On the day the results of the previous 2015 Chopin Competition were announced, Asian Internet users searched for “Chopin” more often than they did for “shopping”. When the results were announced in 2021, competition videos were watched almost 3 million times.
.It was the mid 1920s. Jerzy Żurawlew, a Polish pianist, composer, teacher and later rector of the Warsaw Conservatory, was travelling on a train when he heard a group of young people in animated discussion about a sports event. The encounter gave him the then unusual idea to combine the thrill of a competition with classical music, or more precisely the music of Fryderyk Chopin. This is how one of the world’s most important piano events was born: The Fryderyk Chopin International Piano Competition in Warsaw.
From the very beginning, the competition had several key objectives. Its main aim was to promote all of Chopin’s output, and in particular his later pieces and large works such as sonatas, scherzos and ballades. At that time, Chopin was known primarily for his lyrical compositions and in many countries people associated him almost exclusively with salon music. His most innovative works were not understood and sometimes criticised for being bizarre or outright sick. The second objective of the competition was to go back to the original source of Chopin’s music – to that end, work was started on a new volume of his complete works edited by Ludwik Bronarski and Józef Turczyński and signed by Ignacy Jan Paderewski himself. To this day, Paderewski’s edition is the most popular in the world even though a new, urtext National Edition by Jan Ekier has been available for years. Reaching for the original scores was supposed to cleanse the performances of Chopin’s music of the somewhat free interpretations that prevailed back then. Another objective was to interest the general public in classical music and create something like an international art olympiad in Warsaw that would attract the attention of musicians and music lovers from all over the world.
It must be said that the formula turned out to be exceptionally efficient and timeless, its results exceeding the wildest expectations of its initiators. Even though, due to some problems with raising funds in the recently reborn Poland, the first competition had to be postponed until 1927 and participants were forced to practice in private homes as the organisers were not able to provide the required number of pianos, the event became so much popular that the second edition, held five years later, attracted 200 contestants from around the globe. The Chopin Competition has been a springboard for many globally famous pianists, especially in the second half of the 20th century: Maurizio Pollini, Martha Argerich, Garrick Ohlsson or Krystian Zimerman are not only musicians but symbols, ambassadors of Chopin’s music and piano legends who have built the prestige of the Warsaw event. Its reputation was also established by the “great losers” such as Vladimir Ashkenazy or Ivo Pogorelić.
From 2010, the year of the 200th anniversary of Chopin’s birth, the competition has been organised by the National Fryderyk Chopin Institute in Warsaw, an institution set up by the Polish parliament to protect and cherish the legacy of the Polish composer. As early as 2010, all the auditions were streamed online and could be discussed by global audiences live on the Internet. Since that time, thanks to technological developments and universal access to streaming players, the interest in the competition and its reach have grown exponentially. Experts say that news items about the competition are viewed billions of times around the world and an estimated 250 million times in Poland alone. Given today’s diversification of the media, the figures are still being counted, but representatives of Google – the competition’s partner – claim that it is the most popular event of this type in the world. On YouTube alone, and only when the competition was in progress, Chopin’s music was listened to for 7.2 million hours, while comments were posted with a frequency of 1300 a minute. The auditions could also be listened to on the radio, television, mobile applications, smart TV, Asian websites and so on. Thanks to all these media outlets, Chopin has brought together audiences from as far as Japan and the USA.
.Most importantly, during those three October weeks we could listen to excellent renditions of that brilliant music performed live, on stage, and to a packed audience. Strict sanitary regime notwithstanding, people could forget about the pandemic. What better message to take home? The Chopin Competition reminded us all how important it is to be together while experiencing art performed live, on stage, in front of an audience.