiece, the opera Peter Grimes, remains a fan favourite; the chilling tale of an alienated and brutal dreamer never fails to mesmerize audiences, a powerful evocation of the struggle of the individual against the masses.
The Aldeburgh Festival, Suffolk (www.aldeburgh.co.uk) takes place over two weeks in June, with concerts at Snape Maltings plus venues in Aldeburgh.
Port Isaac’s Fisherman’s Friends
Stop by at Port Isaac on a summer’s Friday evening, and an ethereal sound will rise to meet you: the vigorous roar of a male voice choir. As you follow the lane down to the minuscule shingle-beached harbour of this North Cornwall village, the sound swells, fills the air, and there, right on the harbour, is the source of the fulsome blend of bass, baritones and tenors: a circle of burly, middle-aged blokes giving their all to shanties, seafaring folk tales and blubbery ballads. Yes, it’s the Fisherman’s Friends, enthusiastically performing their weekly ritual of songs by the sea.
Port Isaac, otherwise a sleepy, picturesque village of some thousand souls, was already on the map following its appearance in the British TV series Poldark and Doc Martin, both of which were set here. Fans trickled in, the pubs recorded an upturn in business, and locals – or some of them – scratched their heads and smiled. But in 2010 something strange happened: the local a cappella choir (one of many in Cornwall) signed a million-pound deal with Universal Music and released a hit album.
The ten-man band was Fisherman’s Friends, formed from local fishermen, RNLI members, boatyard workers and Coastguard or Cliff Rescue staff, and all living within half a nautical mile of each other. They had already released two self-financed a cappella albums, but since the deal the band has gone viral, playing every festival on the circuit (including Glasto). A spell in these parts provides the perfect tonic for jaded city-dwellers – but you’ll have to join in a rousing chorus of “Pass Around the Grog”, “Haul Away, Joe”, “The Lifeboat Girl” or “Home from the Sea” to truly feel Port Isaac’s peculiar brand of full-throated exuberance.
The Fisherman’s Friends (www.fishermansfriendsportisaac.co.uk) perform every Friday evening between June and September at around 8pm.