EFFE Laureate - Edinburgh International Festival

14 August, 2017

Location: Edinburgh, United Kingdom
Artistic Director: Fergus Linehan
Managing Director: Joanna Baker
Dates: 2017/08/04 – 2017/08/28
Art Disciplines: Music, Theatre, Dance
Find out more about the festivals on their EFFE Profile and the Edinburgh International Festival website.

At the end of August 1972, shortly after my 18th birthday, I went with my school friend James (now the BBC's Diplomatic Editor) to the Edinburgh Festival for the first time. We were young music nuts and went to everything we could get into as cheaply as possible. There were wonderful late morning recitals at the Freemasons' Hall but the undoubted highlight, still alive in my memory and thankfully my record collection, was Brahms' Requiem at the Usher Hall with a fresh-faced Daniel Barenboim conducting the London Philharmonic, the Edinburgh Festival Chorus and the perfect voices of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Edith Mathis.

I was spoiled when the Festival was 25 years old. Now it is 70 and I can still be spoiled. Perhaps the equivalent this summer to that distant night of Brahms would be Sir John Eliot Gardiner conducting Monteverdi's Il Ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria.

In our populist times the EIF seems in the eyes of the media to be almost an adjunct to its monstrous fringe and hemmed in by the other festivals (books, film, TV) that have sprung up alongside it. For all that, though, it is the heart of the extraordinary circus that makes August in Edinburgh the festival addicts' ultimate fix.

As one of the jurors for EFFE said, Edinburgh International Festival is still “more popular than any festival that isn't a rock festival anywhere in Europe – and it's popular for high arts. It's doing something that the year-round programme of the cultural institutions in the city can't always do.”

The idea of starting a festival to provide a focus of optimism after the misery of World War II was that of Rudolf Bing, then the General Manager of Glyndebourne Opera and himself a refugee from the Nazis. He felt that only a festival could embody the spirit of reconciliation and recovery and travelled Britain looking for a suitable city. Edinburgh was picturesque, the right size, and Bing had enthusiastic support from the British Council in Scotland, the University and the city Council. He established the festival's artistic and political credentials straight away by bringing over the Vienna Philharmonic from occupied Austria and giving them back their exiled conductor Bruno Walter.

Fergus Linehan, the current director, says that ethos has not gone away. “We still understand that the festival was not started to  celebrate a particular art form but to deal with a social-historical context through the arts. The Edinburgh Festival was about an idea of reconciliation and the need to heal divides. That is embodied in our DNA and is central to our programming.”

The 70th anniversary, apart from being a source of pride, presented him with a question. “In a sense I wondered what we are celebrating apart from longevity. As the early years of the festival start slipping from living memory I realised that the answer is the festival's origins and the values that led to it.”

Simon Mundy for EFA