Concert pianist James Dick established the Festival-Institute at Round Top in Fayette County in 1971. Dick, a performer with a distinguished career, was uniquely qualified for the task of creating a campus and organization to operate one of the major music festivals in the United States. He graduated from the University of Texas with special honors in piano in 1963 and was a student of pianist and pedagogue Dalies Frantz. Following graduation at UT, he received two Fulbright fellowships for study at the Royal Academy of Music in London and private study with Sir Clifford Curzon. Dick also was a major prizewinner in the Tchaikovsky, Busoni, and Leventritt international competitions and represented the United States on the juries of the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow and the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in Fort Worth. He was the 2009 Texas Medal of Arts winner. His concert tours take him throughout the United States and abroad each year.
The 1971 festival, a ten-day session with ten piano students, included two concerts. During its first five years the Festival-Institute leased facilities, but its master plan of development was soon established for programs and the future permanent campus. The first major facility, the Mary Moody Northen Pavilion, was acquired in 1973. It is the largest single-unit transportable stage in the world and was used for open-air concerts until 1983. The festival was later housed in the 1,200-seat Festival Concert Hall, on which construction began in 1981, until the permanent stage was completed in the Concert Hall in 1993. An abandoned school building and six acres of land east of Round Top, Texas, were acquired in 1973 for a future campus to be named Festival Hill.
Festival Hill grew gradually until it became a beautifully landscaped campus of some 210 lush and restored acres, located directly between nearby Houston and Austin. The Festival-Institute and its year-round operations moved to this site in the Bicentennial summer of 1976. The first historic structure moved to Festival Hill came from La Grange and was named the William Lockhart Clayton House at its new site. Built in 1885, it was renovated in 1976 for faculty, offices, teaching, and indoor concerts. It features some of the most commanding woodwork on Festival Hill, surpassed only by the acoustically-acclaimed Festival Concert Hall. The Menke House, built in 1902, was moved to Festival Hill from Hempstead and renovated as a faculty and conference center in 1979. It houses the furnishings and collections of the late Texas composer David Guion, and its Gothic Revival ceilings and staircases make it a showcase of Texas carpentry. The historic sanctuary of the former Travis Street United Methodist Church of La Grange, built in 1883, was moved to Festival Hill in 1994, for restoration as a center for chamber music, organ recitals, lectures, and seminars. The Festival-Institute Museum and Library exhibits its art collections in the Festival Concert Hall and the restored historic houses. The Central Library includes the largest collection of valuable guidebooks to English country homes in the world. The David W. Guion Archives and the Americana Collection, as well as the Anders and Josephine Oxehufwud Swedish and European Collection, have unique hand-crafted galleries in the Festival Concert Hall. Other facilities have been built to house accommodations as well as provide practice, teaching, meeting, and seminar rooms for the festival and for year-round programs and conferences. Long-term construction on the Festival Concert Hall was completed in 2007.
The two concerts in 1971 have grown into more than thirty programs during June and July of each year. The August to April Concerts and other programs presented each season at Festival Hill bring the total number of year-round concerts to more than fifty. These include orchestral, chamber music, choral, vocal, brass, and solo performances. The repertoire extends from Baroque to contemporary music, including newly commissioned works. The first commissioned work, Etudes for Piano and Orchestra by Benjamin Lees, was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. The Festival-Institute commissioned a new concerto for piano and orchestra, Shiva's Drum, by Dan Welcher as part of its twenty-fifth anniversary collection. James Dick performed the work with the Texas Festival Orchestra, conducted by Pascal Verrot of France. An annual International Guitar Festival began in 2005.
Students from conservatories and universities in the United States and abroad pursue their musical studies at Round Top under the guidance of an international music faculty. Although the number of Festival-Institute alumni is in the thousands, the project manages to give each student the personal attention that has been a hallmark of its programs. It is both a festival and an institute, where students and faculty perform for appreciative and large audiences. Broadcasts of "Live From Festival Hall" over public radio stations extend the concerts and audiences of the Festival-Institute throughout the United States and Canada. Broadcasts of the Festival Concerts were presented throughout France beginning in 1994. The Festival-Institute presented the Texas premiere of Claude Debussy's only opera, Pelléas et Mélisande, with a French cast and conductor, Pascal Verrot, on the evening of July 6, 2002. This was the only performance of Debussy's venerable opera classic in all of North America in its centennial year and was received with great media acclaim in the United States and abroad. Pascal Verrot conducted a program honoring Debussy's 150th birthday at the 2012 Round Top Festival. The 2015 summer festival included two performances of founder James Dick as soloist—Gershwin’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in F and Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.
The campus is also used for conferences, meetings, and retreats. Major business groups, museum administrators, law firms, and numerous university and professional organizations have held conferences there. A series of distinguished museum lectures is presented at Festival Hill each year. The campus, famed for its gardens and rare trees, herbal collections, cascades, fountains, and unusual landscaping, is a destination for visitors from all over the world. An outreach program of public-service concerts featuring students and faculty who contribute their performances further extends the benefits of the Festival-Institute to the wider public. Former Festival-Institute students are found in the New York Philharmonic, the San Francisco Symphony, the Boston Symphony, the Cleveland Symphony, and on the faculties of major institutions both in the United States and abroad.