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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

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.

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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.

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It has spawned an "unofficial" "Fringe" of uncontrolled proportions and character. Street happenings burgeon; it is a mlange 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. On the one side is the need to entice artists of international standing to Edinburgh. On the other is the need to present Scottish culture to the festival's international audience.

Scotland's orchestras, opera, and ballet certainly feature at the festival. The opening concert this year, for instance was the work of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and the Edinburgh Festival Chorus. The short, excitingly performed program - Schonberg's "A Survivor From Warsaw" (for painful remembrance) followed by Beethoven's Ninth (for rousing optimism) - was designed to symbolize the festival's original context and ambition. It was conducted with intensity by a Scottish conductor, Donald Runnicles.

Scottish drama features in most festivals to a degree that it would certainly not if the festival had been going instead for 50 years in Oxford! This year the poet Robert Burns is celebrated in a concert of his songs. Scottish fiddle music is featured. And all this Scottishness is woven in between the Japanese, Dutch, Catalan, Italian, Russian, Norwegian, and German contributions.

When to stop

The first inaugural lecture was by Prof. George Steiner, a Cambridge University philosopher and polymath. Deliberately provocative, he managed to inject into what might otherwise have been no more than a congratulatory address a number of issues and large questions - not the least of which was to suggest that it is now time for the festival to ask itself if it should not stop altogether.

He said: "To know when to stop is a rare but vivid mark of honesty within excellence.... It is precisely when it is still doing well, when its box office is healthy, that an institution should draw a dangerous breath and ask itself: 'Is my continued existence truly representative of my ... initial aims? Are current realizations matching the excellence of the outset?' "

He greatly praised the festival, past and present. But he also suggested that the arts (and arts festivals) had proved helplessly inadequate to - in the words of the one of the festival's first supporters, the city's then lord provost - "embrace the world." The world's destructive conflicts have continued regardless.

Unarguable, on the face of it. He only had to mention Northern Ireland and Bosnia to make his point. And yet there is also an indisputable internationalism and undoubted bonhomie permeating Edinburgh for these three extraordinary weeks each year, and it is untinged by nationalist hatreds.

To undervalue the drip-on-the-stone effects of such cultural crosscurrents - or of the essentially youthful fun that this festival means to many who descend on the city - would be very cynical. To darkly suggest it should be terminated forthwith is, of course, absurd. Some critics have reacted indignantly. But I suspect Professor Steiner only wanted to re-alert his listeners to the festival's original, and still admirable, high hopes and promises.

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