Edinburgh International Festival
Nicola Benedetti, Director of the Edinburgh International Festival from 2023
Date(s)2024: 5–28 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

Creation of the festival

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

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]

Bruno Walter, who appeared at the festival in 1947, 1949 and 1953.

Classical music

See also: Musicians at the Edinburgh International Festival, 1947–1956; Musicians at the Edinburgh International Festival, 1957–1966; and Musicians at the Edinburgh International Festival, 1967–1976

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, John Barbirolli, 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.

The conductor John Barbirolli appeared at seven festivals between 1947 and 1966.

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.

During the third decade (1967-1976) a new group of artists came to Edinburgh, many of whom would dominate music for the rest of the century and into the next. They included conductors like Pierre Boulez, Colin Davis, Claudio Abbado, Kurt Masur, Zubin Mehta, Riccardo Muti, and Daniel Barenboim (who also often appeared as a pianist) and soloists like the pianists Claudio Arrau, Alfred Brendel, Murray Perahia, and Marta Argerich, and the string players Jacqueline du Pré and Itzhak Perlman. In addition an outstanding group of Soviet artists included the pianist Sviatoslav Richter, cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich, violinists David Oistrakh and Leonid Kogan, and the soprano Galina Vishnevskaya.


See also: Opera at the Edinburgh International Festival: history and repertoire, 1947–1956; Opera at the Edinburgh International Festival: history and repertoire, 1957–1966; and Opera at the Edinburgh International Festival: history and repertoire, 1967–1976

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.

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

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, Colin Graham, 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.


See also: Ballet at the Edinburgh International Festival: history and repertoire, 1947–1956; Ballet at the Edinburgh International Festival: history and repertoire, 1957–1966; and Ballet at the Edinburgh International Festival: history and repertoire, 1967–1976

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.


See also: Drama at the Edinburgh International Festival: history and repertoire, 1947–1956; Drama at the Edinburgh International Festival: history and repertoire, 1957–1966; and Drama at the Edinburgh International Festival: history and repertoire, 1967–1976

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

The Old Vic Theatre Company, like Glyndebourne for opera and Sadler's Wells for ballet, gave their strong support to the festival in the beginning, and over the years they were joined by a series of other important British companies such as the Glasgow Citizens' Theatre, The English Stage Company, Royal Shakespeare Company, Traverse Theatre, Prospect Theatre Company, and the National Theatre of Great Britain.

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] The work was revived in 1948. 1949, 1951, 1959 and 1973.

Companies came from all over the world, and with increasing frequency. In the first decade (1947–1956), from France, Italy and Canada, in the second (1957–1966), from France, Italy, Greece, Russia, and Poland, and in the third (1967–1976), from the USA, Sweden, Ireland, Poland, Bulgaria, East Germany, Italy, Romania, Japan, Belgium, and Switzerland. Notable groups included the Le Comédie Française, Düsseldorf Theatre Company, The Stratford Ontario Festival Company, Abbey Theatre Dublin, Theatre on the Balustrade, Prague, La Mama Company, New York and the Noh and Bunraku companies from Japan.

Frank Dunlop, theatre director and also director of the festival itself from 1984 to 1991.

Noted directors in the early years included E. Martin Browne, Peter Ustinov, Gustav Gründgens, Tyrone Guthrie and Michael Benthall, while in the 1960s and 1970s Frank Dunlop, Richard Eyre, Toby Robertson, Luca Ronconi, and Andrei Serban brought productions to the city.

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 in the early period, while Anna Calder-Marshall, Derek Jacobi, Felicity Kendal, Ian McKellen, John Neville, Edward Petherbridge, and Timothy West first appeared in the 1960s and 1970s.

Visual arts

See also: Visual Arts at the Edinburgh International Festival, 1947–1976

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

See also: World premieres at the Edinburgh International Festival

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

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

The principal venues of the Festival are:

Interior of the Queen's Hall, performance home of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra

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

Freemasons' Hall was frequently used for musical concerts and recitals from 1947 until the early 1970s.

Other festivals in Edinburgh

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

The 240-foot-high spire of The Hub, ticket office, information centre and performance venue of the Edinburgh International Festival, seen from Johnston Terrace


  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