Highlights from Spitalfields Music Festival 2023

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Spitalfields Music Festival header image, showing a mix of the artists, buildings and themes in this year's festival programme.

From 30th June – 12th July 2023, Spitalfields Music Festival returned to East London once again! We brought an incredible line-up of performers, exciting new premieres, forgotten masterpieces and captivating stories to iconic venues around the area.

It was a varied lineup, exploring over 500 years of music and history, including early music, folk, jazz, theatre and much more. Thank you so much to everyone who joined us for the festival this summer. We’d love to take a moment to reflect on the performances and events we held this year…

We explored a programme of protest through song in A Line in the Sand

We kicked off the festival with a mesmerising piece of performance from a lineup featuring Roderick Williams, Allyson Devenish, Nardus Williams, Rommi Smith and Lladel Bryant. The performers took us through a carefully curated programme of songs, interspersed with poetry, the recital explored the themes: Humanity, Environment, War, and Love. The recital featured songs from Schubert to Kit & the Widow, each song in conversation with the poetry.

TELL examined the legacy of storytelling

Mimi Doulton and Ben Smith perform works by Rasmus Zwicki and Michael Finnissy © James Berry

Mimi Doulton and Ben Smith introduced us to new works from Rasmus Zwicki and Michael Finnissy, exploring the theme of storytelling. As Mimi said, ‘all music tells some kind of story, whether it has words or not’, but through putting a spotlight on the human practice of sharing fables and legends, the composers explored something that has connected our cultures through many centuries. Finnisy’s Andersen-Liederkreis took well-known tales such as the Emperor’s New Clothes, setting them to contemporary music. We also heard his new work Edda, inspired by the Poetic Edda – an untitled collection of Old Norse anonymous narrative poems. The two works by Finnissy sandwiched a new song cycle by Rasmus Zwicki, TELL exploring what he describes as the ‘inextinguishable longing through all parts of life to tell and be told’. Spitalfields Music is so grateful year on year to be able to witness the premiere performances of compelling new works by extraordinary composers.

We heard the English premiere of Sir James MacMillan’s ‘We Are Collective’

The Maxwell Quartet perform with Alasdair Beatson

We were honoured to host the English premiere of Sir James MacMillan’s new piano quintet ‘We Are Collective’. Beginning as sketches for a song, the work takes its name from the original lyrics. MacMillan has said that the work plays on the ‘strangely comical’ air of political demonstrations and street chants, which inspired the tongue-in-cheek style of the piece. Macmillan weaves fragments of traditional Scottish folk music alongside blues and jazz references.

The piece was tailor-made for the Maxwell Quartet, whose mantra ‘You cannot understand classical string quartets without first understanding what it is like to play folk music’ shone through the rest of the concert. The quartet demonstrated their skill in performing the genre, through playing some tracks from Gather, their latest collection of folk re-workings.

The groups master of their instruments was displayed in the remainder of the concert. Firstly, with Eleanor Alberga’s String Quartet No.2 and finally, joined again by pianist Alasdair Beatson, performing Franck’s Piano Quintet in F minor.

Read The Telegraph’s review of the concert here

Out of Her Mouth presented new translations of 300-year-old cantatas

Alys Roberts performs in Out of Her Mouth, copyright Alastair More

The Dunedin Consort and Hera combined forces to bring to life the historically neglected cantatas of Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre. These cantatas were written in 1709 and 1711, presenting the stories of three women: Susanne, Rachel and Judith, individually working our how to use what little power they have in a patriarchal society. These performances presented the UK premiere of their new English translations by Toria Banks – you can read more about her approach to translation here.

Read The Guardian’s review of Out of Her Mouth here

Spitalfields Music Festival ventured inside the walls of the Tower of London

Byrd at the Tower, copyright James Berry

This year, we travelled to the Tower of London for not one, but two concerts which delved into history.

We heard the stories of the first five wives of Henry VIII, through musical settings of their final letters and gallows speeches, set to music by American composer Libby Larsen. Anna Dennis gave a spectacular performance of the song cycle, capturing the intense emotions of the five queens. It was pared with Julian Philips’ setting of texts by the great Tudor poet Sir Thomas Wyatt (who was rumoured to be infatuated with Anne Boleyn), and music from the Tudor court. Throughout the concert, we heard the harrowing story of Anne Boleyn, through new poetry by Rachel Long, A Necklace for Anne Boleyn.

To finish the festival, we celebrated the 400th anniversary of composer William Byrd, with a performance of his three masses for unaccompanied voices. These distinctly Catholic ways of showing faith were written in the storms of the Reformation, when many persecuted Catholics were imprisoned in the Tower of London. The music was juxtaposed with prose and poetry highlighting more recent examples of persecution of and by religious groups, such as the women in Afghanistan.


It was amazing to bring such a varied programme of events to East London once again. Thank you for joining us for another year of Spitalfields Music Festival!