Historic early

The first idea for a festival in Edinburgh may have been a romantic notion one moonlit night, but our journey's early moments, in their post-war context, were powerfully poignant. To gather people back together through great art was the innovative impetus. Our founding ideal vision was never so clearly embodied than in our inaugural year, when, following Nazi persecution, the renowned conductor Bruno Walter was re-united with the Vienna Philharmonic. At the finale, the Lord Provost Sir John Falconer, one of our founders and Chair of the Festival Council mused prophetically, "history will dictate if the year 1947 has been a focal point in the history of our city." A 70-year history of hosting the world's artists ensued, igniting further festivals too.

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A view from the stage at the Usher Hall during the 1947 International Festival
Photo: Paul Shillabeer

A Festival of Stars

According to festival folklore, the idea for the Edinburgh International Festival was born one starry night in 1942, when Rudolf Bing and soprano Audrey Mildmay were strolling down Princes Street after watching a performance of John Gay's The Beggar's Opera. Edinburgh Castle was bathed in moonlight. Audrey said wistfully that the Scottish capital would be a wonderful setting for a festival. The truth was more prosaic.

Rudolf Bing was Glyndebourne's General Manager, and was seeking a solution to a financial squeeze in the middle of the war. Other factors were to give the idea even greater urgency and poignancy. In 1942, the full horrors of the war were yet to be discovered. The homes of old arts festivals in Salzburg and Munich had been colonised by the Nazis – and then were bombed by the Allies. The Old Vic in London was blitzed. A new home was needed for the world's great artists, inspiring beleaguered audiences from across the globe. With its numerous artistic facilities, ancient beauty, safe atmosphere and walk-able size, Edinburgh was the perfect candidate.

Edinburgh Castle

Plotting A New
World Festival

As World War II ended, the founding vision for the Edinburgh International Festival became even more compelling. Rudolf Bing, the Lord Provost, City of Edinburgh Council and the British Council worked on their proposal. They wanted to reconcile people after the war, to let great art refresh souls and transcend all political and cultural boundaries – ideals that hold true today in an uncertain world.

One year before launch, the interim planning committee became the Council of the Festival Society. The Lord Provost presided as Chairman. Rudolf Bing was confirmed as Festival Director and Ian Hunter as his assistant. Sub-committees were formed for finance, programming, accommodation and catering. All overcame post-war challenges to ensure the first International Festival could take place.

The early team
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Inagugral festival council

An early meeting of Festival Council in the 1940s
Photo: Paul Shillabeer

Festival Firsts

To celebrate the International Festival's 70th anniversary, in 2017 Sir James MacMillan conducts three masterpieces of 20th century music which all received their premieres at the International Festival.

MacMillan and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra open with the lush invention of Tippett's achingly beautiful tribute to Italian Baroque music, Fantasia concertante on a Theme of Corelli, and they are joined by eminent Norwegian trumpeter Ole Edvard Antonsen for the glittering brilliance of MacMillan's own trumpet concerto Epiclesis. They close with the wit and bright colours of Walton's triumphant Second Symphony.

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Conductor and composer Sir James MacMillan

Conductor and composer Sir James MacMillan
Photo: Hansvander Woerd

A deluge
of letters

On Saturday 24 November 1945, the plan for an International Festival in Edinburgh was announced in three newspaper articles in The Scotsman and the Evening Dispatch, which later became the Evening News. An avalanche of letters from Edinburgh residents arrived on editors' desks, both for and against the notion of a festival. Most people enthusiastically favoured the idea. The response confirmed the desire for a spectacular celebration of the ‘flowering of the human spirit', the founding vision expressed by the Lord Provost in the aftermath of a harrowing world war.

An article in The Scotsman in 1945

An article in The Scotsman in 1945 which announced the plans for the Edinburgh International Festival.
Photo: Courtesy of The Scotsman archive

Bruno Walter

The inaugural Edinburgh International Festival was a pivotal time in the career of Bruno Walter, one of the world's greatest 20th century conductors, and a close friend of Gustav Mahler. Walter had endured anti-Semitic attacks culminating in Nazi blacklisting and violence, at a time when he also suffered dramatic personal tragedy. But in Edinburgh 1947 he conducted the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in an emotional post-war reunion.

In 1939, his daughter, Gretel, was murdered by her husband in a jealous frenzy over her affair with the Italian bass, Ezio Pinza. They had only met because Walter had made special efforts to entertain Pinza to persuade him to sing Don Giovanni. Grief struck, Walter's wife fell into a depression and died. Walter blamed himself for the whole tragedy. Yet throughout, he continued to lead world-class orchestras, even conducting five orchestras in the US after fleeing Nazi persecution.

Walter had first conducted the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in 1907 and had regularly performed with them with increasing hostility from Hitler until the early 1940s. Reunited in Edinburgh, on 8 September 1947 to a rapturous reception at the Usher Hall, they gave joyous, intense performances of Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony, Viennese waltzes by Strauss, Schubert's Unfinished Symphony, and Mahler's Song of the Earth with Glyndebourne protégé Kathleen Ferrier and Peter Pears.

When the Orchestra had been colonised by the Nazis, some of his colleagues had not survived their attention. So this concert, above all others, embodies the International Festival's intrinsic purpose. Walter's heartfelt statement at the time manifests the spirit of the International Festival, transcending barriers to celebrate the best of humanity.

Bruno Walter
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Walter Ferrier

Contralto Kathleen Ferrier and conductor Bruno Walter perform at the Usher Hall during the first Edinburgh International Festival in 1947.
Photo: Norward Inglis

The world's great
Festival city

In August 1947, eight uninvited theatre groups turned up at the first International Festival, spawning the Festival Fringe. There was also the inaugural International Festival of Documentary Films – the birth of the International Film Festival. Shortly afterwards came the first Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo. Three decades later in 1978, the first Jazz and Blues Festival took place. And in 1983, fiction and non-fiction was given its rightful place with the inaugural Edinburgh International Book Festival. Further festivals ensued, celebrating science, storytelling, children, Hogmanay and the visual arts.

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The City of Edinburgh

Photo: Mihaela Bodlovic

Continue to Chapter II