Edinburgh Festival

Edinburgh Festival

2022 is the 75th anniversary of the Edinburgh Festival. Since its launch on 24 August 1947, the event has been enjoyed by millions and since has showcased theatre, film, music, dance, visual arts, books and more from across the globe. The Fringe, its celebrated offshoot, has become the world’s largest arts festival, renowned for its comedy and groundbreaking theatre. What is not always realised, though, is how much the festivals owe to a Jewish refugee and his experiences of international artistic collaboration in the Weimar Republic.

Rudolf Bing (9 Jan 1902- 2 Sep 1997) was born Franz Josef Bing to a Jewish family in Vienna, Austria in the early years of the twentieth century. His father was an industrialist, but Rudolf was soon drawn to the arts. After an initial apprenticeship with a prestigious Viennese bookseller, he worked for Hugo Heller, who also ran a theatrical and concert agency. Bing then studied music and art history at the University of Vienna. 

Greyfriars Bobby Statue, Edinburgh (Emma Jolly)

Rudolf Bing, pictured in The Sphere, 22 November 1958, page 28 (Findmypast.co.uk)

In his twenties, he moved to Berlin - then the centre of innovative and exciting Weimar culture. There, in 1928, Bing married Russian ballerina Nina Schelemskaya-Schlesnaya. Significantly for the later development of the Edinburgh Festival, Bing spent time in Berlin working as a general manager of its opera house.

The Weimar Republic ended with Adolf Hitler's appointment as Chancellor in 1933. The following years, the Bings fled the Nazi regime, and arrived in Britain as refugees. Also in 1934, two friends from the opera in Berlin, conductor Fritz Busch (13 March 1890 – 14 September 1951) and producer Carl Anton Charles Ebert (20 February 1887 – 14 May 1980), arrived at Glyndebourne, Sussex to assist in the creation of an opera festival by John Christie and wife, soprano Audrey Mildmay. Busch and Ebert asked for Bing to be hired as the festival’s General Manager.

As war arrived, Britain endured the Blitz and rationing began to bite. John Christie welcomed evacuees from London to Glyndebourne. Christie believed Glyndebourne would always be safe from bombs, saying, ‘Hitler respects us too much.’ He seems to have been referring to his music director Busch and artistic director Ebert, who despite being emphatic critics of Nazism, were so strongly admired within musical circles that the regime wanted them back. Although Glyndebourne did remain safe, other arts venues were less fortunate. Hearing of the destruction of arts festivals in Salzburg and Munich, and the bombing of the Old Vic theatre in London, Bing had an even stronger desire for a great celebration of arts and culture to survive and outlive the horrors of war.

According to festival folklore, the idea for the festival came from Audrey Mildmay in 1942. While walking with Bing down Edinburgh’s Princes Street after watching a performance of John Gay's The Beggar's Opera. Seeing the Castle bathed in moonlight. Audrey apparently said that the city would be a wonderful setting for a festival.

In 1945, using all his impresario skills, Bing began to plan for a festival where struggling artists from across Europe and beyond could come together in peace. According to the Festival’s website, Bing was drawn to Edinburgh, “with its numerous artistic facilities, ancient beauty, safe atmosphere and compact centre”.

Looking towards Edinburgh's Old Town and the Scott Monument from Prince's Street (Emma Jolly)

Bing became a British subject in 1946, a year before founding the Edinburgh International Festival. After two years of planning the first 'International Festival of Music and Drama' took place between 22 August and 11 September 1947 - the largest of its type anywhere in the world. The programme for 1947 included orchestral, choral and chamber music, Lieder and song, opera, ballet, drama, film, and Scottish piping and dancing.

High Street, Edinburgh Festival Fringe, 2010 (Festival Fringe Society)

Edinburgh Festival Fringe also began in 1947, with eight small theatre companies not on the official programme deciding to perform independently at smaller, alternative ‘fringe’ venues. The term ‘fringe’ was first used to describe the event in 1948, The Edinburgh Festival Fringe was officially formed in 1958, with no artistic vetting of the programme. The Festival and The Fringe have dominated the month of August in Scotland’s capital every year since, except 2020.

In 2021, following the pandemic lockdown of 2020, the festival was scaled-back with outdoor performances and hybrid online events. But in 2022 the festival is returning to live indoor performances. Drawing on Sir Rudolf Bing’s philosophy in his creation of the Festival seventy-five years ago, this year the Festival has announced ‘a dynamic programme of events that broaden our understanding of what we share as humans, celebrate our differences and tackle our global challenges together.’

Rudolf Bing was knighted in 1971. His wife, Nina, died in 1983. After suffering from Alzheimer’s disease in later life, Bing died in September 1997, aged 95, in New York. A blue plaque to Rudolf Bing can be found on Edinburgh’s Usher Hall. He lives on through the festival he created and its commitment to celebrating international art and culture despite the conflicts and troubles of the outside world.

Ice cream van passing the ruins of Holyrood Abbey, Edinburgh (Emma Jolly)

View of Calton Hill from Arthur's Seat, Holyrood Park, Edinburgh (Emma Jolly)

Edinburgh's Scott Monument at night (Emma Jolly)

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