The Festival takes place every two years in the picturesque Wealden village of Mayfield, in Sussex. It started life in 1970 as part of an attempt to raise funds for the building of a parish church hall. The guiding spirit was the Vicar, Canon Donald Carter, who with the parish church organist, Kenneth Pont, organised enough events to fill a fortnight. The hall, in fact, was never built, but the Festival has continued ever since.
Mayfield is blessed with some attractive venues. Most of the concerts take place either in St Dunstan’s spacious fifteenth-century church, with its impressive Parvis Tower, from whose roof May carols ring out at the start of each festival; or in the Old Palace, one of six Sussex mansions which belonged to the See of Canterbury. The Old Palace is now home to Mayfield Girls’ School, and contains a fine concert hall built in 1930 by Adrian Gilbert Scott. In the fourteenth century the Great Stone Hall was built, with three of the widest unsupported stone arches in existence in the medieval period. This is now the Chapel and possesses acoustics of great quality. The Roman Catholic church of St Thomas of Canterbury is used for smaller events, lectures and discussions.
Audiences come together from all over the South-East to hear fine performances in these historic settings. Programmes are scattered with individual names such as John Ogdon, Peter Donohoe, John Lill, Cristina Ortiz – Paul Tortelier, Igor Oistrakh, James Galway, Michala Petri, Evelyn Glennie – Victoria de los Angeles, Dame Janet Baker, Isobel Baillie, Emma Kirkby, Thomas Allen, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies and in the 2018 festival Stephen Kovacevich.
Chamber music has featured with string quartet concerts by the Allegri, Borodin, Takacs and members of the Amadeus. Julian Bream, John Mills and Paco Pena have appeared in guitar recitals. Band concerts have included visits from the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble, the Band of H.M. Royal Marines, Coldstream Guards and Grimethorpe Colliery.
In 1972, Malcolm Williamson (former Master of the Queen’s Music) was composer in residence, organising workshops and supervising performances of his opera, Dunstan and the Devil. In the same year, the Festival commissioned Paul Patterson to write a Wind Quintet and in 1994 Francis Grier was commissioned to write a full-length choral work, Mass in Time of Persecution, embracing poems of Irina Ratushinskaya.
In 1976, Sir David Willcocks began an association with the Festival and conducted one of the two large-scale choral works at every Festival until 2002. His fifteen appearances with the Mayfield Festival Choir included the Mass in B minor by J.S.Bach, the Verdi Requiem, The Dream of Gerontius by Sir Edward Elgar and Mozart’s Grand Mass in C minor. The Festival Choir were supported by the Royal College of Music Symphony Orchestra and London Primavera.
Choral music has always had a high profile, and concerts by the Cathedral choirs of Westminster, Chichester, Guildford, Christchurch Oxford, Eastern Michigan University and the Oxford Camerata have all been on the agenda. In 1997, a magnificent new Walker Organ was installed in the Parish Church. This has widened the repertoire of organ recitals by Dame Gillian Weir, John Scott, Simon Preston and Olivier Latry (Notre-Dame de Paris) and in the 2018 festival the eminent conductor of the Westminster Abbey Choir – James O’Donnell.
Light entertainment and humour have been provided by Michael Bentine, Richard Stilgoe, John Dankworth and Cleo Lane, Prunella Scales, Humphrey Lyttleton, the Swingle Singers, the Jacques Loussier Trio and the John Wilson Orchestra.
In the year 2000, a unique concert of 100 Belfries was the result of an association between the French Festival “Recontres en Pays de Bray” in Normandy and Mayfield. A completely new work was created for the Millennium by an English and French composer. It was performed simultaneously in the churches of Notre-Dame, Neufchatel and St Dunstan, Mayfield.
Both churches were linked by radio land-line and the narrative and music was broadcast alternately between the venues by BBC Southern Counties Radio and Radio France Normandy. At one point, all the bells of 100 participating churches on both sides of the Channel rang a unified celebration of the Millennium.
One of the most exciting developments in 2016 was the Festival’s adoption of the Tunbridge Wells International Music Competition which runs over a period of five days at the centre of the festival.
Kenneth Pont retired as Festival Director in 2004 and was succeeded by Neil Mackie CBE. The present Festival Artistic Director is Jeremy Summerly, Director of Music at St Peter’s College, Oxford, Co-Artistic Director of Oxford Baroque and Founder of Oxford Camerata in 1984. He is also Director of Music at St Luke’s Church, Chelsea.