Music competitions have always been an important part of the human experience. In the ancient world, Greek and Roman societies considered them a central part of the worship of their gods, usually pairing them up with a religious procession and a sacrifice. While nowadays there is no need to pack a goat in your cabin baggage, sacrifice is still part of the deal: long hours of practice, miles travelled, money invested and relentless determination are all ingredients needed to succeed.

The jury members of the Queen Elisabeth Competition and H.M. Queen Elisabeth of Belgium in 1959
© Robert Kayaert | Queen Elisabeth Competition

Using a public forum seems to be the natural way to find the strongest young players while promoting the musical genre and helping to establish new professional careers. Even today, where all you need is a social media account to be able to reach a potentially large audience, music competitions offer way more than just visibility. It’s like opening a window to let fresh air circulate: you need talent to travel, to become aware of what’s out there and to meet fellow musicians to work with. Plus, many competitions offer inexperienced players the chance to attend masterclasses led by world-class artists, and this is something not even a million Instagram likes can give you. 

The focus on media, however, has always been fundamental to help budding musicians. In the 1920s, New York was the hub of the American concert-management business: classical music reviews occupied a large space in all newspapers, with a multitude of critics reviewing any new debut. With recordings reserved only for the biggest names in the business, radio in its infancy and television not yet commercially available, the only way forward for an aspiring musician was to score a contract with a New York manager. The plea of a singer who could not book a manager because she had not yet performed in public inspired Walter Wehle Naumburg, a banker, philantropist and amateur cellist, to select a few gifted musicians to perform in a recital, to allow them to be reviewed by critics. Cue the Naumburg Competition, first held in 1926, that started many successful careers, including Jorge Bolet, Kun-Woo Paik and Stephen Hough. Post-World War 2 editions of the Naumburg also highlighted the importance of American-made recordings, a pioneering idea at the time. 

On the other side of the pond in Warsaw, 1927 saw the first edition of the International Chopin Competition, founded by Polish pianist Jerzy Żurawlew and still today one of the few monographic piano competitions in the world. A German air raid on the city in 1939 completely destroyed the Warsaw Philharmonic building, but the tournament endured the conflict and restarted in 1949, returning to a newly restored concert hall in 1955. 

The 1957 laureates of the Concours de Genève, including Martha Argerich and Dominique Merlet
© Wassermann | Archives Concours de Genève

Among the oldest-running classical music competitions in the world is also the Queen Elisabeth Competition, held in Brussels. Created under the impulse of Belgian violinist, conductor and composer Eugène Ysaÿe and HM Queen Elisabeth of Belgium, it was held for the first time in 1937, the first laureate being Soviet violinist David Oistrakh. When World War 2 engulfed Europe, the tournament was suspended. This event was however very dear to the Belgian queen, and restarting it in 1951 was seen as an integral part of the healing process of the country. It was broadcasted via radio from 1951, with television programming beginning in 1960 and online streaming in 2001.

A programme advertising the first Geneva International Competition in 1939
© Sartori | Concours de Genève International Music Competition

World War 2 ravaged Europe, but one competition managed not to have their programme interrupted. The Geneva International Music Competition, in Switzerland, had started in 1939 under the name of Concours International d'Exécution Musicale (CIEM). Founded by Austrian musician Frédéric Liebstoeckl with Henri Gagnebin, the Director of the Geneva Conservatoire at the time, it had among its first winners pianist Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli and soprano Maria Stader. While the war spread across the continent, the competition persevered. Although it was no longer marked as international, it continued to harbour musicians from all over Europe, welcoming artists as refugees and helping them with the competition's monetary prizes. Famous names who won accolades during the war include Hungarian-born pianist and conductor Sir Georg Solti and Austrian violist Paul Doktor. In 1946, after the end of the conflict, the competition reinstated its international credentials. 

Hedy Schneider and Arnold Eidus, laureates of the Long Thibaud Crespin competition in 1946
© Fondation Long Thibaud Crespin

In France, the Long-Thibaud competition opened its doors in 1943 (although the name was changed to Long-Thibaud Crespin in 2011, when a voice prize inspired by operatic soprano Régine Crespin was added). Its founders, pianist Marguerite Long and violinist Jacques Thibaud, are quoted in an article published in 1947 on French newspaper Opéra, talking about their desire to encourage young musicians by giving them hope. While it was impossible to dream of an international competition in an occupied France, they still went ahead with a national event in 1943, to then expand on an international scale after the end of the hostilities. 

The idea of music competitions as a healing and uniting force for the world is echoed in a statement by Yehudi Menuhin, who headed the violin jury at the Long-Thibaud Crespin competition from 1993 until his death in 1999. In 1996 he was quoted saying: “we gather here, the jury members and I, not to measure the distance that separates the participants from each other, but rather to highlight the level of connection that they have achieved [...] at the service of music and humanity.”

Aldo Ciccolini, 1949 Long Thibaud Crespin laureate with piano-maker Andre Gaveau's dog Blanche-Neige
© Fondation Long Thibaud Crespin

Among the many notable participants in this long-running French event is Italian pianist Aldo Ciccolini, described as “a revelation” by the press in 1949. And if you think of classical music competitions as dignified, black-tie affairs, think again: according to French newspapers, the piano competition results of 1953 saw the concert hall thrown into utter screaming chaos due to the controversial decision to award two tied second prizes – to Soviet Evgeny Malinine and French Philippe Entremond – instead of a first prize. The participation of USRR citizens in the French competition, both as contestants and members of the jury, was however a significant step on the path towards musical and cultural exchange between East and West.

Deeply rooted in the media is also the ARD Competition, which evolved from an earlier competition called Young Soloists Competition. Founded in Munich, Germany in 1952, it was started by the broadcasting corporations of what was once known as the Federal Republic of Germany. 1957 saw the foundation of the World Federation of International Music Competitions (WFIMC), which today comprises  members spread across 40 countries. The International Tchaikovsky Competition, held in Russia, was founded the following year, at the height of the Cold War, and it was considered instrumental in restoring the country's pride in their own musicians as well as opening a communication channel with the rest of the world. Sixty years later and one iron curtain less, the competition still brings together musicians from a variety of backgrounds and nationalities. American pianist Van Cliburn became incredibly famous for winning the first edition of the International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow, inspiring a new era of cultural communication between East and West. The Cliburn International Piano Competition was then established shortly after, in 1962, to celebrate his legacy and the power music has to reach across any border.

Kathleen Winkler 1980 Carl Nielsen International Violin Competition winner and HM Queen Margrethe II
© Ole Bjoerndal Bagger

Aside from musical mentoring, the cultural exchange aspect of music competitions is also remarkable. Many competitions, such as the Long-Thibaud Crespin in France, the Van Cliburn in Texas and the Mirjam Helin International Singing Competition in Finland, have participants live with local families for the duration of the competition.

The 1980s saw a flourish of competitions being established all over the world, from Scandinavia to North America and Asia. And if you are like me and still think the 90s were about ten years ago, a look at the prestigious 28-year history of the Donatella Flick Conducting Competition, first held in 1990, will quickly make you realise that we are old and everything hurts.

Baritone Samuel Hasselhorn, First Prize, 2018 Queen Elisabeth International Music Competition, Voice
© Bruno Vessiez

There is no point in looking back without thinking about the road ahead. As much as music competitions will always be a controversial topic for some, there is no denying that their existence has immensely benefited musicians from all corners of the globe, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Robo-conductors or holographic orchestras could become a thing in the next century, and maybe the latest VR technology will allow musicians from all over the planet to perform together without leaving the comfort of their living room, but no matter how technology will evolve, if we learned something from this brief dip into the history of music competitions, it is that the strength of the human spirit and the desire to connect beyond geographical, political and cultural barriers is at the centre of it all.