Spitalfields Music began as a classical music festival over 40 years ago, inspired by Christ Church, Spitalfields. Hawksmoor’s masterpiece was under threat of demolition but even in its run-down state, it was a wonderful space in which to hear music.
From a single event in 1976, the Festival soon began to grow and expand into a range of venues with a programme of early and new music. None of the venues were formal concert halls and a characteristic informally emerged. In 1989 work with local schools began and as such our learning programme was founded.
Take a look at a few highlights with our timeline below:
After two previous attempts to run Spitalfields Music Festival were thwarted by the coronavirus pandemic, Spitalfields Music presents its first completely online Festival, featuring Curator Errollyn Wallen alongside eight world premieres by women composers, author & historian S.I.Martin, Chineke! Junior Orchestra, The Dunedin Consort and Katie Melua. The event attracts a worldwide audience, reaching as many people in one day as is usual across the entire live festival, including many engaging with our work for the first time.
To support freelance musicians, creators and workshop leaders during a period of little work, we run a series of free online sessions on mindfulness and on trauma, and offer multiple bursaries to our Skills Lab training programme for those with access, support or childcare costs, and to musicians currently under-represented in our sector.
After a successful pilot of LivingArts in 2016, Spitalfields Music launches a pioneering, three-year programme working in Tower Hamlets care homes. Creative Encounters aimed to engage 180 older people, 100 staff and 60 volunteers in three care homes, with creative sessions, mentoring and consultation over a period of three years (2019–2021). Lead Artist Julian West and Researcher Hannah Zeilig led a multi-disciplinary team of artists to deliver creative sessions with residents, including those living with dementia, staff and local community members. The artists focused on making art spontaneously, led by care home residents and staff, in a way that encouraged new relationships to be forged.
Sarah Gee – a former trustee of Spitalfields Music between 2008 and 2014 – is appointed Chief Executive.
The 2018 Festival, from 1 to 9 December, explores a wider variety of venues across East London than ever before, as 11 different spaces are brought to life across the 9 nine days. From London’s only lighthouse, a basement turned nightclub, the iconic Tower of London and much more, the 2018 Festival presented the highest quality early and contemporary music for a diverse audience. Curated once more by André de Ridder, we were joined by featured artists Shiva Feshareki and Richard Reed Parry.
Spitalfields Music wins the Chamber Music and Song category in the Royal Philharmonic Society Awards for 2017 Festival project Schumann Street. This installation set across the Huguenot Houses of Spitalfields, featured artists from a range of stylistic backgrounds including Bengali folk, rap, classical, soul and jazz perform a re-interpretation of Schumann’s iconic song cycle, Dichterliebe.
The 2017 Festival takes place from 1 to 9 December at Shoreditch Church, Rich Mix and the Huguenot Houses of Spitalfields.
Stephen Newbould was appointed Interim Chief Executive of Spitalfields Music, covering Eleanor Gussman’s maternity leave, from September 2017. Prior to this, Stephen served as the Artistic Director and Chief Executive of Birmingham Contemporary Music Group (BCMG) from 2001–2016.
Spitalfields Music re-launches its festival model to focus on one Winter Festival per year, which is the vision of a guest Artistic Curator, starting with genre-defying conductor André de Ridder, whose programmes celebrate classical music in its widest form.
New initiative Open Call supports three music creators in creating performances that respond to some of the big issues in the 21st century while also exploring new ways of working. Three projects realised as works in progress during the Winter Festival, offering audiences a window into the creative process.
Pilot project LivingArts trials a leading-edge approach to improving the quality of life for care home residents in Tower Hamlets, including those living with dementia.
Spitalfields Music presents Depart with acclaimed circus company Circa, LIFT and National Centre for Circus Arts, with music created by Lapalux and a choral piece written by Sam Glazer.
World première of Once Around the Sun in Spitalfields Market, celebrating 40 years of creative music-making in Tower Hamlets. Written and performed by more than 125 local school children in collaboration with James Redwood and Trainee Music Leaders.
Eleanor Gussman is appointed as Chief Executive as Spitalfields Music celebrates its 40th anniversary in 2016.
Before starting at Spitalfields Music she spent over 8 years at the London Symphony Orchestra, leading pioneering music education initiatives as Head of LSO Discovery.
Associate Artists: La Nuova Musica, Emily Hall (composer) and Shabaka Hutchings (saxophonist and composer)
Seven- and eight-year-olds at three Tower Hamlets schools curate, produce and present their own in-school arts festivals as part of Takeover Spring Festival.
Eleanor Gussman appointed as Chief Executive.
Associate Artists: Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Arun Ghosh (clarinettist and composer)
David Lang’s large-scale vocal piece Crowd Out has its London première on Arnold Circus, involving 900 performers.
“Uplifting… the joy of seeing community art so eloquently enthroned. The Times on Crowd Out
Musical Rumpus wins Civil Society Charity Award and is short-listed for a RPS award. It tours to East London, Newcastle and Oxford, as well as to the Royal Opera House and Antwerp Festival in Belgium.
Associate Artists: Early Opera Company, Scanner (electronic artist and composer)
More than 1,100 artists perform across both Festivals and participation activities to a live audience of 25,678; organisation trains more than 200 people working in hospitals, children centres and libraries in using music in their everyday activities. Musical Rumpus tours to libraries and children centres in Barking & Dagenham and Newham.
“My favourite was working with the musicians, it made me feel like a real singer. Making our own songs and performing was brilliant.” Canon Barnett Primary School pupil
Associate Artists: Gabrieli Consort & Players, Talvin Singh (producer and tabla player), Matthew Barley (cellist and composer)
First Musical Rumpus production for 0–2½ year olds: world première of A Fairy Queen in the Forest, featuring music by Purcell arranged by Sam Glazer, and a libretto by Zoë Palmer.
Associate Artists: The English Concert, Mica Levi (singer, composer and producer)
Spitalfields Music wins a RPS Award for innovative audience development scheme, Buy One Donate One. Musicians deliver various projects with Vital Arts at the Royal London Hospital, including a lullaby project on maternity wards and songwriting with toddlers in long-term care.
World premiere of John Barber’s We Are Shadows, a large-scale community opera written with librettist Hazel Gould, which involves more than 200 participants, and wins a RPS Award for Learning & Participation.
Harry Christophers, The Sixteen and James Weeks appointed as Associate Artists as the organisation moves from working with a single Artistic Director to a series of artists — offering them the chance to be involved in both festivals and the year round Learning & Participation programme.
The Winter Festival included world premieres of Fables by Streetwise Opera and Madrigals and Fables created by Sam Glazer, Isabelle Adams and pupils from Tower Hamlets schools
Abigail Pogson joins as Chief Executive.
Organisation changes its name to Spitalfields Music to reflect its breadth of activities. Sir John Eliot Gardiner, the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists take up residency in Christ Church for the Winter Festival. The Learning & Participation programme (previously Education & Community Programme) reaches more than 16,000 children and adults.
Première of Original Version by Morgan Hayes, the first work commissioned through the New Music Commission Fund, launched in 2000 by Judith Weir. Judith Serota steps down as Executive Director. She is awarded the inaugural British Arts Festival Association Award for her outstanding commitment to British Festivals.
Artistic Director: Diana Burrell (2006–2009)
The organisation works with 10,000 children and adults in 32 mainstream and special educational schools, with 12 community groups and Royal London Hospital.
The Winter Festival opens with Scandavian and Lutheran traditional choral music from Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. The Summer Festival includes 53 events, 25 world premieres and 3 UK / London premieres of Festival commissions by Tarik O’Regan and Paddy Cunneen, and live concert relays from Christ Church to Old Spitalfields Market of Sir Andrew Davies and BBC Symphony Orchestra.
Both the Summer Festival and Winter Festival win a RPS Music Award for Concert Series and Festivals.
Jonathan Dove’s community cantata On Spital Fields (with libretto by Alasdair Middleton) has its world première at Christ Church. Devised in collaboration with five schools and an older people’s community choir, it wins the RPS Music Award for Education and British Academy of Composers and Songwriters Award.
The return of the Winter Festival to Christ Church is celebrated with a complete Handel oratorio (Belshazzar) performed by the Gabrieli Consort & Players.
While Christ Church is renovated, performances are held in new venues: Hoxton Hall, Wilton’s Music Hall, Brady Arts Centre, Whitechapel Art Gallery, Royal London Hospital, Toynbee Hall, Folgate Street and The Women’s Library.
Yousef Ali Khan explores Bengali folk music, traditional music and children’s songs with pupils from Stewart Headlam and Virginia Primary Schools in collaboration with the Museum of Childhood.
“This year’s Spitalfields Festival is as itinerant as the communities that inhabited the East End of London.” The Independent
The Winter Festival temporarily moves to Shoreditch Church (St Leonard’s) while Christ Church refurbishment is completed. The Education & Community Programme is short-listed for a Royal Philharmonic Society (RPS) Award. New partnership with the Royal London Hospital begins with singing workshops for staff.
Guest Artistic Director (Summer Festival 2001): Anthony Burton
Artistic Director: Jonathan Dove (2001–2005). During his tenure, Jonathan Dove programmes music of Huguenot, Jewish, Irish, Bengali and Somali origins, reflecting East End immigration.
“This year’s programme is as rich as ever. There are no less than 35 premieres — an amazing feat.” The Times, 2001
Artistic Director (Winter Festival): Stephen Johns
Inspired by Philip Flood and Jonathan Dove, the Music Animateur Apprenticeship Scheme (now Trainee Music Leaders) launches, giving early career musicians the opportunity to gain experience working in community settings.
A range of music and artists from across the globe is presented across both Festivals including 12th century Syrian chants, JS Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Kevin Volans’ string quartets, The Mishra brothers from India and a premiere of Gabriel Erkoreka’s Jukal
World première of Festival commission A winter’s walk around Troitse-Lykovo Park by Gerard McBurney.
“I do like the imaginative approach that can encompass a Gothic Voices Hildegard of Bingen concert alongside Schoenberg’s reduction of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, premieres from Howard Skepton, Gerard McBurney, and showcases of work featuring local school children.” Classical Music, 1999
Through 299 musical workshops and performances the organisation engages with more than 5,000 children in 24 schools, and two groups. It also launches singing workshops for city workers and a women only vocal group. The Summer Festival includes 43 concerts, 12 walks and talks.
“The Spitalfields Festival has grown into a strong, strange beast. Friendly in manner,fierce in ambition, it has a loyal following from the locality and beyond.” The Observer
Artistic Director: Judith Weir (1997–2000)
The Summer Festival features works by Byrd, Dunstaple, Gibbons, Palestrina, Sheppard, Taverner and the world premiere of a piano concerto by Judith Weir; performances from Ensemble Bash, The Cardinall’s Musick and Jane Manning and Jane’s Minstrels during SPNM’s London showcase; and premieres of Festival commissions by David Bedford, Keith Gifford, Julia Gomeslskaya and Judith Weir.
First Winter Festival takes place over four days in December. The programme continues to focus on the juxtaposition between old and new, including a première by Edward Dudley Hughes alongside I Fagiolini performing Palestrina and Byrd, new carols blended with Gibbons and Poulenc by Winchester Cathedral Choir, and London Adventist Chorale.
Joint Artistic Directors: Michael Berkeley, Anthony Payne, Judith Weir
Composer David Bedford wins a PRS Composers in Education Award for Old House, an ambitious music theatre piece involving 200 pupils from four local schools, professional singers, instrumentalists and a dramaturg.
“Composers in charge of a music festival? Isn’t that like allowing the lunatics to take over the asylum?” The Independent
Guest Artistic Director: Christopher Sayers
Programme includes première of Festival commission, Mr Purcell’s Maggott by John Buller; and artists Mark Elder, Thomas Randle and City of London Sinfonia.
First live broadcasts from Christ Church to Old Spitalfields Market over four evenings with The Kings Singers, Steven Isserlis, James Bowman and Collegium Musicum 90 performing music by Purcell, Handel, Monteverdi, Dowland and Tavener. Festival artists include: Consort of Musicke with Emma Kirkby, and Philip Dukes.
“Countering cultural and social neglect is what this lovely festival is about. It has a welcome spirit of egalitarianism” The Times
Festival includes artists Chi-Chi Nwanoku, Richard Lester, and five world premieres including Festival commission, Golden Moments by Dominic Muldowney, and a series of talks – Richard Hickox in conversation with Edward Greenfield, Philip Pickett, John Tavener.
Local landmark hostelry, Dino’s Cafe, provides refreshments during the Festival in Christ Church’s adventure playground.
The Education & Community Programme, supported by an advisory committee, develops into an integral part of Spitalfields Festival, working with 11 schools and clients of Christ Church Spitalfields Crypt’s drop-in centre for homeless men.
Festival programme includes: Wajahat Khan (sarod), Shafaatullah Khan (tabla), the Rosemary Butcher Dance Company, a series of architectural walks led by Dan Cruickshank, and the second performance of John Tavener’s The Protecting Veil.
Spitalfields Festival becomes an independent charity and takes over responsibility from the Friends of Christ Church for organising the Festival.
The first learning and participation projects take place: these include a concert by the Centre for Young Musicians and a project at Canon Barnett Primary School with the City of London Sinfonia inspired by the Festival’s theme Ringing The Changes.
The charity appoints Simon Foxley as Education Officer, the first such appointment for a British arts festival.
Judith Serota joins as Festival Manager.
“ … the period of the Church so well suits [baroque] music,and the acoustics suit early music perfectly. And we’ve also had a great commitment to contemporary music, right from the first.” Richard Hickox, BBC Radio 4
Artistic Director: Richard Hickox (1977–1993)
The Friends of Christ Church forms after a concert in 1976 to help save Christ Church Spitalfields from demolition. Richard Hickox, Jonathan Balkind and Hugh Keyte persuade Reverend Eddy Stride to hold the first “Summer Festival of Music” in June 1977.
With a focus on early and contemporary programming, and second performances of significant works, the reputation of the Festival grows rapidly. It is supported by successive administrators Victoria Bacon and Paul Gray.
Artists include*: Sir John Eliot Gardiner; Academy of Ancient Music; Christopher Hogwood; René Jacobs; The English Concert; Felicity Palmer; Nash Ensemble; Trevor Pinnock; Mstislav Rostropvitch; City of London Sinfonia; Imogen Cooper; Endymion Ensemble; London Sinfonietta; Dame Janet Baker; Gustav Leonhardt; London Cornett & Sackbut Ensemble; John Whitfield; Sir Richard Rodney Bennett; Andrew Marriner; London Symphony Chorus; Hilliard Ensemble; Sir John Tomlinson; Stephen Varcoe; James Bowman.
*listed in order of appearance