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History / 1937 and 1938
1937 and 1938

As early as the early 1900s Ysaÿe had a clear idea of what he felt an international competition should be like. As a friend of Anton Rubinstein, he was acquainted with the competition that bore his name; several of his friends and partners had been laureates, including Ferruccio Busoni and Émile Bosquet. The Rubinstein Competition, held every five years and open to pianists and composers, had no successor after the Russian Revolution. As for the Warsaw Chopin Competition founded in 1927, though it might have been considered a model piano competition, it was essentially and exclusively intended to cultivate the best performers of Chopin; the Liszt Competition, founded in Budapest in 1933, was similar in nature.

What Ysaÿe wanted was a competition for young virtuosos, with extremely broad-ranging programmes, including contemporary music, that would highlight the technical and artistic maturity of the candidates and launch them on their careers. It was with this in mind that he thought of including an unpublished compulsory work that would be studied in seclusion, without help from any quarter and in particular from the candidate’s teacher: the ultimate test.

Queen Elisabeth could not set up such a competition overnight. Ysaÿe died in 1931, shortly after the establishment of the Queen Elisabeth Music Foundation. Subsequently, the economic crisis and the accidental death of King Albert, followed by that of his daughter-in-law Queen Astrid, temporarily put into abeyance any large-scale artistic projects. It was only in 1937 that the first Ysaÿe Competition took place. An international jury of exceptionally high standing eagerly accepted the invitation. The sessions included compulsory - but not unpublished - works; applications poured in. The prestige of Ysaÿe’s name, coupled with that of the Belgian court - Queen Elisabeth and the late King Albert were among the most universally admired heroes of the First World War - brought the elite of the violin world to Brussels.

David Oistrakh in 1937
The results of the competition made a profound impression: the Soviet school, with an assurance that bordered on arrogance, carried off all the prizes from the first down. The latter was awarded without the slightest discussion to the great David Oistrakh. Everyone else had to be content with crumbs; the Belgian violin school, though still a source of pride, failed and its absence from the final was much commented on; Arthur Grumiaux and Carlo Van Neste, both young and inexperienced, were unable to convince the jury.


The success of the first Ysaÿe Competition was decisive for subsequent events. Broadcast on the radio, the competition immediately found an audience, and its blend of sporting event and artistic quality at once created a following of loyal music-lovers. The second competition was held in 1938, this time featuring the piano. The lessons to be drawn were identical: although Moura Lympany (then still known as Mary Johnstone) slipped in between Emil Gilels (1st) and Jacob Flier (3rd), and although the prizes overall seemed more equitably distributed (a Belgian, André Dumortier, did brilliantly, finishing just behind a very young Italian pianist, Arturo Benedetti-Michelangeli, who was ranked 7th), the Soviet school once more emerged with head held high, looking at the rest with a somewhat condescending eye.

David Oistrakh jury member of the violin session 1959 (2nd from right)
It was too much. Before war broke out, thanks to the support of an enlightened and generous patron, Baron Paul de Launoit, Queen Elisabeth inaugurated a boldly conceived musical institution, based on the Soviet model and intended to make a noticeable improvement in the training conditions of young Belgian artists: this was the Queen Elisabeth Music Chapel, whose good health nearly a century later bears witness to the soundness of the idea behind it. As for the Competition, circumstances led to its suspension for the time being. Belgian cultural life, while remaining intensely active during World War II, had entered an obviously difficult phase. Charles Houdret, the administrator and manager of the Queen Elisabeth Music Foundation, which implemented the Queen’s musical plans, became embroiled in financial scandals and the foundation sank into oblivion. Times were uncomfortable and unpredictable for the Belgian royal family during the immediate post-war period: two of Queen Elisabeth’s children - Léopold III and Marie-José, an ephemeral Queen of Italy - lost their thrones. A third, Charles, held the Regency of Belgium for five years, but, though he was a princely artist, this period was unavoidably marked by one overriding priority: the economic and social reconstruction of the country.
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