The very first Edinburgh International Festival of Music and Drama opened on the 24th of August, 1947.
The Edinburgh International Festival is a performing arts festival and is one of the most important cultural celebrations in the world. It brings together audiences and artists from around the world for three weeks from the middle of August and its annual programme features classical music, opera, theatre and dance of the highest possible standard. The ‘Edinburgh Festival' as it has become known, also hosts a series of visual art exhibitions, talks and workshops. The ‘Festival' is now a series of several individual festivals, which take place every summer in the City. In addition to the Edinburgh International Festival, there is the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, which is an arts festival that is today recognised for its comedy and drama events. The ‘Fringe’ has since spawned a sub-festival called the Edinburgh Comedy Festival, which is now the biggest comedy festival in the world. Other festivals providing their own cultural, entertainment and educational contributions are: the Edinburgh Art Festival; the International Film Festival; the International Book Festival; the Edge Festival; the Jazz and Blues Festival; and the International Science Festival (albeit the latter is held annually in April). To that heady mix, you can add the Edinburgh Military Tattoo. Edinburgh has something to offer for all tourists at any time of the year, but there is no denying that it is especially popular during the festival season, when its population swells to twice its normal size.
The very first Edinburgh International Festival took place in 1947, although there had been a number of festivals in Edinburgh during the 19th Century. These were primarily music festivals and the first of those was held in November, 1815, the same year as the Battle of Waterloo. Further festivals followed in 1819, 1824, 1843 and 1871. However, the first festival to be called the ‘Edinburgh International Festival’ opened on the 24th of August, 1947 and closed three weeks later in the 13th of September. The guy who should get the credit for the concept is Rudolf Bing, who was the General Manager of the Glyndebourne Opera Festival in 1943. Bing was an Austrian impresario who had fled Nazi Germany in 1934 and brought with him the good bits of German and Austrian culture. He had an ulterior motive in that the Glyndebourne was in need of additional funding and, in 1944, when it became clear that Oxford wasn’t going to work, he turned to Edinburgh and Henry Harvey Wood, the head of the British Council in Scotland. Elsewhere in Europe was kinda ruled out for a while after the Second World War and, contrary to Glasgow opinion, Edinburgh folk are very cultured.
Despite Bing committing a faux pas by suggesting that the proposed festival should open with a High Mass in St. Giles Cathedral, the home of the Presbyterian Kirk of Calvin, Knox and Wishart, 1947 was agreed as the year of the festival. It was to be a three week affair, funded equally by the City Council, the Arts Council and private donations. At that first International Festival, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, the Hallé Orchestra and the Sadlers Wells Ballet all appeared and, to add to the cultural breadth of the event, the ‘Taming of the Shrew’ was performed. The Glyndebourne staged an opera at the King’s Theatre and other associated events included pipe bands and dancing on Edinburgh Castle Esplanade, a precursor of the Military Tattoo.
For a lot of people, the International Festival is synonymous with the ‘Fringe’ and, depending on how ‘culture’ is viewed and the individual’s interest and participation, there are many who believe that the ‘Fringe’ is the ‘Festival’ and that’s it, period. Nevertheless, the International Festival proper still gets audiences in large numbers so, nobody can deny its popularity. It offers something for everyone at the highbrow – primarily ballet, classical music, opera and theatre – end of the cultural spectrum. Still, it’s the ‘Fringe’ that gets into the ‘red tops’. The Edinburgh Fringe Festival also began in 1947, when eight theatre groups arrived unofficially and uninvited, and did their own thing, performing in venues away from the Edinburgh International Festival. The ‘Fringe’ got its name the following year, from Robert Kemp, a Scottish journalist, who wrote “Round the fringe of official Festival drama, there seems to be more private enterprise than before … I am afraid some of us are not going to be at home during the evenings!” He obviously intended to enjoy the fringe benefits.
The ‘Fringe’ has been seen as a bit of a thorn in the side of the International Festival, but, from the City’s point of view, all of the contributing festivals are welcomed as a major source of tourist revenue and a bit of rivalry lends to the atmosphere and spirit of competition. The International Festival isn’t immune from comedy, which has now overtaken drama as the popular diet of the ‘Fringe’ and back in 1960, can be said to have pulled off a bit of a coup. In that year, ‘Beyond the Fringe’, with Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Jonathan Miller and Alan Bennett, was a hugely successful revue, which has been since claimed as the forerunner of the boom in satire in the ‘swinging sixties’. Despite its title, it had nothing to do with the ‘Fringe’ and I imagine, if you were to hold a quiz, most folks would get that question wrong.
The Fringe has had a ‘love hate’ relationship with critics over the years. Some are offended that it now dwarfs the International Festival and has become a “grotesquely outsized and highly commercialised beast.” On the contrary, there remains the risk factor and the opportunity to unearth the stars of the future. However, as Alistair Moffat, its first official Administrator cautions, “Many highly successful performers first made a critical success on the Fringe, but it would be fatuous to claim that the Fringe made anyone’s career. All it did, and does, was to provide a platform for anyone who, if they are good enough, can enjoy national, and even international, critical and popular acclaim.”
And who couldn’t have a good time visiting Edinburgh, eh?