Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Queen Elisabeth Musical Competition

Queen Elisabeth of Belgium was a renowned patroness of the arts. She loved anything that uplifted the soul and music was her greatest passion. As her daughter, Marie-José, explains in her memoirs, Elisabeth, like her husband, King Albert I, sought a "noble escape" from the constraints of her royal position. Albert found solace in mountaineering; Elisabeth, in music. She practiced her violin daily and enjoyed playing quartets with other musicians. Sweet strains would echo through Laeken Castle...The great Belgian virtuoso, conductor, and composer, Eugène Ysaye, was one of Elisabeth's violin teachers and close friends. "She plays badly divinely," Ysaye once remarked. Another musical friend, Pablo Casals, commented: "she plays like a Queen."

A fruit of the collaboration between Elisabeth and Ysaye was the Queen Elisabeth International Musical Competition of Belgium. Ysaye's ideas inspired its development. According to one article:
What Ysaÿe wanted was a competition for young virtuosos with extremely broad-ranging programmes that included contemporary music, that brought out the technical and artistic maturity of the candidates and that would launch them on their careers. It was with this in mind that he thought of including an unpublished set work that would be studied in confinement without the help of anyone, least of all a candidate's teacher: the ultimate test.
Unfortunately, Ysaye's death in 1931, shortly after the creation of the Queen Elisabeth Musical Foundation, delayed the establishment of the competition. Only a few years later, the tragic deaths of King Albert and his daughter-in-law, Queen Astrid, plunged Belgium into mourning, and Elisabeth into deep depression, interrupting the project. In 1937, however, the first Ysaye Competition, featuring the violin, took place. It was a splendid success. The luster of Ysaye's name, and the prestige of the Belgian royal family, widely admired for their heroism in World War I, attracted elite performers from many countries. The Soviet school won an overwhelming victory, carrying off all the prizes, with David Oistrakh (not surprisingly!) placing first.

Broadcast on the radio, the Ysaye Competition rapidly became a widely beloved Belgian cultural institution. In 1938, a second competition, devoted to the piano, took place. Again, the Soviet school won a crushing victory, inspiring Elisabeth to found a new musical school in Belgium on the Russian model. With the help of Baron Paul de Launoit, a generous patron, the Queen Elisabeth Musical Chapel was born. The school flourished, markedly improving the training of young Belgian musicians. Unfortunately, however, a series of disasters- World War II, the collapse of the Queen Elisabeth Musical Foundation, and the upheavals of the post-war Royal Question - halted the Ysaye Competitions.

In 1950, the project revived, supported by Queen Elisabeth, Marcel Cuvelier (founder of the Belgian Jeunesses Musicales), René Nicoly (of the International Federation of Jeunesses Musicales), and Paul de Launoit. Named after the Queen, the new competition was launched in 1951. In 1957, it became a founder member of the World Federation of International Musical Competitions. Held annually, the Queen Elisabeth Competition continues to be one of the most prestigious and demanding musical contests, attracting the finest young violinists, pianists, composers, and vocalists. The gift of a poetic and generous Queen to Belgium and the world...

The official website of the Queen Elisabeth Musical Competition may be found HERE.

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