The Edinburgh International Festival was founded in 1947, in an attempt to lift spirits after a global war and revive Britain and Europe’s cultural scene with a statement of internationalism. Eight companies turned up uninvited and formed what would become the Fringe.
Several of those interviewed for this piece mentioned the concert in the first year of the festival, at the Usher Hall, that reunited the German-born Jewish conductor Bruno Walter with the Vienna Philharmonic and with the vocal talents of Kathleen Ferrier. Walter had first conducted the orchestra in 1907, but after the Nazi Anschluss in 1938 had moved permanently to the United States.
Some of the ten EIF directors to date have defined their festivals by themes, others have focused on different countries. Some were notable for their relationships with performers.
All had to navigate relationships with the city council, with regional and national government funders, changing political persuasions, and with patrons, as they worked to find the money for grand productions and low prices.
Other milestones emerged: the Writers’ Conference in 1962; John Drummond’s amazing Vienna 1900 programme, his last; Sir Brian McMaster’s decision to move EIF’s offices and staff out of London; the birth of what would become the Edinburgh Comedy Awards in 1981, the book festival in 1983, the art festival in 2004 – and, most of all, the Fringe, the EIF’s gigantic baby, which has outgrown them all.
Owen Dudley Edwards
The Edinburgh International Festival, born 70 years ago, asserted the renaissance of the arts and culture across Europe over which Nazism had closed its death-grip.
Its inauguration in 1947 proclaimed this by reuniting the great Jewish conductor Bruno Walter with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra from which he had been driven after the Anschluss. It sought to present music, theatre, painting, spectacle, establishment, revolution as it existed. It sometimes endangered itself by depending on acknowledged reputations, such that Tom Nairn called it the “Festival of the Dead” in 1967.
Edinburgh in its early years was a douce town, cringingly dependent on imitative respectability, but the emergence of the Fringe kept innovation on its toes. Between them and their spawn of other festivals, the town grew back into its old identity as a cultural capital demanding world perspective.
The festival recruited worldwide, the Fringe welcomed cultural immigrants from across the globe, but above all they found their greatest permanent strength in the European sense of their directors and administrators, above all when they managed to shake off the parochialism of London. The festival has made its city a perpetual challenge to the arts and thus restored its symbolism of enlightened leadership.
When the Edinburgh City fathers grasped the nettle in 1946 and voted to create an International Festival of Music and Drama, the Lord Provost, Sir John Falconer, an old Royal Scot, asked the Army commander in Scotland, General Sir Philip Christison, if he could help.
Sir Philip readily agreed to contribute a display of piping and dancing on the Esplanade of Edinburgh Castle. A few rows of chairs and benches were provided for spectators.
Those early displays developed into the first Tattoo in 1950 and over the intervening years the Edinburgh Military Tattoo, which gained the Royal prefix in 2010, grew into the “greatest show on Earth”, capturing the public’s imagination around the world and drawing huge crowds of visitors, and their spending money, to Edinburgh.
The Tattoo is not only bringing massive numbers to the city, who are delighted to discover there is also an International Festival and a Fringe Festival going on as well, but it is also now being recognised as a major business in its own right with a global brand reaching out across the world.
It is not only a stunningly successful cultural ambassador for the United Kingdom but it has shown that in Scotland our traditions and our skills can be world-class.
The first time I was there was in 1953, with the Oxford University Theatre Group. They asked me to do a play with them, we did a season at Riddles Court which – to the annoyance of all the highly-professional people – sold out.
In the early Fringe there were very few companies, but La Mama’s play about a young man having an affair with an attractive pig sold out after denunciation by a councillor.
The former Scotsman editor, Alastair Dunnett, prodded me to tell the Festival Council what to do with the festival, but within six months the loony left took over the city, they were going to shut it down and I needed to help the festival just survive.
We did a three-year plan in my last year. It was pointing out that there was a plethora of festivals all over the world, and that companies were doing productions just to traipse round them all, and to get anything original you really had to search around even then.
With the new theatre I felt that the festival should be a different kind of organisation, part of it doing the festival but the other part becoming a creative centre, not just a booking centre. It should have an influence on the whole world, because the world thinks the Fringe is the festival. You need a few things that catch the attention of the world and it’s no use being refined about it.
One of my things was keeping the prices down so ordinary human beings can afford to go to two or three things. Unfortunately, the prices have shot up. It’s got like London. To me that’s very sad, because it was an opportunity for ordinary people.
The first Edinburgh International Festival I immersed myself in was 1949. I was 13 and mad about the ballet, and when the Ballet des Champs-Elysees came with six programmes, I saw every one. Companies like that were here for three weeks then; now they are here for three nights.
I’m hugely enthusiastic about the festival under Fergus Linehan. There are all sorts of groups I’ve never heard of, contemporary music from all sorts of different genres. The idea in 1947 of having someone like Youssou N’Dour would have been interesting; he is a world musician, not from the western canon.
People like what they know, but I like it when you go to things when you have no idea whether you will like it or not. Sometimes you don’t – but sometimes you have an amazing experience.
There is a great push for a different audience. It doesn’t necessarily mean you are pulling them into classical music, but you have to be able to show that new music matters just as much as, say, a Beethoven quartet does. The main thing is, whatever it is, it has to be the absolute best of its kind. What’s the point otherwise?
I was born when the Gilded Balloon was in its infancy – only three years old – and my six-month -old handprint features in the 1988 brochure, so I’ve been involved in the Fringe for as long I can remember.It was fabulous to grow up around performers, artists, comics, technicians … the people who really are the Fringe.
In my first year as director, I am incredibly excited about exploring ways in which the Gilded Balloon can adapt as the Fringe continues to evolve. It can be easy to stay locked in your venue, and this year I’ll see shows across the whole city. There is so much going on.
Growing up with the Fringe all around me, I didn’t become aware of all the other festivals until much later. The Fringe was the festival to me. I’ve realised the importance of being part of the bigger picture.
We had a post-war, post-television gap in comedy where the music halls, variety halls, all closed after TV landed in
everyone’s homes in the late 1950s. Alternative comedy, officially born in 1981 (the same year as the first Edinburgh Comedy Awards) saw the openingof new, small comedy clubs and a new breed of live comics.
The Fringe has been a great developer of comedic talent. All you need is a room and a mike for most of the work – and, of course, an audience. Comedians call the Fringe “the school for clowns”.
Last year’s wonderful free, outdoor opening event for the Edinburgh International Festival was a brilliant innovation, a game changer; it’s going to be something that people look forward to every year.
The EIF’s world has changed. Today it has massive competition from a number of overseas festivals and from arts venues in London such as the Barbican and South Bank that didn’t exist when it was founded.
It’s much more challenging for the EIF to present shows that won’t be seen anywhere else in the UK, but on the other hand international collaboration is much greater.
Every Edinburgh International Festival director I know about was aware of a certain legacy and a certain responsibility. Any one of them worth his or her salt will want to make a mark, make a statement, in terms of their programmes, as temporary custodians of the EIF.
All of them must understand the circumstances in which the festival was founded, in the devastating context of the aftermath of the Second World War. In those times, in the most unlikely way, this festival was a beacon of hope, of optimism in dark ways.
That carries a responsibility, but an opportunity to speak more broadly about the role of culture in a community, of nurturing trust and optimism. Because of this legacy, because of this responsibility, Edinburgh is different, and that’s how it works.
What was international in 1947 was no longer necessarily so in 2007. In 1947 it necessarily reflected on Europe; in a much-changed world we had to take account of emerging economies like India, China, and Brazil. There are people who will come with ideas that you and I can’t imagine in 20 years because the technology will give them the opportunity. But the things that won’t change are those fundamental values and ideals so profound that they have been omnipresent in every single festival.