On Composition Competitions…

November 8th, 2016

Competitions are on my mind this month as I try to decide whether to enter one competition and try to come to terms with not winning another, and it has got me thinking about competitions as an entity and their place in the musical world. I guess whether you like them or not, they are part of the game – a useful way of ensembles or artistic bodies gaining exposure and revenue for certain events. They are also a very useful way of providing a huge ‘shot in the arm’ to a composer if he or she wins, often catapulting said composer to a greater level of publicity then they would ordinarily have achieved. So, a necessary evil then?

Well, I guess so. Certainly the most prestigious competitions come with great rewards (both financial and in recognition) and a major competition win is a must for any self-respecting up-and-coming composer to have on his CV. Perhaps the most famous competition is the Prix de Rome which was won by the cream of French composers (Berlioz, Bizet, Gounod etc) for over 150 years, but not winning it didn’t seem to harm Ravel, in fact it seemed to aid his career. The Royal Philharmonic Society (RPS) Prize is often an indicator of the next crop of talented young things in the UK, as perhaps is the Proms Young Composer Prize for a younger generation. The Grawemeyer is a benchmark of success for established composers as are other major prizes (Siemens, Nobel Prize etc), some of which no longer exist.

I don’t have a massive problem, per say, with competitions but there are a few things that bother me about some competitions that have set alarm bells ringing for me over the years. Firstly, it is the entry fee system. An entry fee is not a problem, and often funds any prize money available, but the amount of entry fee and the correlating prize available does bother me. Some entry fees are exorbitant and totally not worth the prize on offer – one I saw recently was a £40 entry for a £200 prize pot and a performance by a middling choir – not really that worth it? £40 for a £1000 prize and multiple performances around the world is perhaps more tempting, but who has that many spare £40s to spend on competitions? The second thing that bothers me is the supposition that often entry fees are just a way of an ensemble raising enough money to pay the guy a quasi-commission fee for a piece they couldn’t raise a legitimate way. This may sound like sour grapes, but I have heard of similar things happening from a variety of sources – not nice. One year I entered several competitions that were all won by the same composer, granted he/she may be a great composer but I was getting a little suspicious by the fifth win that judges/panels were just trying to push someone through the system by the back door. Again, probably sour grapes.

As you may have gathered, I haven’t had a huge amount of luck or success with competitions! Ironically I actually won the first two I entered back in 2001, just minor things, but it gave me the false expectations that it was easy to win – ten years on, and I’m still waiting to win another! I have been selected for various schemes/masterclasses/courses and won a competition naming dinosaurs when I was five but never had the success with the major competitions. And I never got on the SPNM shortlist which still grates…

So whether to enter this competition…I may do, you have to speculate to accumulate. The one I didn’t win…well, no-one won it – apparently the standard of entries was ‘lamentable’ – excellent! Obviously didn’t get enough money together to commission Bob Chilcot!


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