Edinburgh International Festival

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Edinburgh International Festival
Nicola Benedetti, Director of the Edinburgh International Festival from 2023
Date(s)2023: 4–27 August (exact dates vary each year)
Location(s)Edinburgh, Scotland
Patron(s)Queen Elizabeth (1947–1952)
Queen Elizabeth II (1952–2017)
Prince Edward (2017–present)

The Edinburgh International Festival is an annual arts festival in Edinburgh, Scotland, spread over the final three weeks in August. Notable figures from the international world of music (especially classical music) and the performing arts are invited to join the festival. Visual art exhibitions, talks and workshops are also hosted.

The first 'International Festival of Music and Drama' took place between 22 August and 11 September 1947. Under the first festival director, the distinguished Austrian-born impresario Rudolf Bing, it had a broadly-based programme, covering orchestral, choral and chamber music, Lieder and song, opera, ballet, drama, film, and Scottish 'piping and dancing' on the Esplanade of Edinburgh Castle, a structure that was followed in subsequent years.[1]

The Festival has taken place every year since 1947, except for 2020 when it was cancelled due to the COVID-19 Pandemic.[2] A scaled-back version of the festival was held in 2021.

Festival directors[edit]

Creation of the festival[edit]

The idea of a Festival with a remit to "provide a platform for the flowering of the human spirit" and enrich the cultural life of Scotland, Britain and Europe took form in the wake of the Second World War. The idea of creating an international festival within the UK was first conceived by Rudolf Bing, the General Manager of Glyndebourne Opera Festival, the arts patron Lady Rosebery, theatre director Sir Tyrone Guthrie, and Audrey Mildmay (wife of John Christie) during a wartime tour of a small-scale Glyndebourne production of The Beggar's Opera.[4]

Rudolf Bing conceived of the festival to heal the wounds of war through the languages of the arts. This is its principal raison d’être. It was first financed by Lord Rosebery with the £10,000 winnings of his horse Ocean Swell that won the only two major horse-races run in wartime including the Jockey Club Cup in 1944. This sum was matched by Edinburgh Town Council and then some money in turn was matched by the Arts Council of Great Britain under the chairmanship of John Maynard Keynes. Bing also co-founded the Festival with Henry Harvey Wood, Head of the British Council in Scotland, Sidney Newman, Reid Professor of Music at Edinburgh University, and a group of civic leaders from the City of Edinburgh, in particular Sir John Falconer.

Bing had looked at several English cities before shifting his focus to Scotland and settling on Edinburgh, a city he had visited and admired in 1939. In particular, Edinburgh's castle reminded him of Salzburg where he had been the festival director before the war. Harvey Wood described the meeting at which the idea was hatched:

The Edinburgh International Festival of Music and Drama was first discussed over a lunch table in a restaurant in Hanover Square, London, towards the end of 1944. Rudolf Bing, convinced that musical and operatic festivals on anything like the pre-war scale were unlikely to be held in any of the shattered and impoverished centres for many years to come, was anxious to consider and investigate the possibility of staging such a Festival somewhere in the United Kingdom in the summer of 1946. He was convinced and he convinced my colleagues and myself that such an enterprise, successfully conducted, might at this moment of European time, be of more than temporary significance and might establish in Britain a centre of world resort for lovers of music, drama, opera, ballet and the graphic arts.

Certain preconditions were obviously required of such a centre. It should be a town of reasonable size, capable of absorbing and entertaining anything between 50,000 and 150,000 visitors over a period of three weeks to a month. It should, like Salzburg, have considerable scenic and picturesque appeal and it should be set in a country likely to be attractive to tourists and foreign visitors. It should have sufficient number of theatres, concert halls and open spaces for the adequate staging of a programme of an ambitious and varied character. Above all it should be a city likely to embrace the opportunity and willing to make the festival a major preoccupation not only in the City Chambers but in the heart and home of every citizen, however modest. Greatly daring but not without confidence I recommended Edinburgh as the centre and promised to make preliminary investigations.[5]

Wood approached Falconer, who enthusiastically welcomed the initiative on behalf of the city. As it was too late to finalise arrangements for 1946, plans were made for the following year.

Features of the festival[edit]

Bruno Walter

The first International Festival took place between 22 August and 11 September 1947, and it remained an event straddling August and September until 2015, when the dates of the Edinburgh International Festival was brought forward, to begin and end in August, to coincide with the Fringe.[6]

Classical music[edit]

From the beginning, the festival had a broad coverage, but with an emphasis on classical music, a highlight of the first season being concerts given by the Vienna Philharmonic, reunited with their erstwhile conductor Bruno Walter, who had left Europe after Germany's annexation of Austria in 1938.[7]

Many notable musicians appeared at the festival during the late 1940s and early 1950s. Besides Bruno Walter, they included the conductors Wilhelm Furtwängler, Thomas Beecham, Adrian Boult, Fritz Busch, Josef Krips, Pierre Monteux and Vittorio Gui, the pianist Artur Schnabel, the violinist Joseph Szigeti, and the singer Lotte Lehmann, all of whom appeared in Edinburgh late their careers.

Rising stars of post-war Europe, such as the conductors Herbert von Karajan, Rafael Kubelík, Charles Munch, Wolfgang Sawallisch, and Leonard Bernstein, the pianists Claudio Arrau, Solomon, and Rudolf Serkin, the string players Yehudi Menuhin, Pierre Fournier, Isaac Stern, and Amadeus String Quartet, and the singers Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Victoria de los Ángeles, Boris Christoff, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, and Peter Pears were all present in Edinburgh concert and recital halls from the beginning of their careers, while the long-lived pianist Artur Rubinstein had a career that seemingly spanned both eras.

Some of the most impressive performers of the early years had their careers cut short in the 1950s, notably Kathleen Ferrier, Guido Cantelli, Ginette Neveu and Dennis Brain.

Edinburgh remained at the centre of the musical world during the second decade (1957–1966) of the festival. Leading conductors who performed in the city at that time included Otto Klemperer, Ernest Ansermet, Georg Solti, Carlo Maria Giulini, Yevgeny Mravinsky, István Kertész, Bernard Haitink, George Szell and Leopold Stokowski.


The King's Theatre in 1981. This venue was used for opera in the early years of the festival.

The founders of the Edinburgh Festival had been closely connected with the Glyndebourne Opera and from the beginning opera was an important part of the programme.

The city did not have, and still does not have, ideal facilities for creating original staged opera productions, so guest companies were invited to the festival. In the early years, Glyndebourne fulfilled this role, bringing two productions a year between 1947 and 1951. Hamburg took over in 1952, with no less than six productions. Glyndebourne returned from 1953 to 1955, now with three operas each year, with Hamburg coming again in 1956 with four productions.

During the second decade (1957–1966), Edinburgh received a series of different opera companies, starting with La Scala (Piccola Scala), and continuing with the Stuttgart State Opera, Royal Opera Stockholm, Glyndebourne Opera, Covent Garden Opera, Belgrade Opera, the English Opera Group, Teatro San Carlo, Naples, Budapest Opera and Ballet, National Theatre, Prague, the Holland Festival and the Bavarian State Opera, with an average of four or five productions each year. Also from 1965, an Edinburgh Festival Opera began to offer locally created shows.

During the third decade (1967–1976), Edinburgh Festival Opera were prominent performers, together with the Glasgow-based Scottish Opera. Meanwhile, the tradition of inviting guest companies continued with the German companies Deutsche Oper Berlin, Deutsche Oper am Rhein, Hamburg State Opera, and Frankfurt Municipal Opera, the Italian companies Teatro Comunale, Florence and Teatro Massimo, Palermo, as well as National Theatre, Prague, Hungarian State Opera, and Royal Opera, Stockholm and the English Opera Group.

Major artists came to Edinburgh during the first thirty years, such as the conductors Claudio Abbado, Daniel Barenboim, Thomas Beecham, Fritz Busch, Christoph von Dohnányi, Ferenc Fricsay, Alexander Gibson, Carlo Maria Giulini, Vittorio Gui, Rafael Kubelik, Georg Solti, Alberto Erede, János Ferencsik, John Pritchard, and Carlos Kleiber, and the directors Carl Ebert, Peter Ebert, Götz Friedrich, Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, Günther Rennert, Giorgio Strehler, Luchino Visconti, Wieland Wagner and Franco Zeffirelli.

Star singers appearing in staged operas included Victoria de los Angeles, Teresa Berganza, Maria Callas, Lisa della Casa, Ileana Cotrubaș, Sena Jurinac, Birgit Nilsson, Magda Olivero, Renata Scotto, Anja Silja, Elisabeth Söderström, Joan Sutherland, Galina Vishnevskaya, and Ljuba Welitsch, Luigi Alva, Sesto Bruscantini, Boris Christoff, Fernando Corena, Geraint Evans, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Nicolai Gedda, Tito Gobbi, Alfredo Kraus, George London, Luciano Pavarotti, Peter Pears, Hermann Prey, Giuseppe Di Stefano, Wolfgang Windgassen, and Fritz Wunderlich.


Fonteyn and Helpmann, The Sleeping Beauty, Sadler's Wells 1950

Ballet was inaugurated at the festival with performances of The Sleeping Beauty with Margot Fonteyn, Robert Helpmann and the Sadler's Wells Ballet Company at the Empire Theatre. They returned in subsequent years, together with companies including the Ballets des Champs-Élysées from Paris, American National Ballet Theatre from New York, the Grand Ballet du Marquis de Cuevas (Le Grand Ballet de Monte Carlo), the Spanish Ballet of Pilar López, the Yugoslav Ballet and the Royal Danish Ballet.


Drama was an important feature of the Edinburgh International Festival from its inception and right through the successful early years of the event.

The Old Vic Theatre Company, like Glyndebourne for opera and Sadler's Wells for ballet, gave their strong support to the festival, and they were joined by a series of Scottish, English, French and German companies, such as the Glasgow Citizens' Theatre, Henry Sherek and Tennent Productions, Le compagnie Jouvet de Théâtre de l'Athénée, Le Théâtre National Populaire, Paris, Le compagnie de mime Marcel Marceau, Le Comédie Française, Edwige Feuillère and her company, and Düsseldorf Theatre Company.

One of the festival's first dramatic success came in 1948 when an adaptation of Sir David Lyndsay's The Thrie Estaites was performed to great acclaim for the first time since 1552 in the Assembly Hall on the Mound.[8]

Noted directors included E. Martin Browne, Peter Ustinov, Gustav Gründgens, Tyrone Guthrie and Michael Benthall.

Well-known actors included Ralph Richardson, Alec Guinness, John Gielgud, Sybil Thorndike, Lewis Casson, Emlyn Williams, Claire Bloom, Alan Badel, Peter Finch, Richard Burton, Fay Compton, Ann Todd, Eric Porter and Edwige Feuillère.

Visual arts[edit]

The visual arts were not featured in the first two festivals in 1947 and 1948, but from 1949 they became an important part of the events. There were major exhibitions at the National Gallery of Scotland and Royal Scottish Academy. These included Rembrandt in 1950, Spanish Paintings (El Greco to Goya) in 1951, Degas in 1952, Renoir in 1953, Cézanne in 1954, Gauguin in 1955, and Braque in 1956.

The second decade of the festival began with Monet in 1957, followed by two exhibitions, Masterpieces of Byzantine Art and the Moltzau Collection (Cézanne to Picasso) featured in 1958, Masterpieces of Czech Art in 1959, German Expressionist Painting in 1960, and an Epstein Memorial Exhibition together with a selection from the Bührle Collection (Zurich) in 1961. Modern Primitive Paintings from Yugoslavia and Matisse and After (from the Sonja Henie — Niels Onstad Collection in Oslo in 1962. Modigliani and Soutine were shown in a double exhibition, together with Music and Dance in Indian Art, in 1963. There was an exhibition of Delacroix in 1964, Corot in 1965, and Rouault in 1966.

The third decade began with Derain in 1967, followed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Wotruba, a Boudin to Picasso exhibition at the Royal Scottish Academy, and Canada 101, a focus on contemporary Canadian art, all in 1968. Sixteenth century Italian drawings from British private collections (at Merchants' Hall), Contemporary Polish art, and Jack Coia gold medallist were shown in 1969. For 1970, the exhibitions were Early Celtic art and Contemporary German art from Düsseldorf. The Belgian contribution to surrealism, Sir Walter Scott Bicentenary and Contemporary Romanian art exhibitions were offered in 1971. In 1972 the Scottish painter Alan Davie was featured at the Royal Scottish Academy, followed in 1973 by Permanences e l'Art Francais in the same gallery, as well as Objects USA at the City of Edinburgh Art Gallery, and a Tyrone Guthrie exhibition.

World premieres[edit]

Many works have received their world premieres at the Edinburgh International Festival, from T. S. Eliot's The Cocktail Party and The Confidential Clerk in 1949 and 1953, to James MacMillan's 2018 version of Quickening and Symphony No. 5, both in 2019.

Festival venues[edit]

The Usher Hall, the leading venue of the Edinburgh International Festival

The principal venues of the Festival are:

  • Usher Hall (capacity approximately 2,200), concert hall, built in 1914, used by the festival since 1947.
  • Kings Theatre (1,300), opened in 1906, used by the festival since 1947, notably for opera.
  • Royal Lyceum Theatre (658), opened in 1883, used by the festival since 1947, mainly for drama.
  • Festival Theatre (1,915), dating back to 1892, originally a variety, musical and opera house called the Empire Theatre. Used by the festival since 1947, at first for ballet. Remodelled in 1994 and now used for festival opera and ballet.
  • The Queen's Hall (920), converted chapel, opened as a concert hall in 1979, performance home of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.
  • The Hub (420), originally built as the Tollbooth Church (1842–44) to house the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. This is on Castlehill, directly below Edinburgh Castle, with its tall Gothic spire, the highest point in central Edinburgh (outside of the Castle). Used since 1999 as the central box office and information centre for the festival, as well as a separate venue.
  • The Dunard Centre (1000), a new concert hall, due to be opened in 2023-4.
Interior of the Queen's Hall, performance home of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra

Other venues that have sometimes been used in the past include:

  • Church Hill Theatre (353), built in 1892 as North Morningside Free Church and bought by the City of Edinburgh Council in 1960.
  • The Edinburgh Playhouse (3,059), opened in 1929, Britain's largest theatre, formerly a cinema.
  • Freemasons' Hall (approximately 500), opened in 1912, used by the festival from 1947 for recitals and chamber concerts.
  • Gateway Theatre, built in 1882 as a veterinary college, used for drama performances during the festival, but eventually converted to student housing.[9]
  • General Assembly Hall of the Church of Scotland, used for drama performances from 1949
  • Leith Theatre (also known as Leith Town Hall and, briefly, Citadel Theatre), used as a medium-sized concert and recital hall by the festival from 1961 to the end of the 1970s. It closed completely in 1988, and is now being once again restored.
  • St Cecilia's Hall (180) a historic concert hall in the Cowgate, which dates back to 1763.

Other festivals in Edinburgh[edit]

The 240-foot-high spire of The Hub, seen from Johnston Terrace

About ten other festivals are held in Edinburgh at about the same time as the International Festival. Collectively, the entire group is referred to as the Edinburgh Festival or Edinburgh Festivals.

Most notable is the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, which started as an offshoot of the International Festival in the first year of its operation (although not known as such at the beginning), and has since grown to be the world's largest arts and media festival.

The Edinburgh International Film Festival also began in August 1947 with a programme of documentary films. In the 1990s this festival moved into June. The 1966 Writers' Festival begun by John Calder, Richard Demarco, Jim Haynes, founders of the Paperback Bookshop and Traverse Theatre, eventually led to the Edinburgh International Book Festival also staged in August.

The British Army's desire to showcase itself during the festival period led to the independent staging of the first Edinburgh Military Tattoo, featuring displays of piping and dancing, in 1950. This annual event has come to be regarded as a part of the official festival, though it continues to be organised separately.[10]

The result is a collection of festivals with more than 2,500 performances and events every day in Edinburgh in August, which is said to be many times larger than any similar conglomeration of arts and media festivals anywhere in the world.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ The International Festival of Music & Drama Edinburgh 1947 Souvenir Programme. 1947.
  2. ^ "Edinburgh festivals cancelled due to coronavirus". BBC News. 1 April 2020. Retrieved 1 April 2020.
  3. ^ "Obituary, Robert Ponsonby". TheGuardian.com. 2019. Retrieved 27 December 2021.
  4. ^ Fifield, Christopher. Ibbs and Tillett: The Rise and Fall of a Musical Empire. Ashgate, 2005: p. 263
  5. ^ G. Bruce, Festival in the North: The story of the Edinburgh Festival, London: Robert Hale, 1975, p. 18.
  6. ^ Severin Carrell (8 May 2014). "Edinburgh international festival moves dates for 2015 as part of shakeup". The Guardian.
  7. ^ Bruce, Festival in the North (1975), p. 20.
  8. ^ Bruce, Festival in the North (1975), pp. 25-6.
  9. ^ Listed building information for 40-44 (inclusive nos) Elm Row, Gateway Theatre, Historic Environment Scotland, accessed 22 August 2022
  10. ^ Bruce, Festival in the North (1975), p. 31.

Further reading[edit]

  • Bartie, Angela (2013). The Edinburgh Festivals : Culture and Society in Postwar Britain. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. ISBN 9780748670307.
  • Bruce, George (1975). Festival in the north : the story of the Edinburgh Festival. London: Hale. ISBN 070915061X.
  • Miller, Eileen (1996). The Edinburgh International Festival, 1947-1996. Aldershot, Hants, England: Scolar Press. ISBN 1-85928-153-2.

External links[edit]