Honour where honour is due: without radio and television, the prestigious archives of the Queen Elisabeth Competition would not be what they are today. The public broadcasting service, the Institut National de Radiodiffusion Belge (INR/NIR), installed in an ultra-modern building (today’s Flagey) in 1938, was considered one of the most outstanding of its day for live music. Urged on by strong personalities such as Paul Collaer
and Franz André
, live broadcasts of concerts at first considerably restricted the broadcasting of the ‘78’ records that less well-run institutions had to settle for. So it was quite natural for the Ysaÿe Competition to be broadcast live in 1937 and for the Queen Elisabeth Competition to be broadcast from 1951 on, with the radio broadcasting the finals in full and carefully recording them for future broadcasts. Starting in 1955, the interval commentary was entrusted to a specialist, the composer and music critic Jacques Stehman (whose memory was kept alive long afterwards by a prize awarded by the listeners of the RTBF), who surrounded himself with journalists in order to make the Competition a popular radio event, which soon came to be rebroadcast thanks to the European Broadcasting Union. Flemish radio followed suit and also started to broadcast the Competition, with appropriate commentary, to the Dutch-speaking part of the country; it also established a prize awarded by its listeners, the Sternefeld Prize; from 1978 to 2011 the journalist Fred Brouwers was ‘the voice of the Competition’ for Flemish radio listeners and television viewers.
Media coverage received an extra boost from television, whose interest in the Competition dates from 1959. Technical limitations, however, and suspicion of the new medium meant that things got off to a slow start. Initially, the gala aspect, such as the awarding of the prizes by Queen Elisabeth, received more attention than the music. Neither the original audience at the Centre for Fine Arts (Palais des Beaux-Arts) nor the management of the Competition were prepared to put up with the cumbersome set-up and harsh lighting required by the cameras of the time. From 1964 on, however, television filmed the rehearsals in the Palais des Beaux-Arts as an item for the evening news programme. Starting in 1967, a fixed camera made it possible to immortalise a selection of moments from the semi-finals and finals; these were supplemented by a great many reports and interviews. Live broadcasting started in 1972 with partial coverage, which became total in 1978.
This media coverage, combined with the sustained interest of some of the print media, is unique in the world. It has given the laureates an impressive popular base that has led a number of them to settle in Belgium.
The Competition has also reached music-lovers through the favourite medium for musical emotion of most of them, the disc. In 1967, the Discothèque Nationale, founded in 1956 by Jean Salkin, thanks to the support of Queen Elisabeth, issued - as a homage to the late queen - a record devoted to the history of the Competition, with recordings of its first three laureates. From then on the Belgian subsidiary of Deutsche Grammophon issued, after each edition, a series of records produced with the greatest care. Local subsidiaries of major recording companies, however, would soon stop releasing classical music productions of their own. In 1983 an independent Belgian label run by René Gailly took up the baton; he was followed between 1996 and 2005 by other private partners, before the Competition took recording matters into its own hands in 2007. The live recordings of the Competition, traditionally released a week after the results are announced - quite a technical feat - are still today among the biggest commercial successes of the classical sector in Belgium.
Since 2001, finally, thanks to close collaboration with the public broadcasting services and Belgacom (now Proximus
), the Queen Elisabeth Competition has been one of the first international competitions to offer surfers live streaming of its successive rounds. Thanks to the Internet, the Queen Elisabeth Competition has extended its media presence well beyond the frontiers of Belgium, enabling it to reach an ever wider audience of music-lovers and professionals.
All of these sound and audio-visual recordings, as well as a large number of photographs that capture the atmosphere of the Competition, have been the subject for almost ten years now of a complex labour of stock-taking, restoration, and digitising, thanks to which some are already available on this website. But this Herculean task is still in its early days: new material will be added on a regular basis to these digital archives
, the Competition’s virtual memory.