International Music Competitions: Fiddling While Rome Burns?

Article excerpt

A young musician makes her way to centre stage, struggling to control her breathing, her perspiring hands, her racing mind. She takes her seat and stares at the keyboard. All she has to do now is ignore the thousands of eyes upon her, to somehow remain oblivious to a packed concert hall waiting for the slightest error. If she can only forget, for a few minutes, how much depends on a perfect performance ...


INTERNATIONAL music competitions are essentially a twentieth-century phenomenon, although the idea originated in the late nineteenth century. The first competition to follow what would become the core principles of the modern model--that it should be open to competitors from all countries, and that it should be organized as an ongoing institution, rather than a one-off event--was the Anton Rubinstein Competition, founded in St Petersburg in 1890. Competitions were mounted every five years, until the outbreak of the Russian Revolution.

During the 1920s and 1930s, several international competitions sprang up, but only a few survived World War II. The Walter W. Naumburg Foundation Competition of New York has an unbroken history dating from its establishment in 1926. The following year, the first Chopin Competition was held in Warsaw, although its activities were understandably interrupted between 1937 and 1949. The Queen Elisabeth International Music Competition of Belgium can trace its origins back to the Eugene Ysaye Competition, named for the famous violinist and founded in 1937. Like the Chopin Competition, it was also suspended during World War II.

Music competitions exploded in the postwar years, when the arts became a Cold War battlefield, with East and West striving to demonstrate cultural superiority. Perhaps the most famous incident in the history of music competitions occurred in Moscow on 14 April 1958, when a young Texan named Harvey Lavan "Van" Cliburn won the gold medal in the first International Tchaikovsky Competition. Cliburn returned to the USA to a hero's welcome, complete with a ticker-tape parade on New York's Fifth Avenue. It was a great moment for him, for America--and also for international music competitions, which were thereby portrayed as glamorous, powerful, and important. Four years later, he helped to found the competition that bears his name.


THE World Federation of International Music Competitions, which celebrated its fiftieth anniversary in April, maintains a Spartan office on Geneva's Rue de Carouge, where a small staff looks after the day-to-day workings of the organization. It was there last November that I met with Philippe Languin, the federation's treasurer. A banker by profession, he's been involved with the WFIMC for 18 years on a volunteer basis. "Music competitions are not sui generis," he pointed out philosophically. "They are a reflection of our society. It's very difficult to imagine the absence of competition today, because it's intrinsic to the evolution of our society."

The WFIMC has 17 official objectives: among them, "to generate and communicate a positive image and high profile for international music competitions"; "to strengthen communication among member competitions and between them and other organizations that promote the careers of young musicians"; and "to adopt and enforce standards for admission to and for membership in the federation that will ensure the quality of competitions." To be eligible for membership in the federation, a competition must demonstrate secure and stable funding, and must have already successfully presented at least two competitive events. Also, contestants must not be restricted on the basis of nationality--although other restrictions, most often concerned with age, may apply. (International competitions generally accept contestants from their teens to their early thirties.) As well, the competition must award prizes on the recommendation of a jury comprised of no fewer than seven impartial experts, a majority of whom must not be citizens of the nation where the event takes place. …