Edinburgh International Festival's first ever blockbuster show revisited

Scotsman writer David Pollock has written a new book on the history of the Edinburgh festivals. In this exclusive extract, he looks back 75 years to the reunion of conductor Bruno Walter and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in 1947, the Edinburgh International Festival's first blockbuster show.

On the evening of Monday 8 September 1947, as the famous Berlin-born conductor Bruno Walter lifted the baton to lead the 87 members of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra seated on stage at Edinburgh’s Usher Hall, performing history formed around him.

For Edinburgh, this was its Festival’s first true international blockbuster concert, as the debut year’s programme delivered on its promise and set up many more major events to come. Walter was days away from his 71st birthday when he arrived in the city, and an orchestral superstar. Born in Berlin’s Alexanderplatz in 1876, the youthful musical prodigy first played piano with the Berlin Philharmonic at the age of 13. He became an apprentice to Gustav Mahler at the then Vienna Court Opera, and the pair had a special understanding.

In 1911, 34-year-old Walter was by Mahler’s deathbed. Later that year in Munich, one of the crowning moments of Walter’s personal and professional life arrived as he was selected to conduct the premiere of Mahler’s unheard work Das Lied von der Erde (‘The Song of the Earth’). The great composer had written it with his unhappy departure from Vienna, the death of his eldest daughter Maria in childhood and the discovery of the heart defect which would soon take his own life in mind.

By 1947, Walter had built a 40-year reputation as one of the world’s finest conductors, from high-profile operatic directorships in Bavaria, Berlin and Leipzig to close orchestral associations with London and America, where he was now settled in California. So exciting was Walter’s presence in Edinburgh, in fact, that his hotel had to detail a member of staff to guard the door of his room, to turn away resourceful fans and autograph hunters.

Yet, as the Edinburgh Festival’s first director Rudolf Bing was well aware, the reunion of this particular conductor with the Vienna Philharmonic had far greater meaning beyond the simply musical. Both men were European Jews whose high standing within the operatic arts on the continent had been brought to an abrupt halt by the Nazis’ rise to power. Walter had even been denounced personally in Hitler’s speeches.

Bing went to work at 1934’s inaugural Glyndebourne Opera Festival in England, while between 1933 and 1938, Walter’s name became synonymous with Vienna, where he first came to prominence. Prior to the Anschluss of 1938, Walter took on Mahler’s old role as director of what was now the Vienna State Opera in 1936 and shared conducting duties at the Vienna Philharmonic with his rival Wilhelm Furtwängler. This was a golden period for the Philharmonic.

When Nazi Germany annexed Austria in May 1938, Walter was performing in Amsterdam and he knew it would be impossible to return home with his wife Elsa. In fact, his daughter Lotte was only able to join them two weeks later after being arrested and released, then crossing the Swiss border on the pretext of a non-existent singing gig. The next August, the Walters’ other daughter Gretel was shot and murdered by her jealous husband while she slept in Zurich. Within three months the heartbroken family left Europe behind for good and set out by sea for America, where Elsa died in 1945.

Bruno Walter, world-famous conductor and co-founder of the Salzburg Festival. PIC: AP/Shutterstock

The Vienna Philharmonic now entered the most contested period of its history, giving concerts at the behest of Joseph Goebbels and expelling Jewish members, seven of whom died during the war; five of them in concentration camps.

Bing was starting out with Hugo Heller’s Viennese concert agency in the early 1920s when he first met Walter. Before Edinburgh had even been settled on as a venue for the International Festival of Music and Drama Bing was planning, the reunion of Walter and the Vienna Orchestra was the hot-ticket centrepiece he hoped to arrange for it. Walter’s agreement to perform following an impassioned transatlantic letter from the hopeful Bing was the snowball that helped set the avalanche in motion.

“After that we were on the map,” Bing wrote in his memoir. “Whenever anyone asked me what all this was about, I had merely to say that Bruno Walter was coming and no further questions were asked.”

Bing was aware, in fact, that many were deeply suspicious of the VPO and Austria itself immediately after the war and that Walter’s presence would ‘deNazify’ the orchestra where one of its wartime conductors would virtually guarantee angry protest.

The VPO arrived in Edinburgh on Thursday 4 September after a 48-hour journey by boat and road, bustling into the Carlyle Hostel in Mayfield as the first ever Festival rain fell on Edinburgh after 11 days of sun. They were finally reunited with Walter – who had played a rare Schubert recital earlier in the week with singer Elisabeth Schumann – for the first time since before the war, ahead of their first rehearsal at the Usher Hall the next evening. “Its members,” the Scotsman noted soberly, “were looking forward to seeing him again after nine years’ separation.”

Bruno Walter and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra’s first Edinburgh Festival performance paid tribute to Britain’s compositional history with Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis and closed with Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’ Symphony No.6 and Symphony No.7. The second performance followed the same programme, and was attended by the Queen, Princess Margaret and the Duchess of Kent. The Scotsman recorded “a concert probably unparalleled in the musical annals of the city,” with thundering ovation after ovation from the packed hall greeting the performers at the end of the show. This was followed by a further series of cheers for the Royal party as they left the box.

It was a moment of great celebration, a pressure valve opening for a nation and a continent which had to stoically endure so much with little hint of light for the past decade. The key and most memorable moment of Walter’s week-long stay in Edinburgh, however, came with his return to his old mentor Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde. The work was largely unknown in the UK, but it came alive through the voices of the tenor Peter Pears and the contralto Kathleen Ferrier. Both were recommended by Bing after appearing in Benjamin Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia at Glyndebourne the year before, which had been written specially for Ferrier.

A village schoolmaster’s daughter from rural Lancashire, Ferrier was a rising star of British opera at this point, and Walter was immediately taken with her voice when Bing arranged introductions and auditions at the home of the publisher Hamish Hamilton. Walter said he believed her voice to be one of the greatest he had heard, even though she couldn’t get through Das Lied’s sixth and final movement, ‘Der Abschied’ (‘The Farewell’), due to the emotion of it.

Mysterious and otherworldly, the text in Mahler’s work, written by the German poet Hans Bethge, speaks of weary men heading homeward to sleep, and then rediscover happiness and youth. These words envisaged the wars which would shatter the continent in the decades after Mahler died, but left with the hopeful image of the earth blossoming in spring and growing once more.

Together Walter, the Vienna Philharmonic, Ferrier and Pears had exorcised some of the hurt of recent times, pointed towards a brighter future and put Edinburgh’s International Festival of Music and Drama on the world’s map. Bruno Walter returned to life in California, and his 1952 recording of Das Lied von der Erde is now recognised as one of the great operatic recordings. This record featured Kathleen Ferrier’s voice once again, her career having springboarded from the Usher Hall to the great stages of America and Europe.

Ferrier became a regular performer in Edinburgh during August and with Walter returned to the Usher Hall, the scene of their history-making triumph, with the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra for Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder in 1949. The greatest compliment she had ever received, was how Ferrier privately described that first request to sing with Walter, although her and the International Festival’s life together was brief. Breast cancer cruelly ended her life and potential as one of Britain’s operatic greats in October 1953 at the age of 41, the year after she performed Das Lied von der Erde in Edinburgh once more, this time with conductor Eduard van Beinum and the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam.

Walter played in Edinburgh with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra again in 1953, but they didn’t perform Das Lied… without Ferrier. “She is one of the few irreplaceable artists,” remarked Walter at the time. He died from a heart attack at his home in Beverley Hills in 1962, at the age of 85, but in the intervening years he had returned to conduct masterfully on the once forbidden stages of Berlin, Salzburg and Vienna.

“I felt that it was an invitation to be obeyed as a kind of command,” he told an Edinburgh press conference of his swift decision to appear in 1947. “The war was an interruption of very harmonious personal relationships, and when we met here after this interruption it was really a meeting of old friends who did not know if they were still friends. But they were.”

The Edinburgh Festival: A Biography by David Pollock is out now from Luath Press. www.luath.co.uk