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The International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition

The International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition

International Chopin Piano Competition is one of the oldest music competitions in the world – one of great, world prestige. It was founded by Prof. Jerzy Żurawlew (1887-1980) – extraordinary Polish pianist, teacher and composer.

The first competition took place between 23rd and 30th January 1927 in the Warsaw Philharmonic. From that year on, every five years the competition was organized in the Warsaw Philharmonic: that is in 1932 and 1937. The world war II interrupted the five-year-cycle, for the competition in 1942 could not be organized. The first competition after the war (the 4th Competition) took place in 1949 in Nowogrodzka Street in the hall of the Roma theatre – one of very little surviving buildings in Warsaw. The 4th Competition became the central point of the celebrations of the 100th anniversary of Chopin’s death. Next competition happened in 1955 – after 6-years break, due to the rebuilding of the Warsaw Philharmonic. Since 1955 the Competition has been taking place in the Philharmonic with no further interruptions every 5 years.

The first 6 competitions, up till 1965, took place in winter, close to the date of Chopin’s birth on 22th of February. But due to the bad weather conditions and increased number of illnesses, the organizes decided to move the competition from February to October, close to the anniversary of Chopin’s death. First 3 competitions were organized by the Warsaw Music Society. 4th and 5th editions were parts of the celebrations of Chopin’s Anniversary Years in 1949 and 1955, and between 1960 and 2005 the competitions were held by the Chopin Society in Warsaw. Since 2005 the Fryderyk Chopin Institute is the main organizer of this special event. Since 1957 the competition is a part of the World Federation of International Music Competitions in Geneva.

In the beginning it was a small contest with only 26 pianists from 8 countries, but throughout the years the competition gained more prestige and became one of the most important piano contests in the world. In 2005 there were 350 participants. The participants were aged from 18 to 29 years old, but there were slight differences and exceptions from that rule: the youngest participant was 16 and the oldest was 32 years old.

Winning or being awarded one of many prizes in this special competition simplifies the future career of the participants. Among the prize winners there are i.a.: Lew Oborin, Stanisław Szpinalski, Aleksander Uniński, Jakov Zak, Witold Małcużyński, Jan Ekier, Halina Czerny Stefańska, Bella Davidovich, Barbara Hesse-Bukowska, Adam Harasiewicz, Wladimir Ashkenazy, Fou Ts'Oung, Lidia Grychtołówna, Maurizio Pollini, Martha Argerich, Garrick Ohlsson, Piotr Paleczny, Eugene Indjic, Krystian Zimerman, Dang Thai Son, Stanislav Bunin, Kevin Kenner, Alexei Sultanov, Yundi Li, Rafał Blechacz, Yulianna Avdeeva.

The competition jury evaluates the participants according to previously prepared Jury Rules. During the first competition, the jury was entirely Polish, but from the second competition onwards the organizers invited to the jury world greatest artists, such as: Henryk Melcer, Jerzy Żurawlew, Magda Tagliaferro, Marguerite Long, Wilhelm Backhaus, Stefan Ashkenase, Witold Lutosławski, Nadia Boulanger, Arturo Benedetti-Michelangeli, Jan Ekier, Lev Oborin, Witold Małcużyński, Halina Czerny Stefańska, Martha Argerich.

The chairmen of the jury were always the most honoured musicians and pianists specializing in Chopin’s music. In 1927 the chairman was Witold Maliszewski (composer, director of the Warsaw Music Society and the Chopin High School of Music in Warsaw), next two times Adam Wieniawski (composer, conductor, director of the Warsaw Music Society), in 1949, 195, 1960 and 1965 Zbigniew Drzewiecki (pianist, teacher, dean of the music high schools in Krakow and Warsaw). Among chairmen there were also Kazimierz Sikorski, Kazimierz Kord, Jan Ekier and Andrzej Jasiński (2000-2010).

The International Chopin Piano Competition is a multistage contest lasting usually a dozen of days up to a month. The auditions are opened (with one exception: in 1949 the Jury was separated from the participants with a curtain and did not know their names until the 3rd stage, which was made open).

The Chopin Competition is one of the few monograph piano contests in the world and is entirely devoted to the music of one composer. It’s worth stressing that this monographic character not only enables to compare the classify the participants and gives the jury a general look into the current level of the world pianism, but also gives an opportunity to observe the attitude towards Chopin’s works and music genres he composed.

The programme of the competition varied throughout the years. In the first competition the participants were to perform two individually chosen nocturnes (from the list made by the Jury), two etudes, two preludes, Polonaise in F sharp minor, Op. 44, one ballade (of the participant’s own choice) and two mazurkas (from the list made by the Jury); and on the 2nd stage the participants were to play 1st and 2nd or 2nd and 3rd movement of one of the concertos. The jury of the 2nd competition added to the repertoire the Polonaise in A flat major, Op. 53, scherzi, Fantasy in F minor, Op. 49 and two sonatas. The repertoire was consecutively widened and new pieces were added, i.a. the Polonaise-Fantasie in A flat major, Op. 61, Barcarolle in F sharp major, Op. 60, Berceuse in D flat major, Op. 57, Tarantelle in A flat major, Op. 43, Andante spianato and Grand Polonaise in E flat major, Op. 22 in a solo version (since the 7th competition), impromptus (since the 9th competition), Sonata in C minor, Op. 4 (in 2010), rondos and pieces for piano and orchestra: Variations in B flat major, Op. 2, Fantasy in A major, Op. 13 and Rondo, Op. 14 (since the 13th competition). These orchestral works together with the piano concerti formed the repertoire of the finals. In time the repertoire evolved and allowed the participants more freedom of choice. The required pieces lasting circa 20 minutes were to be complemented by other pieces of the participant’s own choice so that the whole recital closes in 40-50 minutes.

The organizers determine the number and value of prizes and distinctions. The prizes in first four competitions were founded by state institutions and social organizations. From 1955 to 2000 the founds were given by the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage. Now there are special prizes funded by different state institutions, social organizations like: The President of the Republic of Poland, The Prime Minister, Minister of Culture and National Heritage, Minister of National Education and Sports and also the Polish Radio (for the best performance of the mazurkas), the Chopin Society in Warsaw (for the best interpretation of the polonaise), the Warsaw Philharmonic (for the best performance of the concerto). Apart from the regular prizes, there are also extra statutory prizes founded by private people, foreign institutions and societies.

There are numerous accompanying events circling the competition: concerts, operas, ballets, meetings, panel discussions and exhibitions presenting documents, posters, recordings with Chopin’s music and many others.

Since 1975 one of the regular events accompanying the competition are celebrations of the anniversary of Chopin’s death. The 17th of October is a day included in the competition calendar and it is a special day of commemorating the great composer with a special concert in the Church of the Holy Cross. Every year the church is filled with ingenious Requiem by W.A. Mozart – the same masterpiece which was performed during the funeral ceremony in Paris in October 1849 in the Church de la Madeleine.

Barbara Niewiarowska