The story of the first Edinburgh Festival: “The world will pass, but the music and the love will last forever”
It was undoubtedly a brave moment to launch an International Music and Theater Festival. A catastrophic war had ended only two years before; now, in 1947, Britain’s myriad financial troubles were reaching a crisis, with a winter of austerity just around the corner.
Herbert Morrison, Lord President of the Council, spoke in a speech about national shortages of dollars, coal, labor and food. A political speaker from Glasgow had even warned that Britain was facing a second Dunkirk, inside, of “blood, sweat and scarcity”.
Despite (and perhaps because of) so much misfortune and sadness, a large number of people were eagerly waiting to see what this new festival in Edinburgh could accomplish.
It was the brilliant idea of Rudolf Bing, who talked about it to Henry Harvey Wood, who in turn took it up with the Lord Provost, Sir James Falconer. Bing was general manager of Glyndebourne Opera House; Wood headed the British Council in Scotland.
Everyone saw the festival as a way to bring together audiences and artists from around the world. Sir James said he hoped it would provide spiritual tonic and physical invigoration after the strain of war and during such a difficult peace.
Scotland’s capital was the perfect choice for such an event, not least because Salzburg and Munich, the home of long-established arts festivals, had been bombed during the war. What the greatest artists in the world needed now was a new home.
Months of planning, wrangling and criticism had gone into the three-week festival, which received £60,000 in funding from the Arts Council, private donors and Edinburgh City Council. The festivities kicked off on Sunday August 24, with a special service at St Giles’. It was a moving occasion. “The world will pass, but the music and the love will last forever,” said The Very Reverend Dr. Charles L. Warr, Dean of The Thistle and Chapel Royal. “Today, a new spirit is abroad. Scotland is waking up to the full meaning of art and beauty”.
The atmosphere of Princes Street reminded some people of VE night. Baskets of flowers hung from the poles of the tram. Flags and banners were everywhere. Beautifully landscaped garden plots had materialized at downtown crossroads.
And there were already too many foreign visitors to count: they had arrived from China, France, the United States, Switzerland, India.
Outside flag-adorned Waverley Station, Shakespearean players from London’s Old Vic, newly arrived by train, boarded an old Coronation single-decker bus. For 30 minutes it refused to start. The actors disembarked and asked the kilted Festival director, Hamish Maclellan, “How can we have a drink in Scotland on a Sunday?” Is it necessary to have a passport?
Old Vic players were expected at the Lyceum that night (Trevor Howard was one of the stars of The Taming of the Shrew). Elsewhere there were Sadler’s Wells Ballet Company, and the Unity Theater Company, and art exhibitions, and, in a packed Usher Room, L’Orchestre des Concerts Colonne de Paris, with a program of Haydn, Schumann and Cesar Frank.
In the days that followed, Margot Fonteyn starred in a Sadler’s Wells production of Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty at the Empire Theatre. The Glyndebourne Opera Company performed Verdi’s Macbeth and The Marriage of Figaro at the King’s.
Demand for tickets was strong. People living outside Edinburgh could now only obtain seats by postal request or by asking their friends in Edinburgh to book on their behalf. Tickets were scarce, especially for concerts at Usher Hall – the Halle Orchestra, the Vienna Philharmonic under Bruno Walter, the Orpheus Choir, the Liverpool Philharmonic under Sir Malcolm Sargent, the Scottish Orchestra, the BBC Scottish Orchestra. String quartets and trios performed in the Freemasons Hall.
Long queues for seats at the Festival Club in George Street meeting rooms were commonplace. Mr. Bing, the director of the Festival, said he was surprised at how wholeheartedly people threw themselves into the occasion.
In a subtle way, the Glasgow Herald noted, the event touched the spirit of the whole community. Several townspeople who had been unable, at the last minute, to fulfill their promises to accommodate Festival visitors had paid sums of conscience money – £19, in one case – to the Festival authorities as a of regret.
French visitors crammed into an exhibition at the Murrayfield Indoor Sports Club, organized by the Society of Independent Scottish Artists. British actors Kathleen Byron, David Farrar and Derek Bond have all come to town. (Later in his life, Byron would have a cameo role in Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan).
Famous Italian baritone Italo Tajo traveled to the Alhambra Picture House in Leith to see The Barber of Seville, which had been made from stage performances in Milan. Alec Guinness played Richard II in Sir Ralph Richardson’s superb production.
Attlee’s Fuel and Energy Minister Manny Shinwell relaxed his floodlighting ban and allowed the castle to be lit for four nights – he had initially refused, not wanting to set a precedent in times fuel shortage. Floodlights stopped walkers on Princes Street in their tracks.
Many distinguished visitors, dazzled by what they had seen of the city, urged Edinburgh to make the festival an annual event, including The Observer editor and drama critic Ivor Brown, who said: “I think Edinburgh is one of the greatest stages in history’. Indeed, by the end of the first week, plans were underway for a festival in 1948. On September 5, Sir John Falconer confirmed that it would become an annual event.
On Saturday September 6, writer Eric Linklater, at a Scottish PEN luncheon, said he found the festival the kind of air that should have enveloped Britain after its historic victory over Hitler. Here it seemed, despite our alleged poverty, was a realization of victory, he added.
The following day, the Queen and Princess Margaret attended a Glasgow Orpheus Choir concert at Usher Hall. A blackout interrupted their enjoyment of Verdi’s Macbeth on Monday evening.
Bruno Walter and the Vienna Philharmonic received a five-minute standing ovation in Usher Hall on Tuesday evening.
Thousands of people were unable to secure tickets for the orchestra’s five-concert series, so an additional event was held on Saturday 13 September. Music lovers started lining up at 6 a.m. on Friday for tickets.
The members of the orchestra, who were staying in an inn, organized a football match between their strings and their brass. To the winner went the biggest cabbage in the hostel kitchen.
The Festival ended this Saturday evening with members of the Festival Club singing Auld Lang Syne in the ballroom at midnight.
The Festival had even succeeded in giving rise to a new event: eight uninvited theater groups had presented themselves at the Festival, thus creating the Fringe Festival.
The first Festival was therefore a resounding success, achieving everything its organizers had dreamed of. Sir John Falconer said the aim was to create a “highly organized and maintained haven of culture”, which would provide people with refreshment, satisfaction and spiritual and intellectual content.
“If this could be done,” he added, “it would help mold the progress of civilization on higher lines.”
Seventy-five years later, the Festival has made considerable progress towards this goal.