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Great oaks from little acorns grow… – The Jean Sibelius Violin Competition

by Veikko Helasvuo

On the subject of competitions, opinions are highly divided amongst the music fraternity, competitions are seen as furthering the careers of those who do well in them, but it is not always easy to reconcile art and a system of ranking according to marks or points awarded. The first International Jean Sibelius Violin Competition was organised in 1965. In this article, originally published in 1985, Veikko Helasvuo examines the various phases the competition has gone through from its modest beginnings to its present position as a prominent international event.

I wonder if there are any internationally-known violinists who cannot claim among their repertoire Jean Sibelius’s Violin Concerto, Op. 47? The list of the artists who have recorded the work reads like a Who’s Who of 20th century violin virtuosi: Heifetz, Francescatti, Oistrakh, Neveu, Szeryng, Handel...

The first Finn to join this illustrious company was Anja Ignatius, who recorded the concerto in the 1940s under the direction of Sibelius’s brother-in-law, Armas Järnefelt.

It is therefore hardly surprising that when the 1950s preparations got under way in Finland for the celebration of the 100th anniversary of Sibelius’s birth, somebody came up with the suggestion of establishing an international competition for buddying young violinists with the Sibelius Violin Concerto as one of the items on the programme for the final stage.


The Sibelius Society

Jean Sibelius died on September 20th, 1957. Before the year was out a broad-based popular organisation, Sibelius-Seura (The Sibelius Society) had been founded, taking upon itself the task of preserving the memory of the composer and promoting the spread of his work. 

The 1st International Jean Sibelius Violin Competition was held in Nov. 22nd – Dec. 4th 1985, coinciding almost exactly with the 100th anniversary of the composer’s birth. The initiative for the arrangement of a competition of this sort came to the surface in the professional musicians’ section of the Sibelius Society. The Society was divided into a number of sections, each of which undertook to look after a particular area connected with Sibelius’s life and work. The competition project slotted in well with the Society’s other activities, and the Society’s Board gave the go-ahead for the section to proceed with plans to develop the idea. As the 100th anniversary of Sibelius’s birth approached, the government of the day appointed a festival committee to plan and coordinate events connected with the anniversary celebrations, and this body agreed to make over a part of its funding for the launching of a violin competition. 

It was, then, a relatively small group who first took on the responsibility of arranging a sizeable international music competition. One would have to look hard to find a project of similar scope which had been embarked upon and seen through with such limited resources. A State grant of FIM 100,000 (slightly more than USD 30,000 in those days) was made available for the first staging of the event. Of this, some USD 6,000 was set aside for prize money.


Victory in 1970 was shared between Liana Isakadze, shown here receiving her diploma, and Pavel Kogan. Photo: The Sibelius Society

Idealism in plenty

The preparations for the competition, involving the most diverse organizational task, the drawing up of a set of rules, handling of correspondence, etc. were carried out by the relevant persons alongside their main employment, and for negligible financial reward. Even today the competition has no full-time professional secretariat or executive manager. True, the members of the committee could call upon some very useful friends to help: the services of the Helsinki Phillharmonic and the Radio Symphony Orchestra were acquired free of charge, the Sibelius Academy made available rooms for rehearsing and its main concert hall for the competition itself, and the Fazer Concert Agency handled ticket sales and the concert arrangements. Finnish Broadcasting Company (YLE) recorded all the concert events. 

One clever solution adopted was the practice of boarding the competition entrants in private homes, as the non-paying guests of hospitable music-loving families in the Helsinki area. The same procedure has been followed in all subsequent competitions. It has even lead to long-standing friendship between the contestants and their hosts.

The prestige of the competition was already given a substantial lift by the fact that the composer’s widow, Aino Sibeliusagreed to become the President of the honorary committee. The members were an impressive band of well-known composers, conductors recognized as interpreters of Sibelius’s music, and established violinists. The important work of making the competition known was begun in the spring of 1964 with the printing of 10,000 copies of a brochure in several languages, which set out the programmes, prizes, and competition rules distributed to music academies, orchestras, broadcasting companies, and journalists all over the world.

The 1st Jean Sibelius Violin Competition attracted 27 young violinists from 15 countries.


Quality at the first attempt

The first staging of the Jean Sibelius Violin Competition proved an undisputed success. The overall standard was high. Many of those who took part in the 1965 competition – among them some who did not figure among the winners – have risen to become well-known and respected, both as performing artists and pedagogues. In addition to the prize-winners themselves, mention might be made of such names as Jean-Jacques Kantorow, Sergiu Luca, Peter Messiereur, Paul Rosenthal and Paul Zukofsk, Valeri Gradow, Oleg Kagan and Joshua Epstein.

On the last few evenings of the competition the concert hall was already full to overflowing. Millions of listeners around the world followed the competition in both live and recorded radio transmissions. 

When the experiences gained from the 1st competition were gathered and weighed up, it was decided that a corresponding event should be arranged after five years. And now the International Jean Sibelius Violin Competition has established itself as a permanent addition to the Finnish musical calendar.

Victoria Mullova, winner of the 1080 Sibelius Competition.

New works every time

Apart from the obvious Sibelius link (the fact that the competition has Sibelius’s Violin Concerto as an obligatory final number), the competition is given a flavour of its own by the fact that for each staging of the event the Finnish Cultural Foundation has arranged a competition for Finnish composers, in order to find new violin work “suitable for inclusion, as competition piece”. In this way a number of good new compositions have appeared. Victory in the first such competition went to Aulis Sallinen’s Cadenze for solo violin. Einojuhani Rautavaara pulled off an impressive double in 1970 and 1975 with his Dithyrambos, Op. 55 for violin and piano and Varietude, Op. 82 for solo violin.

In this way dozens and dozens of the best of the younger generation of violinists have been “forced” into playing contemporary Finnish music. Fortunately, it has turned out that one or two of these competition pieces have actually remained in the permanent repertoire. 

From 1970 onwards the Jean Sibelius Competition has been a member of the Federation des Concours Internationaux de Musique. The overseas members of the Jury have on several occasions declared the Sibelius Competition among the top international events in its particular category. When one casts an eye down the list of prizewinners and participants over the last twenty years, it is quite easy to believe that these remarks are not merely just polite compliments.

Programme, originally published in FMQ 3–4/1985

Interest in the Competition seems to be continuously on the increase. Over the years a total of around 30 countries have sent representatives, from all the continents. For Finnish violinists the Jean Sibelius Competition has been a very important source of inspiration and encouragement. The situation is perhaps best described by the fact that while in 1965 only one homegrown violinist ventured to take part, by 1980 the figure had risen to 9, two of whom made it to the finals. It might be mentioned here that in the first two competitions only the three best competitors were awarded prizes, but from 1975 onwards prizes were given to all finalists. This was a move that could be justified in principle since it is well known that the difference between “the best” and the runners-up in music competitions is almost water-thin, or even a rather questionable matter of personal taste.

Without going to great lengths to ponder the eternal question of the good and bad sides of competitions in the performing arts – there are plenty who would happily condemn the entire institution of contests – I might perhaps venture to suggest my view that music competitions could do with a little less of the star-performer mentality imported from the world of sport. One way of developing competitions in a more healthy direction seems to me to be the practice adopted of late in the Sibelius Competition, that of not over-emphasising the margin between the winner and the close runners-up, also in the division of the prize-money. Also the disposal, at least in part, of mere mathematical points-systems in favour of discussions between the jury-members leading to the determination of positions has gained more and more ground in the Sibelius Violin Competition.

Translation: William Moore

Featured photo: Eila Hiltunen: Sibelius Monument 1967, photo by Riikka Haahti. 

In 2022, The XII International Jean Sibelius Violin Competition was arranged in Helsinki. Inmo Yang was announced as the first prize winner. The jury awarded second place to Nathan Meltzer and third place to Dmytro Udovychenko

More information about the competition: