While the main venues in cities are often quiet in the summer, the choice of where to go to listen to live classical music and opera is extraordinary. Festivals take place in all manner of locations, from cities like London or Paris to small European villages. They are often more relaxed than the rest of the year's concert schedule, as concertgoers enjoy the sunshine, loiter in the streets, and picnic on the grass.
We have highlighted some wonderful festivals around the world which you might like to visit. Take a look at festivals browsing by country, or browse by festival type instead. Whatever your interest, you will find some festivals here that really appeal.
We are also listing a number of festivals under the following categories: take a look if you're after something in particular:
- Chamber music festivals
- Opera festivals
- Early music festivals
- Contemporary music festivals
- Handel festivals
As a special service, during the month of April only, if you use the contact form on the site, we will try to help you find the best festival for you, if you email us what sort of events you like and which month or months you’re thinking of going on holiday. We can't promise to help, but we’ll try!
Visitors to Scandinavia are spoilt for choice for classical music over the summer months. Bergen International Festival in Norway is a cross-arts festival encompassing theatre, visual art and literature as well as musical events, with venues including several connected with composer Edward Grieg and 19th-century violin virtuoso Ole Bull. Running over two weeks from 23 May, the Bergen International Festival welcomes a huge number of artists from Scandinavia as well as further afield, and musical performances are wide-ranging, with a particular focus on contemporary music and video art. Performers include Leif Ove Andsnes with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra and Les Arts Florissants.
In Norway in late August is the Fartein Valen Festival, commemorating an extraordinary composer. Valen (1887-1952) spoke nine languages and cultivated roses, while still finding the time to write over 25,000 piano études. The festival features numerous works by him, as well as a range of other classical music.
For early music fans, the Stockholm Early Music Festival runs in early June, and claims that 'It's never too late for early music!' Set in Stockholm's beautiful Old Town, the diverse range of events includes concerts for children and some traditional Tibetan songs.
The Baltic Sea Festival is in the last week of August. Celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, the festival is welcoming a stellar range of performers, including Valery Gergiev, Esa-Pekka Salonen, and Nina Stemme. The closing concert is Beethoven's Choral Symphony under the baton of Herbert Blomstedt.
One of the boldest of the summer's many opera festivals, Savonlinna Opera Festival in Finland runs throughout July and features the world premières of Kimmo Hakola's La Fenice and Markus Fagerudd's Free Will, as well as classic works including Aida and Peter Grimes with events taking place in a medieval castle. Vantaa Music Festival takes place in August and focuses on music written for period instruments. The programme is a fascinating dialogue between the old and the new, and a number of premières sit among the Baroque works.
LuostoClassic is a stunningly located festival in Finnish Lapland, and this year they are hosting the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra for their headline concert, which will feature percussionist Colin Currie and two works by Finnish composer Kalevi Aho. With adventurous repertoire in a wonderful area, this is a festival well worth seeking out. Another enticing Finnish festival is the Korsholm Music Festival in early August, which focuses on chamber music and is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. Set in the beautiful coastal area around the Vaasa and Korsholm archipelago, repertoire again ranges widely, from the Baroque to jazz and contemporary, with its famous "daylight" during the nights bringing a special magic to the festival atmosphere.
The famous Salzburg Festival takes over the whole town during July and August, with over two hundred events in classical music and theatre and as always includes performances many of the world's top players and ensembles, including Daniel Barenboim and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, the Vienna Philharmonic, and the Monteverdi Choir for their 2012 edition. This year the festival has a new Artistic Director, Alexander Pereira. His bold programme includes a celebration of sacred music, the Ouverture Spirituelle, which is due to run yearly. Among the more intriguing items of the vast and wide-ranging programme are The Magic Flute and its little-known sequel The Labyrinth, by composer Peter von Winter and Mozart's librettist Emanuel Schikaneder.
Running in three festivals between April to October is the Schubertiade, in the west Austrian town of Schwarzenberg. Focusing predominantly on 19th-century music, the festival attracts many of the world's foremost chamber musicians and Lieder singers.
One need not go without Handel in Germany from May to June, as both the Göttingen International Handel Festival and the Handel Festival Halle host a wide variety of Handel concerts and operas. Among Göttingen's more intriguing items this year is the 'magical opera' Amadigi di Gaula, and there are also favourites such as a Messiah performance and a number of chamber recitals. Halle likewise combines opera and concert recitals, as well as the sacred oratorio La resurrezione and various less purely Baroque events including an evening with the JBB Jazz Quintett and an evening with fireworks of 'Symphonic rock and pure Handel'.
Mozartfest Würzburg runs throughout June and emphasizes music by Mozart and other 18th- and 19th-century composers. Performers include Europa Galante and Bracc!, an eight-piece viola ensemble from the Munich Philharmonic who are playing at the local golf club. The Ruhr Piano Festival runs from May to July and features an array of the world's most accomplished and exciting pianists – from Stephen Kovacevich, András Schiff, Radu Lupu and Tamara Stevanovich, to Chick Corea, the Labèque sisters and Alice Sara Ott.
We also have 161 events listed at the huge Rheingau Music Festival. Péter Eötvös, Christian Gerhaher, Paul Lewis, Håkan Hardenberger, and the London Symphony Orchestra are all making appearances. Works range from the Baroque to the contemporary and also encompass jazz, musicals and traditional folk music.
The Dubrovnik Summer Festival in Croatia runs from mid July and features a knockout lineup, including Nigel Kennedy with his jazz quartet, Pinchas Zuckerman, Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Daniel Barenboim and the Choir of King's College, Cambridge. A must-visit for anyone in this part of the world over the Summer.
June's Riga Opera Festival with Latvian National Opera features a number of classic operas inlcuding The Barber of Seville and Götterdämmerung. Also included are Tchaikovsky's rarely-staged Mazeppa, and a performance of Krzyzstof Penderecki's Polish Requiem.
Another Handel festival is taking place in June and July this year as well: The Triumph of Handel is set at the beautiful Château de Versailles with concert performances in several of the rooms and opera at Louis XV's magnificent Royal Opera. Not only can you see performances from the Academy of Ancient Music, the Sixteen, the King's Consort, and Cecilia Bartoli, but you can also attend a masked ball.
The Festival de Violoncelle de Beauvais is a unique event, run by French cellist Emmanuelle Bertrand. This year there is a special focus on Debussy, to celebrate his 150th anniversary, and appearances from the Debussy Quartet and the Nash Ensemble. The Festival Chopin à Paris runs from mid-June, and works by Chopin feature in each recital alongside a wide range of other Romantic composers including Arensky, Bortkiewicz and Scriabin. Pianists include Nikolai Demidenko and Leeds International Piano Competition winner Sofya Gulyak.
The town of Prades is the home of the Festival Pablo Casals, from late July to August. The town was once the residence of Casals himself, and the festival contains a diverse mixture of music. Highlights include a concert with both the Pražák Quartet and the Artis-Quartet Wien, and a programme of works by various Bachs from accordionist Richard Galliano with L'Orchestre de Chambre de Toulouse.
This year's Galway Early Music Festival in May is fascinatingly entitled 'Social Harmony: When Tradition and High Art Meet' and explores music across a range of styles, from bagpipe music through history, to music for harp, guitar and percussion.
A couple of North American festival highlights are the Bethlehem Bach Festival in Pennsylvania and the Montreal Chamber Music Festival. The early May Bethlehem Bach Festival includes a number of Bach cantatas, two performances of the B minor Mass, and a selection of harpsichord partitas performed by Charlotte Mattax. The Montreal Chamber Music Festival, which runs from May to June, welcomes a number of top chamber performers in an inventive and varied programme which includes a complete cycle of Bach cello suites with Paul Carr, and all the Shostakovich quartets with the Pacifica Quartet.
The City of London Festival runs from June to July and features a huge variety of arts events in the heart of the City. Now in its 50th year, the festival has events as diverse as London itself. Particular musical picks include the Brodsky Quartet in a mysterious, chance-based recital, and the Hilliard Ensemble with saxophonist Jan Garbarek.
A further Handel celebration is the London Handel Festival, which runs from March to April and contains performances of works including Il Pastor Fido and, interestingly, Johann Adolf Hasse's opera Cajo Fabrico. There's more Baroque music in London in May, with the Lufthansa Festival, where Jordi Savall, Jed Wentz and the Dunedin Consort are all performing.
At the other end of the repertoire spectrum is Sounds New in Canterbury, which this year is celebrating contemporary British composers. Works include John Tavener's The Veil of the Temple and Peter Maxwell Davies' A Mirror of Whitening Light, and performers range from the London Sinfonietta to the BBC Big Band.
One of the joys of an English summer are the opera festivals, which are more numerous than ever this year. You can picnic on perfectly rolled lawns, drink champagne without corkage, and listen to sublime opera either under canvas or in an auditorium. With uncertain English weather and the knowledge that you will be walking over stretches of lawn, stilletos can be an unfortunate choice of footwear, while floaty summer dresses, lovely and cool at 5pm, are distinctly chilly by 10. You can tell the old-timers by their organised picnics and their dress, chosen to cope with all types of weather, many of which will occur within one evening. The UK's opera festivals are not restricted to Glyndebourne by any means: Grange Park Opera are putting on works including Madama Butterfly and The Queen of Spades, and are performing with Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra as well as English Chamber Orchestra. Set in a Hampshire mansion with beautiful grounds around, this is an exquisite setting for opera and a great day out. Opera Holland Park is just as exciting, bringing opera outdoors (albeit under canvas) to west London. Alongside pieces such as Falstaff and Così fan tutte is Tobias Picker's Fantastic Mr Fox, an excellent family option.
There are plenty of classical music festivals around the country as well. The Cheltenham Music Festival has a brilliant programme including many premières from top composers including Judith Bingham and Alexander Goehr. There is also a large amount of more traditional music, and an accordion recital at Cheltenham Ladies College. The Three Choirs Festival, which rotates between three Midlands cities, is in Hereford this year. Performers include the Philharmonia Orchestra with Diego Matheuz and Julian Lloyd Webber, and I Fagiolini. There is also an extremely rare performance of George Dyson's The Canterbury Pilgrims, again with the Philharmonia.
The Lincoln and Lincolnshire International Chamber Music Festival features a number of chamber performances from the Escher String Quartet and others, in a beautiful mixture of music old and new. Further west, the Welsh Proms are staging a performance in Cardiff with Nicola Benedetti, Chloë Hanslip and Lesley Garrett, as well as one with the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain.
And the biggest and arguably best known festival of the lot, the BBC Proms, will be unveiled to the world and on our site at 2pm on 19th April. So take a look at our site then!