A chance to refresh souls and reaffirm belief in things other than material

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The Independent Culture
The 50th Edinburgh International Festival opens tomorrow. Here Sir Ian Hunter, who became assistant to Rudolf Bing, Edinburgh's first artistic director, upon leaving the army in 1946, recalls the circumstances of the festival's launch.

"The idea for the festival came partly, I believe, from Bing himself, who was general manager at Glyndebourne Opera before the war, and partly from the soprano Audrey Mildmay, the wife of Glyndebourne's founder, John Christie.

Glyndebourne itself had closed down for the war and become a home for evacuees, while Bing was working as manager of Peter Jones, the department store. In 1940, though, the company mounted a short tour of The Beggar's Opera. So it was that, one night after a performance in Edinburgh, Bing and Mildmay were standing together at a tram stop in Princes Street when the moon came out and lit up the Castle. It's never been established exactly who said it to whom, but one of them anyway exclaimed to the other: "What a wonderful place this would be to hold a festival."

I remember that the idea of the festival appealed particularly strongly to the city's Lord Provost, Sir John Falconer, a very distinguished, erudite man (and a lawyer by training). Above all, he wanted to see the countries of Europe come together again and heal the wounds of war. That is why the word "international" in the festival's title is so relevant. As Falconer wrote in the foreword to the souvenir programme for the first festival in 1947: "This festival is not a commercial undertaking in any way. It is an endeavour to provide a stimulus to the establishing of a new way of life centred round the arts. For the three weeks of the Festival, [Edinburgh] will surrender herself to the visitors and hopes that they will find in all the performances a sense of peace and inspiration with which to refresh their souls and reaffirm their belief in things other than material."

You have to imagine the background against which this first festival arose. The war had been over for just two years. Food rationing, clothes rationing, furnishing rationing were almost at their height - worse than during the war. If you had bread with your lunch, for example, it counted as a course, and you weren't allowed more than three courses a meal.

Restaurants and hotels were really run down. I remember being sent to Clacton, I think it was, on the Thames Estuary, to check over a passenger ship that was laid up there - with a view to it being brought up to Leith and used as a floating hotel for the festival. The idea never actually came off, but it gives some idea of the privations we were under, and the imagination we had to use to overcome them.

The 24th August 1947 is written on my mind - the opening concert with L'Orchestre des Concerts Colonne from Paris, conducted by Paul Paray. For a start, the weather was wonderful; every day, for the whole three weeks the sun continued to shine. There was Barbirolli with the Halle and Sir Malcolm Sargent with the Liverpool Philharmonic. Glyndebourne Opera, of course, with performances of Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro and Verdi's Macbeth, both directed by the legendary Carl Ebert.

The greatest moment, however, was the arrival of the Vienna Philharmonic. Bing had managed to persuade Bruno Walter, the orchestra's old conductor, to come over from America, where he had been living since 1939. So here they were in Edinburgh, together again for the first time since before the war. It really was a most moving event. It was at this time that Walter also auditioned Kathleen Ferrier to sing Das Lied von der Erde with him, which effectively launched her international career.

Then there was the Old Vic (with Alec Guinness in Richard II) and Sadler's Wells Ballet (with Margot Fonteyn in Sleeping Beauty). Louis Jouvet, the great French actor, brought his company over from Paris with Moliere's L'ecole des femmes and Ondine by Giraudoux. Elisabeth Schumann sang in recital with Bruno Walter; Joseph Szigeti played Brahms sonatas with Artur Schnabel. Altogether, an extraordinary level of artistry and international spirit of renewal shining out from a dark past. As the first event of its kind ever held in this country, it generated enormous excitement and was almost immediately recognised abroad.

In 1949, I myself succeeded Bing as artistic director. One of my first priorities was to introduce art exhibitions into the festival mix, and within five years we had shown Rembrandt, El Greco, Degas, Renoir, Cezanne and a magnificent homage to Diaghilev curated by Richard Buckle. But the highlight of my time was probably the 1951 visit of the New York Philharmonic. They gave 14 concerts, half with Bruno Walter, half with Dimitri Mitropoulos - their first visit to Europe since 1936, I believe. We were able to bring them over with a special grant as part of the Festival of Britain that year. They're here again at this year's festival, with two programmes under Kurt Masur, but it's impossible to conceive of a visiting orchestra ever again giving 14 such concerts in this day and age."

Sir Ian Hunter was talking to Gina Cowen

n Thomas Sutcliffe and his column return in September