The Festival

The phrase, Festival Spirit, may sound nebulous, yet in reality, it's anything but. Festival Spirit manifests itself in courageous decisions, generous acts and joyful moments. Over 70 years, we have seen it in the kindness of the people of Scotland. It was there in hard decisions taken, when Iron Curtain politics tried to force the artistic hand - and it was there when a magnanimous Soviet Union permitted Bolshoi artists to leave for Edinburgh as tanks rumbled in Moscow. We are constantly inspired by artists who put the audience first. At its heart, Festival Spirit is the sense of excitement and celebration you can feel in Edinburgh every August.

Read on

Resisting Iron
Curtain politics

Three weeks before the 1959 International Festival commenced, a major political crisis unfolded. Robert Ponsonby had successfully arranged for the first orchestra from behind the Iron Curtain to perform at Edinburgh, the Czech Philharmonic. Johanna Martzy, an expatriate Hungarian violinist, was set to be a soloist. On 15 July, an urgent demand from Prague was received: the Orchestra refused to accept Martzy on political grounds. A representative flew to Prague hoping that personal talks would resolve the crisis; the Orchestra would not compromise. It would have been easiest to capitulate. But the Festival Director, with the full backing of the Lord Provost and Executive Committee, did not hesitate in adhering to the founding principles of the International Festival that, “art should be above ideologies and political views”. The Royal Philharmonic was invited to replace the Czech Philharmonic, and Czech-born Walter Susskind stepped in to conduct, so that Miss Martzy could perform.

Violinist Johanna Martzy and conductor Walter Susskind

Violinist Johanna Martzy and conductor Walter Susskind at the 1959 International Festival.
Photo: Paul Shillabeer

Mariinsky & RSNO

In the 2017 event, Mariinsky & RSNO, two great orchestras come together to perform works by Britten and Shostakovich, to celebrate the meeting of these two composers at the Edinburgh International Festival in 1962. The RSNO will perform Britten's Frank Bridge Variations, and then join together with the Mariinsky Orchestra from St Petersburg for the overwhelming power of Shostakovich's Fourth Symphony. Symphony No 1 in D ‘Classical' by Prokofiev will also be performed.

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Valery Gergiev

Valery Gergiev
Photo: Alberto Venzago

When Britten met

These two towering composers of the 20th century met at the Edinburgh International Festival in 1962. Britten was here to conduct The English Opera Group's production of his The Turn of the Screw. Shostakovich was here as a special guest for performances of 25 compositions over three weeks, in the year of the so-called Russian invasion. His presence followed courting by Lord Harewood in Russia to discuss which works would be performed, and by whom. Needless to say, Harewood's visit was not without Soviet politics, Russian bureaucracy and Georgian brandy. As for Britten and Shostakovich, no record of their meeting remains, other than the enigmatic awareness that these two great men spent time together.

Portrait of Dmitri Shostakovich

Portrait of Dmitri Shostakovich

Festival spirit
amongst Artists

When Julian Bream fell ill hours before his recital, and his hastily-found replacement Paco Peña developed qualms, rather than disappoint the audience at Leith Town Hall, Daniel Barenboim, Pinchas Zukerman and a few members of the English Chamber Orchestra quickly rearranged their morning schedule. They presented themselves in Leith at 11am, cool, calm and collected. They delighted the audience with nearly two hours of polished Mozart. Barenboim charged merely a token fee, and Zukerman refused to accept any fee at all.

Festival Spirit
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A performance at Leith Theatre during the 1972 International Festival

A performance at Leith Theatre during the 1972 International Festival
Photo: Paul Shillabeer

launches fund

2,000 readers generously sent in cheques and new businesses kindly donated profits to the International Festival, thanks to an appeal from the Scotsman Editor. In total, a staggering £90,000 was raised. It funded Houston Grand Opera's UK premiere of Nixon in China. This open-hearted gesture in true Festival Spirit was a morale boost for the International Festival, at a time when the costs of hosting the greatest productions was at times prohibitive. The people and businesses of Scotland sent a powerful message of support. It is said to have stopped Dunlop from resigning his post as Festival Director.

Nixon in China

Houston Grand Operas production of Nixon in China

Tanks rumble
in Moscow

A coup of Frank Dunlop's powers of diplomacy averted potential disaster for the Bolshoi Opera at the 1991 International Festival. On the morning they were due to leave Moscow for Edinburgh, tanks rumbled down the main streets in an attempted military takeover by Kremlin hardliners to overthrow Gorbachov, destabilising the Soviet Union. Dunlop called the Bolshoi to find out if they were permitted to leave. He was told that, thanks to the warm relationships he had developed with the Soviet authorities, the only planes being allowed out were the chartered planes for transporting the Bolshoi to Edinburgh.

Inside the Bolshoi Opera

Inside the Bolshoi Opera
Photo: Photographed by Theefer. CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Carmen plays

A story from behind the scenes of the 1977 production of Bizet’s Carmen

“As a spear-carrying extra (paid £2 a night not to sing) I found myself being roped into a football match, playing for the Abbado All-Stars against the London Symphony Orchestra. Did I ever believe that I might play in a side which had conductor Claudio Abbado as striker and tenor Placido Domingo in goal? That morning, Abbado displayed all the footballing skills of a member of AC Milan rather than those of the musical director of La Scala; Domingo too would have loved to play a more active role mid-field but his insurers would not allow him any more risky a position than goalie.

The gentlemen of the LSO attacked the game with the same relish as they attacked the overture to Carmen each night in the King’s Theatre pit and should have won easily... but for one small constraint imposed on them: they had been instructed to avoid any powerful shots towards goal for fear of injuring the most valuable piece of real estate in the operatic world. So Domingo had to “save” namby-pamby soft lobs while Abbado and Piero Faggioni, the director of the opera, scored crucial goals at the other end against the run of play.

The crowd of spectators was pretty thin but we appreciated the support of two ladies, heavily wrapped-up against the dreich Edinburgh weather, Teresa Berganza who had the title role in the opera and Mirella Freni, who sang Micaela. The hurling of abuse and advice in equal measure from these two was not to be expected as they possessed the most glorious mezzo and soprano voices in the musical firmament; rather we were treated to genteel applause at the all-too-few big moments.What a match, what a memory!”

By Niall Lothian, from Spear Carrier to Chairman of the Edinburgh International Festival

Claudio Abbado at the 1978 International Festival

Claudio Abbado at the 1978 International Festival
Photo: Alex “Tug” Wilson

Ballet for boys

To overturn stereotypes and inspire more boys to engage with dance, an advance party of male dancers from San Francisco Ballet arrived several months prior to the 1997 International Festival. Over 600 boys aged 10 to 13 years took part in schools across Edinburgh, and were introduced to the transformative power of dance. Over 300 of the boys subsequently chose to watch their mentors perform in a mixed bill with the full San Francisco Ballet.

fire disaster

Four days before the opening of a show by The Mark Morris Dance Group, the Playhouse Theatre erupted in flames backstage. In true Festival Spirit, the dancers happily agreed to transfer to the less salubrious Meadowbank Stadium. Morris said the members of his company were so keen to come to Edinburgh, they'd have performed in a “swamp” if they'd had to. It was the second year of six consecutive appearances at the International Festival, performing in total, 27 pieces.

Mark Morris Dance Group

Mark Morris Dance Group
Photo: Sean Hudson

State Ballet of
Georgia stranded

The 2008 International Festival coincided with war breaking between Georgia and Russia. Against the terrifying backdrop of their homeland descending into chaos, the State Ballet of Georgia continued with their performances. All in-bound flights were cancelled. The International Festival made special arrangements to host the company for longer until arrangements could be secured to transport them safely back home.

State Ballet of Georgia performing Sagalobeli at the 2008 International Festival

State Ballet of Georgia performing Sagalobeli at the 2008 International Festival

Culture Summit

In today's fracturing and volatile world, culture and cultural exchange has an increasingly important role in building understanding. The biannual Edinburgh International Culture Summit is the leading global opportunity to discuss key aspects of development and issues across the sector. It takes place during alternate International Festivals, benefiting from the presence of many of the world's greatest ground-breaking artists, thinkers and arts leaders, meeting with culture ministers to inspire positive change in arts and cultural policy. For instance, the 2016 Culture Summit focused on the vital role of culture in building resilient communities.

The Culture Summit is a collaboration between the Scottish Government, UK Government, British Council, Edinburgh International Festival and the Scottish Parliament. It is delivered on behalf of the partners by the Edinburgh International Culture Summit Foundation.

Participants at the 2016 Edinburgh International Culture Summit

Participants at the 2016 Edinburgh International Culture Summit


It's a ubiquitous, ancient storyline: the generous patron helps the impoverished artist, and in so doing, brings great art to the world. The Edinburgh International Festival is no exception to the rule. Here we focus on just three of the incredibly kind people who deserve to be celebrated for their unstinting Festival Spirit.

Prolific philanthropists

The legacy of
Léan Scully

Léan Scully resided in Dublin but ‘made a festival of this city', to cite the quote inscribed on the park bench in her honour in Edinburgh's Princes Street Gardens. Each year she was a familiar figure at International Festival performances at the Usher Hall and a faithful regular at Friends and Patrons lunches. Described by those that knew her as "a great lady with a great heart", she vowed to "see the Festival right". True to her word, she remembered the Edinburgh International Festival with over 5.5 million euros. Her legacy was invested in our Endowment Fund, ensuring projects take place every year that specifically benefit the careers of young artists. Léan was always passionate about ensuring the future of the International Festival and the next generation of performers.

The Last Hotel in 2015. Supported by Léan Scully EIF Fund

The Last Hotel in 2015. Supported by Léan Scully EIF Fund
Photo: Patrick Redmond

Mairi Rankin

Mairi Rankin established The Pirie Rankin Charitable Trust in 2012 to advance the arts for future generations, and in particular the work of the Edinburgh International Festival. Her initiative followed a lifetime sharing a passion for the arts with her husband, Roy Rankin, who served on the Festival Council in its early days and was a member of the Festival Society until his death in 1995. Together they attended numerous performances and frequently hosted post-show parties. After Roy's death and under Mairi's direction, the Trust went on to support many notable productions, including Antigone starring French actress Juliette Binoche in 2015 and The Glass Menagerie starring Cherry Jones in 2016. For those at the International Festival who knew Mairi best it seemed poetic to hear that she had died on 31 August 2015, the closing day of the 2015 International Festival, at the age of 91.

The Glass Menagerie in 2016. Supported by The Pirie Rankin Charitable Trust

The Glass Menagerie in 2016. Supported by The Pirie Rankin Charitable Trust
Photo: Johan Persson

Grigor and the
Dunard Fund

Accomplished concert pianist Carol Colburn Grigor is one of the most significant, prolific, and dedicated benefactors in the UK. Grigor's deep passion for the arts is in her genes: her US businessman father, Richard D. Colburn, donated generously and strategically to classical music. Through the family-founded Dunard Fund, she has provided tens of millions of pounds for a wide range of arts organisations in the UK. Her commitment to the International Festival represents the most significant private support received from one source in our 70-year history; over £10.5m in the last 15 years alone. In 2014, she was made Honorary Vice President of the Edinburgh International Festival.

The Magic Flute in 2015. Supported by Dunard Fund

The Magic Flute in 2015. Supported by Dunard Fund
Photo: Iko Freese, drama-berlin

The story doesn’t
stop there…

As we celebrate the 70th anniversary in 2017, all eyes are looking towards the future. More great artists, more exciting moments, and more unmissable experiences.

Here’s to the next 70 years of the Edinburgh International Festival.


Next 70 years

Photo: Mihaela Bodlovic

Thank you

Many people have been involved in bringing together this story of 70 years of the International Festival. Particular thanks go to the following individuals and organisations.

Eileen Miller: A special thanks for her exhaustive history book about the International Festival. A bible for staff.

Derek Gilchrist
Liz Holt
Mauro Silva and Stuart Armitt
Anne Milne, Noe Mendelle and the Scottish Documentary Institute
The Scotsman
BBC Arts Digital
The Friends of the Edinburgh International Festival
Jonathan Mills
National Libraries of Scotland
Edinburgh’s Capital Collections
British Pathé

And past and present staff of the Edinburgh International Festival

EIF Supporters

Photo: Clark James