Edinburgh International Festival

Last updated

Edinburgh International Festival
RSA building, August 2013.JPG
Royal Scottish Academy building decorated for the Festival in 2013
Date(s)2022: 5–29 August (exact dates vary each year)
Location(s) Edinburgh, Scotland
Patron(s) Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother (1947–1952)
Queen Elizabeth II (1952–2017)
Earl of Forfar (2017–present)
People Nicola Benedetti
Website www.eif.co.uk

The Edinburgh International Festival is an annual arts festival in Edinburgh, Scotland, spread over the final three weeks in August. Notable figures from the international world of music (especially classical music) and the performing arts are invited to join the festival. Visual art exhibitions, talks and workshops are also hosted.


The first 'International Festival of Music and Drama' took place between 22 August and 11 September 1947. Under the first festival director, the distinguished Austrian-born impresario Rudolf Bing, it had a broadly-based programme, covering orchestral, choral and chamber music, Lieder and song, opera, ballet, drama, film, and Scottish 'piping and dancing' on the Esplanade of Edinburgh Castle, a structure that was followed in subsequent years. [1]

The Festival has taken place every year since 1947, except for 2020 when it was cancelled due to the COVID-19 Pandemic. [2] A scaled-back version of the festival was held in 2021.

Festival directors

Creation of the festival

The idea of a Festival with a remit to "provide a platform for the flowering of the human spirit" and enrich the cultural life of Scotland, Britain and Europe took form in the wake of the Second World War. The idea of creating an international festival within the UK was first conceived by Rudolf Bing, the General Manager of Glyndebourne Opera Festival, the arts patron Lady Rosebery, theatre director Sir Tyrone Guthrie, and Audrey Mildmay (wife of John Christie) during a wartime tour of a small-scale Glyndebourne production of The Beggar's Opera . [4]

Rudolf Bing conceived of the festival to heal the wounds of war through the languages of the arts. This is its principal raison d’être. It was first financed by Lord Rosebery with the £10,000 winnings of his horse Ocean Swell that won the only two major horse-races run in wartime including the Jockey Club Cup in 1944. This sum was matched by Edinburgh Town Council and then some money in turn was matched by the Arts Council of Great Britain formed by Lord Keynes at war's end. Bing also co-founded the Festival with Henry Harvey Wood, Head of the British Council in Scotland, Sidney Newman, Reid Professor of Music at Edinburgh University, and a group of civic leaders from the City of Edinburgh, in particular Sir John Falconer.

Bing had looked at several English cities before shifting his focus to Scotland and settling on Edinburgh, a city he had visited and admired in 1939. In particular, Edinburgh's castle reminded him of Salzburg where he had been the festival director before the war. Harvey Wood described the meeting at which the idea was hatched:

The Edinburgh International Festival of Music and Drama was first discussed over a lunch table in a restaurant in Hanover Square, London, towards the end of 1944. Rudolf Bing, convinced that musical and operatic festivals on anything like the pre-war scale were unlikely to be held in any of the shattered and impoverished centres for many years to come, was anxious to consider and investigate the possibility of staging such a Festival somewhere in the United Kingdom in the summer of 1946. He was convinced and he convinced my colleagues and myself that such an enterprise, successfully conducted, might at this moment of European time, be of more than temporary significance and might establish in Britain a centre of world resort for lovers of music, drama, opera, ballet and the graphic arts.

Certain preconditions were obviously required of such a centre. It should be a town of reasonable size, capable of absorbing and entertaining anything between 50,000 and 150,000 visitors over a period of three weeks to a month. It should, like Salzburg, have considerable scenic and picturesque appeal and it should be set in a country likely to be attractive to tourists and foreign visitors. It should have sufficient number of theatres, concert halls and open spaces for the adequate staging of a programme of an ambitious and varied character. Above all it should be a city likely to embrace the opportunity and willing to make the festival a major preoccupation not only in the City Chambers but in the heart and home of every citizen, however modest. Greatly daring but not without confidence I recommended Edinburgh as the centre and promised to make preliminary investigations. [5]

Wood approached Falconer, who enthusiastically welcomed the initiative on behalf of the city. As it was too late to finalise arrangements for 1946, plans were made for the following year.

Features of the festival

Bruno Walter Bruno Walter Wien 1912.jpg
Bruno Walter

The first International Festival took place between 22 August and 11 September 1947, and it remained an event straddling August and September until 2015, when the dates of the Edinburgh International Festival was brought forward, to begin and end in August, to coincide with the Fringe. [6]

Classical music

From the beginning, the festival had a broad coverage, but with an emphasis on classical music, a highlight of the first season being concerts given by the Vienna Philharmonic, reunited with their erstwhile conductor Bruno Walter, who had left Europe after the Nazi occupation of his homeland. [7]

The full list of musicians at the festival during the late 1940s and early 1950s read like a Who's Who of mid 20th-century international music.

Great figures of pre-war music included, besides Bruno Walter, the conductors Wilhelm Furtwängler, Thomas Beecham, Adrian Boult, Fritz Busch, and Vittorio Gui, the pianist Artur Schnabel, the violinist Joseph Szigeti, and the singer Lotte Lehmann all appeared in Edinburgh in the twilight of their careers.

Rising stars of post-war Europe, such as the conductors Herbert von Karajan, Rafael Kubelík, Wolfgang Sawallisch, and Leonard Bernstein, the pianists Claudio Arrau, Solomon, and Rudolf Serkin, the string players Yehudi Menuhin, Pierre Fournier, Isaac Stern, and Amadeus String Quartet, and the singers Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Victoria de los Ángeles, Boris Christoff, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, and Peter Pears were all present in Edinburgh concert and recital halls from the beginning of their careers, while the long-lived pianist Artur Rubinstein had a career that seemingly spanned both eras.

Some of the most impressive performers of the early years had their careers tragically cut short in the 1950s, notably Kathleen Ferrier, Guido Cantelli, Ginette Neveu and Dennis Brain,


Opera was an important part of the Edinburgh Festival as the founders had been closely connected with the Glyndebourne Opera.

Major artists came to Edinburgh during the first ten years, such as the conductors Thomas Beecham, Fritz Busch, Ferenc Fricsay, Carlo Maria Giulini, Vittorio Gui, Rafael Kubelik, Georg Solti, and Georg Szell, the directors Carl Ebert and Franco Zeffirelli, and the singers Maria Callas, Lisa della Casa, Sena Jurinac, Birgit Nilsson, Anneliese Rothenberger, Victoria de los Angeles, Ljuba Welitsch, Giuseppe Di Stefano, Geraint Evans, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, George London and Peter Pears.


Fonteyn and Helpmann, The Sleeping Beauty, Sadler's Wells 1950 Fonteyn Helpmann Sleeping Beauty Sadler's Wells US tour (2).jpg
Fonteyn and Helpmann, The Sleeping Beauty, Sadler's Wells 1950

Ballet was inaugurated at the festival with performances of The Sleeping Beauty with Margot Fonteyn, Robert Helpmann and the Sadler's Wells Ballet Company at the Empire Theatre. They returned in subsequent years, together with companies including the Ballets des Champs-Élysées from Paris, American National Ballet Theatre from New York, the Grand Ballet du Marquis de Cuevas (Le Grand Ballet de Monte Carlo), the Spanish Ballet of Pilar López, the Yugoslav Ballet and the Royal Danish Ballet.


Drama was an important feature of the Edinburgh International Festival from its inception and right through the successful early years of the event.

The Old Vic Theatre Company, like Glyndebourne for opera and Sadler's Wells for ballet, gave their strong support to the festival, and they were joined by a series of Scottish, English, French and German companies, such as the Glasgow Citizens' Theatre, Henry Sherek and Tennent Productions, Le compagnie Jouvet de Théâtre de l'Athénée, Le Théâtre National Populaire, Paris, Le compagnie de mime Marcel Marceau, Le Comédie Française, Edwige Feuillère and her company, and Düsseldorf Theatre Company.

One of the festival's first dramatic success came in 1948 when an adaptation of Sir David Lyndsay's The Thrie Estaites was performed to great acclaim for the first time since 1552 in the Assembly Hall on the Mound. [8]

Noted directors included E. Martin Browne, Peter Ustinov, Gustav Gründgens, Tyrone Guthrie and Michael Benthall.

Well-known actors included Ralph Richardson, Alec Guinness, John Gielgud, Sybil Thorndike, Lewis Casson, Emlyn Williams, Claire Bloom, Alan Badel, Peter Finch, Richard Burton, Fay Compton, Ann Todd, Eric Porter and Edwige Feuillère.

Visual arts

The visual arts were not featured in the first two festivals in 1947 and 1948, but from 1949 they became an important part of the events. There were major exhibitions at the National Gallery of Scotland and Royal Scottish Academy. These included Rembrandt in 1950, Spanish Paintings (El Greco to Goya) in 1951, Degas in 1952, Renoir in 1953, Cézanne in 1954, and Gauguin in 1955.

World premieres

Many works have received their world premieres at the Edinburgh International Festival, from T. S. Eliot's The Cocktail Party and The Confidential Clerk in 1949 and 1953, to James MacMillan's 2018 version of Quickening and Symphony No. 5, both in 2019.

Festival venues

The Usher Hall, the leading venue of the Edinburgh International Festival The Usher Hall, Edinburgh.JPG
The Usher Hall, the leading venue of the Edinburgh International Festival

The principal venues of the Festival are:

Other venues that have sometimes been used in the past include:

Other festivals in Edinburgh

The 240-foot-high spire of The Hub, seen from Johnston Terrace Former Tolbooth Church, Castlehill, Edinburgh.JPG
The 240-foot-high spire of The Hub, seen from Johnston Terrace

About ten other festivals are held in Edinburgh at about the same time as the International Festival. Collectively, the entire group is referred to as the Edinburgh Festival or Edinburgh Festivals.

Most notable is the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, which started as an offshoot of the International Festival in the first year of its operation (although not known as such at the beginning), and has since grown to be the world's largest arts festival.

The Edinburgh International Film Festival also began in August 1947 with a programme of documentary films. In the 1990s this festival moved into June. The 1966 Writers' Festival begun by John Calder, Richard Demarco, Jim Haynes, founders of the Paperback Bookshop and Traverse Theatre, eventually led to the Edinburgh International Book Festival also staged in August.

The British Army's desire to showcase itself during the festival period led to the independent staging of the first Edinburgh Military Tattoo, featuring displays of piping and dancing, in 1950. This annual event has come to be regarded as a part of the official festival, though it continues to be organised separately. [9]

The result is a collection of festivals with more than 2,500 performances and events every day in Edinburgh in August, which is said to be many times larger than any similar conglomeration of arts festivals anywhere in the world.

See also

Related Research Articles

Charles Mackerras Australian conductor

Sir Alan Charles Maclaurin Mackerras was an Australian conductor. He was an authority on the operas of Janáček and Mozart, and the comic operas of Gilbert and Sullivan. He was long associated with the English National Opera and Welsh National Opera and was the first Australian chief conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. He also specialized in Czech music as a whole, producing many recordings for the Czech label Supraphon.

Peter Hall (director) English theatre, film director (1930–2017)

Sir Peter Reginald Frederick Hall CBE, was an English theatre, opera and film director. His obituary in The Times declared him "the most important figure in British theatre for half a century" and on his death, a Royal National Theatre statement declared that Hall's "influence on the artistic life of Britain in the 20th century was unparalleled". In 2018, the Laurence Olivier Awards, recognizing achievements in London theatre, changed the award for Best Director to the Sir Peter Hall Award for Best Director.

Sir John Michael Pritchard, was an English conductor. He was known for his interpretations of Mozart operas and for his support of contemporary music.

Sir Rudolf Bing, KBE was an Austrian-born opera impresario who worked in Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States, most notably being General Manager of the Metropolitan Opera in New York City from 1950 to 1972. He was naturalized as a British subject in 1946 and was knighted in 1971.

Sir Alexander Drummond Gibson was a Scottish conductor and opera intendant. He was also well known for his service to the BBC and his achievements during his reign as the longest serving principal conductor of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra in which the orchestra was awarded its Royal Patronage.

Adelaide Symphony Orchestra

The Adelaide Symphony Orchestra (ASO) is a South Australian performing arts organisation comprising 75 full-time musicians, established in 1936.

Edinburgh Festival Theatre

The Edinburgh Festival Theatre is a performing arts venue located on Nicolson Street in Edinburgh, Scotland. It is used primarily for performances of opera and ballet, large-scale musical events, and touring groups. After its most recent renovation in 1994, it seats 1,915. It is one of the major venues of the annual summer Edinburgh International Festival and is the Edinburgh venue for the Scottish Opera and the Scottish Ballet.

Carl Ebert

Carl Anton Charles Ebert, was an actor, stage director and arts administrator.

Sir Ian Bruce Hope Hunter was a British impresario of classical music. Known as 'Mr. Festival' to many in the arts world, Hunter was one of the most important figures in a post-World War II cultural renaissance in the United Kingdom. From the mid-1950s, following the death of Harold Holt, he headed the music management agency Harold Holt Ltd, which joined with Lies Askonas Ltd in the late 1990s to form Askonas Holt.

Motley Theatre Design Course is a one-year independent theatre design course in London. It was founded at Sadler's Wells Opera in 1966.

Sian Edwards is an English conductor, best known as music director of English National Opera in the 1990s.

Grace Audrey Laura St John-Mildmay was an English and Canadian soprano and co-founder, with her husband, John Christie, of Glyndebourne Festival Opera. The Canadian Encyclopedia describes her voice "as a light lyric soprano employed with much charm."

Peter Ebert German operatic director

Peter Ebert was a German opera director. Son of noted German director Carl Ebert who left Nazi Germany in 1934 with his son and moved to England, he was best known for his work with Glyndebourne Opera and the Scottish Opera where he staged over 50 productions from 1963 to 1980 and which brought him great success.

Classical music in Scotland

Classical music in Scotland is all art music in the Western European classical tradition, between its introduction in the eighteenth century until the present day. The development of a distinct tradition of art music in Scotland was limited by the impact of the Scottish Reformation on ecclesiastical music from the sixteenth century. Concerts, largely composed of "Scottish airs", developed in the seventeenth century and classical instruments were introduced to the country. Music in Edinburgh prospered through the patronage of figures including the merchant Sir John Clerk of Penicuik. The Italian style of classical music was probably first brought to Scotland by the cellist and composer Lorenzo Bocchi, who travelled to Scotland in the 1720s. The Musical Society of Edinburgh was incorporated in 1728. Several Italian musicians were active in the capital in this period and there are several known Scottish composers in the classical style, including Thomas Erskine, 6th Earl of Kellie, the first Scot known to have produced a symphony.

This is a summary of 1947 in music in the United Kingdom.

The 1947 Edinburgh Festival Fringe was the first edition of what would become the world's largest arts festival, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

This is a summary of the year 2017 in British music.

Hans Oppenheim was a German-born conductor. He was son of the Jewish German neurologist Hermann Oppenheim.

Moran Victor Hingston Caplat, CBE was an English opera manager, associated throughout his career with Glyndebourne Festival Opera.

Opera was an important feature of the Edinburgh International Festival from its inception.


  1. The International Festival of Music & Drama Edinburgh 1947 Souvenir Programme. 1947.
  2. "Edinburgh festivals cancelled due to coronavirus". BBC News. 1 April 2020. Retrieved 1 April 2020.
  3. "Obituary, Robert Ponsonby". 2019. Retrieved 27 December 2021.
  4. Fifield, Christopher. Ibbs and Tillett: The Rise and Fall of a Musical Empire. Ashgate, 2005: p. 263
  5. G. Bruce, Festival in the North: The story of the Edinburgh Festival, London: Robert Hale, 1975, p. 18.
  6. Severin Carrell (8 May 2014). "Edinburgh international festival moves dates for 2015 as part of shakeup". The Guardian.
  7. Bruce, Festival in the North (1975), p. 20.
  8. Bruce, Festival in the North (1975), pp. 25-6.
  9. Bruce, Festival in the North (1975), p. 31.

Further reading