Edinburgh's Three-Week Culture Bash Turns 50 over the Years, the City's Arts Festival Has Managed Not Only to Present Scotland's Vibrant Culture but Also to Entice Artists of International Standing

Article excerpt

If all had gone according to plan in 1946, the Edinburgh International Festival would have never existed.

It would have been the Oxford International Festival.

But Edinburgh was chosen - 50 years ago this year - partly because it was hardly damaged by World War II bombs, and partly because the city itself proved willing to take a daring financial risk.

The Scottish capital was also a romantic, historic, if rather remote, city of great beauty.

And it belonged to a country that had long been more conscious of its links with the rest of Europe (including even the Germanic countries with which the whole of Britain had been so long at war) than England was then or is now.

This Europeanism certainly helped to ensure the festival's success in bringing together practitioners of the arts from all over the world, regardless of politics, language, culture, or religion. From the start, it was intended to be a "whole world" festival. It was unashamedly idealistic.

This annual three-week culture bash, which began Aug. 11 and runs through Aug. 31, claims to be the largest arts festival in the world today. So far this year, tickets sales have increased by 15 percent over last year. But the festival is also one of many in a world gone festival crazy.

Pioneering years

In its first year, it was pretty much without competition in a Europe still attempting to rise from the ashes of World War II. It has grown and changed under the baton of eight different directors and survived financial crises and varying degrees of local dissent and support.

It has spawned an "unofficial" "Fringe" of uncontrolled proportions and character. Street happenings burgeon; it is a melange of anything from rank amateur to extreme professional. It is efficiently programmed, so far as it can be, as are the film festival, jazz festival, and book festival.

Poetry and literature have also made their mark over the years. This year, for the first time, an "inaugural lecture" has been started by Edinburgh University - though talks, master classes, readings, and discussions have often been staged, successfully bringing to the main event some sort of debate and informal participation by festivalgoers.

Yet, for all this additional activity, the "official" core, the main festival, with its basic allegiance to the classic genres of opera, ballet, theater, and the classical concert, has remained surprisingly almost intact. It is also surprisingly successful in spite of ever-rising ticket prices and surprisingly still thought of as the real reason for the festival's continuity.

The visual arts have also been involved from the start - somewhat peripherally - but the directors have mostly seen the festival as a thing of the performing arts. This bias, definitely true of current director Brian McMaster, who began in 1992, has often been a controversial issue. It is left largely to the Scottish National Galleries to stage - or not to stage - exhibitions worthy of the festival's high aims.

Directors have had to strike one particularly difficult balance probably never envisaged by the early organizers of the event. …

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