The Florence Music Festival – Maggio Musicale Fiorentino – ranks up there with the likes of Salzburg and Vienna as one of the most prestigious classical music festivals in Europe. Established originally as a biennial opera festival in 1937, the Maggio Musicale became such an instant success that, in 1937, it was made an annual event and its scope widened enormously. Now, 73 seasons later, it has become the centrepiece of Florence’s musical programme – beginning at the end of April and continuing through until June.
The Festival has its origins in the traditional Florentine Calendimaggio, on 1st May, when the city welcomed spring with displays of flowers, music and theatre. Florence, the city which claims the production of the world’s first opera, has, of course, always been close to heart of Italian culture. Now, the central venues of what was Italy’s first music festival, include the magnificent Teatro Communale, the Teatro della Pergola, the Teatro Piccolo and there are also concerts in the wonderful Boboli Gardens behind the Pitti Palace.
In the years since its inception, most of the classical music world’s greatest names have appeared at the Maggio Musicale – artists of such international pre-eminence as Maria Callas, Luciano Pavarotti, Herbert von Karajan, Igor Stravinskij, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Bela Bartòk and Richard Strauss. Even luminaries of the stature of Max Reinhardt, Luchino Visconti and Franco Zeffirelli have designed sets and costumes for the Festival.
Opera has always been, and still is, very much at the forefront of the musical offerings on the programme each year. Even though the economic crisis led to government funding cuts, meaning two operas were cancelled on the 2009 programme, it is still the cornerstone of the proceedings. In addition, there are many concerts and ballets of the highest quality.
When conductor and composer Vittorio Gui established the Maggio Musicale, one of his stated ambitions was to promote operas which were visually, as well as musically, dramatic. This has been a constant preoccupation with successive Artistic Directors and has led to some spectacular productions being undertaken. Indeed, the Maggio Musicale was the very first festival to enlist specialists to develop the visual and aesthetic qualities of productions, in addition to the musical aspects.
The 2000 seats in the amphitheatre of the Teatro Communale – built originally as an open-air concert hall but re-built after both bombing and flooding into the magnificent auditorium it is now – is an acoustically perfect place in which to listen to wonderful music. Likewise, there could be few outdoor venues more breathtakingly beautiful than the Boboli Gardens and the Piazza della Signoria, the civic centre of life in Florence.
A recent, and popular, innovation at the festival has been the development of the Maggio OFF programme, which features both younger artists as well as avant-garde and ethnic music. A word of warning, though; if you visit the official web site of the Maggio Musicale to discover the next programme, it can be disconcerting to read the details of a concert with OFF written in capital letters next to it – especially when you have heard about cut backs in funding! Rest assured, there is still a full calendar of events in both the main festival and the Maggio OFF.
There are many who claim that Florence, and Tuscany in general, is at its most beautiful in the spring. With the local Amerigo Vespucci airport and the Galileo Galilei airport at Pisa within a short distance; with excellent rail links to the rest of Italy; and by virtue of its position right at the heart of the country’s road transport links, Florence is a very accessible city. With a variety of accommodation inside the city – as well as the possibilities offered in the surrounding Tuscan countryside – spring at the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, in the company of some of the world’s greatest performers, sounds like an enticing prospect.