Van Cliburn - Life Magazine, 1958The idea of formal competition has become an established part of the classical music industry.  Freely, competitions give a great many musicians the opportunity to showcase their talents on the national and international stages.  And there is something to be said for their role in the advancement of young players on the pathway to professional careers in music.  (Exposure in music magazines, record deals will often follow.)  But I see a darkness in it all: the general flattening, rather than the development, of the creative landscape.

But let me warm up by bringing up three of the more momentous moments that come to mind when I think of the history of classical competition.


FIRST: Russian pianist, Tatiana Nikolayeva, took first prize in the Leipzig Bach Competition in 1950.  Oral history sometimes has it that she played both books of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier – which is to say all 48 Preludes and Fugues!  Hmmm … Given that the competition only called for a single Prelude & Fugue as part of a contestant’s program, it’s unlikely that there’s much accuracy in that version of the story.  But there’s an echo of truth in it: Another – more likely – account goes like this: Nikolayeva was prepared to play anything from the Well-Tempered Clavier and offered to play whichever Prelude & Fugue the jury requested.  So impressed was Shostakovich (one of the panel judges) with her performance that he composed his own set of 24 Preludes and Fugues – and dedicated them to her.  Whatever the details of the 1950 Leipzig Bach competition in 1950, the result is some of my favourite music of the 20th century.  Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues linger on; they are more important than the competition – than any competition.  (You can listen to her play Bach’s great Prelude & Fugue in C-sharp Minor here.  And also be sure to check out her rendition of Shostakovich’s dark Prelude & Fugue in E minor.)

History is like a piano: It resonates long after the notes are struck.  And, sometimes, its notes will blur.

SECOND: American pianist Van Cliburn was famously awarded first place at the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow.  That the year was 1958, at the height of the so-called cold “war,” only added to the resonance of the event.  I may be tripping on my own self-spun legend here, but I think it was my grandmother who told me that Russian pianist Emil Gilels – who was heading the competition jury – personally awarded the Texan with a score of 100 (on a scale of 1 to 10!) in order to guarantee Cliburn’s victory.

Do we find ourselves here, again, amidst the mist of myth?

One thing we do have is the Cliburn’s own account: that Gilels – after walking the American onto the stage to take his bow before a standing audience, beside itself with enthusiasm – kissed him on the cheek as sign of his admiration for the American’s performance.  It’s a wonderful story, and a tribute to the cultural promise of music.  For it’s now 2010, and who has won?  The McCarthyites or Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto?  A quick listen to the opening notes of that masterpiece – from the infamous 1958 competition itself! – clearly answers the question.

Sometimes music can help to temper the illusions, to dampen the delusions, of a time.

THIRD: The year is 1980, and Yugoslavian (Serbian) pianist Ivo Pogorelich is eliminated from the International Chopin Competition in Warsaw.  Argentinean pianist Martha Argerich walks away from her position on the jury, and famously declares Pogorelich “a genius.”  So sharp is the controversy that Pogorelich is asked to give a last recital at the end of the competition (a privilege usually only reserved for the competition winner!).  You can here take in the dizzying levels of artistry and technique that Pogorelich brought to that very performance.

Pogorelich - "The Genius" (DG)THE VERDICT

But how would Pogorelich’s career have progressed had Argerich not resigned in protest?  What if the other members of the jury – the supposed arbiters of “truth” – had had their way?  My questions are speculative, I admit, but I write them here to trigger a bit of discussion about the state of competition culture as it exists in our day.  And if my questions seem speculative, I certainly don’t think they’re any more so than the pretense of a jury that supposes to offer an “objective” gauge of a musician’s performance.

To my mind, objectivity is impossible to the point that the very thought of it is boring; and I fear that music culture is dulled by structures that discourage the flowering of an artist’s personal (and, yes, subjective) vision.  I’m reminded of the end of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, where the young Stephen Dedalus takes on his role as an artist in the world, and sets out to “forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.”  In the world of music, what competitions do is impose limits on the artist by pushing for a standardized measure of what constitutes proper performance, and in this sense limit the reach, the creative potential, the variety of views and interpretations of music.

The present and future of music are compromised by the conservative idea of “proper” performance.  Think of the blandness of American Idol.  (Sure, “America’s Got Talent,” but what’s talent without vision?)  Think of the merciless number of songs that are given the auto-tune treatment.

It hurts.  Even Beethoven’s ears are bleeding.

I don’t think that competitions should be done away with.  But I don’t need to state their merits here: You don’t have to put your finger to the wind to learn that their merits are everywhere assumed.  I only hope that people who are part of the industry begin to think of alternative ways of furthering music, of writing about it, of poking holes in the surface of what is blindly accepted.

Ultimately, it will continue to be up to the artists to forge the uncharted horizons of music.  Gone are the days – so to speak, because I doubt there ever were such days – when the interests of the industry coincided with the interests of artistry.

The basic issue is that there is a general acceptance of the way things are rather than a push to explore how things could be.  The first is a question of the music industry, and the second, a question of classical music culture, a matter of artistry.

And while industry doesn’t necessarily exclude artistry, it doesn’t always encourage it.  So if I see something of a darkness in it, then maybe it’s that the idea of classical competition misses the mark, misses the point of artistic development.  And if it can be said to see the truth at all, then I really think it can only do so as through a glass, darkly.

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