An Artist´s Career must follow a Crescendo

Long-Thibaud Foundation President Gérard Bekerman talks about the heritage and future of the great Paris competition

WFIMC: The history of the Long-Thibaud goes back quite a while….

Gérard Bekerman: Creating a music competition in 1943, in the middle of a war, was a challenge, to say the least. Hope was necessary to give meaning to life; in France, for France and for the country´s artists. Marguerite Long and Jacques Thibaud were to be the bearers of this hope.

The youth of Jacques Thibaud was marked by misfortune.  He first lost his mother and later his four brothers, too.  At the age of 12, he was introduced to Ysaye, for whom he played the 2nd Concerto by Wieniawski, and who later was to become best man at his wedding. In his late teens, he won a concertmaster position at the famous Concerts Colonne; he replaced the illustrious Joseph Joachim in Berlin and performed the Bach Double with Georges Enesco.

His meeting with Edouard Colonne was to prove decisive. He played Saint-Saëns´ “Déluge”: “the melody of the solo violin in the Prelude expresses the happiness promised to mankind,” he wrote. The famous Colonne replied: “The only nobility comes from the gift of oneself. An artist´s career must follow a crescendo. Know, my boy, that the day you become known in the world, your reputation will be harder to keep than it was to conquer”.

J Thibaud

Marguerite Long did not have an easy life, either….

She suffered a lot from the death of her husband, Captain Joseph de Marliave, killed at the beginning of World War I. It was Debussy who told her, in 1914: “you have to live, you have to give hope to youth, and you have to live without your husband”. In 1919, Maurice Ravel dedicated the last movement of his Suite “Le Tombeau de Couperin” to her husband, and Marguerite Long gave the first performance of the work in 1919.

She devoted her life to others, to youth.  We cannot but be impressed by the famous names of those who came to her: General de Gaulle, Queen Elisabeth of Belgium, Picasso, Cocteau, Aragon, Emil von Sauer as well as her masters and friends Saint-Saëns, Albeniz, Fauré, Ravel, Callas, Milhaud, Karajan, Rubinstein  as well as her pupils and prize-winners who travelled the musical world: Samson Francois,  Bashkirov,  Boukoff, Ciccolini, Leonskaya or Gitlis.

1943 would have been a very difficult year for a music competition.

A few pianists have criticized the fact that Marguerite Long chose 1943, in the midst of the German occupation. But they were wrong, because Marguerite, from the liberation onwards, wanted to internationalize the competition. Let’s not forget that Germany is also Bach, Beethoven, Mendelssohn or Brahms . Candidates from a wide number of countries were welcomed, including Germans, one of the most prominent of them Alfred Brendel in 1949.

M Long

Brendel was very young, and did not succeed; instead, Aldo Ciccolini won that year´s competition.

Marguerite Long wrote in 1954: “When Aldo Ciccolini entered the competition in 1949, he was totally unknown. He was a small young man with his little black velvet jacket. He was charming but didn't speak a word of French. He came out triumphant with his prize, and eight days later he was giving a concert at the Salle Gaveau. All Paris was there. "There, I was really rewarded with the trouble given by the competition, because my goal was reached.“

Personally, I wasn't yet born but I always thought Brendel was superior, at least in Haydn or Beethoven…maybe not so much in Chopin. When the second B flat minor Sonata was imposed on him at the competition, the jury was merciless- he didn´t qualify. 
Nowadays, there is a new idea to support and even present candidates who didn´t qualify for the final but who have shown themselves to be artists. Two years ago, for example, I invited a candidate who lacked emotion and technical control to perform on television, and it turned out to be a great success. This is just one new dimension I want to give the competition….

You have been President of the foundation since 2021.

The competition went through a period of difficulties when our Minister of Culture, Roselyne Bachelot, pushed me me to take over the helm. I´d always had a great interest for it, and I was happy that the first years turned out so successfully. My competition philosophy is a little different from that of most other competitions. For me, music is not law, or politics, or economics. If you have university examinations for new educators, for example, it is normal that there should be a judgement, and that rigorous rules must be respected. 
A competition, on the other hand, should be a kind of “unexpected encounter in a particular setting”- Geneva, Berlin, Buenos Aires, Warsaw, Genova, Tokyo, Beijing- all sorts of places around the world that have the capacity to organize major world competitions. A competition should be a pretext for bringing young people together, sometimes very young, who are going to stake their lives on it.

For myself, when I took the competitive entrance exams in political economics, I could afford to make mistakes. I could be wrong -about an inflation rate, a probability or an economic forecast- my life was not in danger. But when you look at all these young artists, all of whom hope that their profession will be in the world of music- they´re like orphans, they´re children, and I think it´s our mission to help them get off to the right start.

In our professions, words protect us like a shield. In the universal world of music, the artist has no shield. He is his own vulnerable adversary. He is naked.  He isn't playing with the truth.  He is himself in all his sincerity.

“Sanctioning”, “punishment”, and “judgement” are not part of the world of art, not part of this process. Therefore, a competition must be a pretext for exchange, learning, dialogue, communion… in the world of art, we have to abstain from rigid rules that can shatter the lives of these young people, even if they don´t win First Prize, or Second Prize, or even if they don´t go on to the finals: they must keep hope within themselves, and that means we must not “punish” them. What I think I´ve succeeded in doing at the Long-Thibaud Competition is to encourage discussion and dialogue, rather than having two monologues between candidates and a jury that is going to judge them. An artist doesn´t need to be judged.  His or her truth may be greater than the person judging them.

Gérard Bekerman, President of the Fondation Long-Thibaud


When you came, you completely abandoned the point system that was in place at the Long-Thibaud.

There is a great deal of relativity in aesthetics. A very great relativity. And that´s why I heard there is often tension in jury deliberations. But for the last four years, we have not seen any such tension in Paris.  We have done away with 0-20 points, with point averages or AB ratings. We have done away with discussions and arguments. I don´t want the jurors to speak out on candidates, to argue and create tension in the jury.
I simply ask them to give me names: ten names for the semi-final, five names for the final, one name for first prize. Myself, I don´t vote. So they give me the names, and I announce the result, it´s as simple as that. I believe this is much more respectful of the musicians and young artists.

You also introduced a completely new idea: having a meeting between jury and candidates before the competition.

The night before the qualifying round, I invited everyone to my house. My wife had prepared a big dinner. Everyone was there, eleven members of the jury (only Bruno Leonardo Gelber had to stay in Buenos Aires) and almost all the candidates. Two candidates couldn´t or didn´t want to come, which I completely respect.
The candidates were as surprised as they were happy to share this symbolic moment at this invitation.  It was a new way of running a competition. Jury members chatting with the candidates, about their programs, their tempos, their ideas. I´ve always thought that it is through dialogue that you can improve, surpass yourself and give the best of yourself. Put yourself in the shoes of these youngsters arriving from Beijing, Taipei, Rome, Seoul, Los Angeles…they are nervous. They´ve flown thousands of miles. I think we have to bring them together because they all aspire to the same goals. We have to prepare them for a situation where there will be only one happy person and more than a hundred unhappy ones.
It´s a very important point in my philosophy: I wanted to ensure that there was a real dialogue between the two sides. I'd rather be side by side than face-to-face.  Take an artist like Jean-Claude Casadesus, who is almost 90 but looks like 50 because he runs five kilometers every morning. It´s extraordinary to experience his personality, his charisma, to have him listen to you.

You offer a lot of opportunities for your winners after the competition.

We really need to give a boost to the young artist´s careers, with as many performances and festivals as possible. And we have some very prestigious opportunities, like the Theatre des Champs-Elysees, le Château de Versailles or July 14th, Bastille Day.  And the first prize winner is lucky because these days, we won´t cut off his or her head if they hit a wrong note, because there is no longer a guillotine at Bastille! Instead, the winner will be playing in front of millions of listeners!

In 2020, you had to cancel the voice category because of covid-19. Now, it´s gone from the Foundation´s new logo. Will it come back?

It´s a legal problem- legally we don´t have the right to hold a voice competition. As a charitable foundation, we have certain bylaws, and we have several administrators involved in the competition: the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of the Interior which has to validate any modification to the statutes, the Ministry of Culture, and the City of Paris. That´s a lot of people, and all of them have different ideas. Everyone wants to put the stamp of their authority on any decision, and so, for the time being, the bylaws don´t allow me to hold a voice competition, but I am still hopeful for the near future. The human voice is my passion. Besides, a violinist, a pianist or any other instrumentalist who plays must have a heart that speaks...

But it might come back?

Give me a few years, and we might be able to amend our articles of association. Our Council of State has to approve the modification. I'm confident. Art always wins out over the law. Especially when we are lucky enough to have a President of the Republic, Emmanuel Macron, who is so keen on music; he even has a Conservatory prize; he prefaced the programme of the Long-Thibaud Competition for both piano and violin. Admittedly, he couldn't make it to the final of the Long-Thibaud... but we still hope that one day we'll play Poulenc's double concerto together!

You handle most of the competition work by yourself, without a General Director. How do you manage?

We have an administrative assistant, who does great and important work. I have the support of Marc Laforet, the immense pianist and of a press team.  I am personnally an expert in logistics but above all a friend to the artists. I love detail. I check everything…Detail is to life what solfege is to music.  Mathematics is a big part of my professional life, and it is very useful for any organization.  Flexible rules, a solid organisation, sensitivity that stops at the doorstep of reason - we are at the service of the candidates.  As Goethe wrote in a report in 1793: “Better to commit an injustice than to countenance disorder”. In other words, disorder engenders more injustice than it eradicates.
I have the responsibility of a perfect organization in the service of a soul devoted to music and artists. Basically, an event like the Long-Thibaud is not a competition between rivals at a given moment. It is a human experience that will continue well beyond the proclamation of the results, because its ambition is to give birth to the career and development of artists who will enliven musical life throughout the century. We are making our modest contribution to this great mission.

Finally, I mentioned earlier Alfred Brendel, who did not win our competition in 1949. I wonder whether it wouldn't be a nice gesture to invite him to sit on the Jury for the next Competition in March 2025. 75 years later, I'm sure he wouldn't be upset about returning to the Long-Thibaud…


©WFIMC 2024/FR
Photos: Jacques Thibaud © J. Willis Sayre Collection of Theatrical Photographs; Marguerite Long ©pianist guide J. Renouf; Gérard Bekerman ©Fondation Long Thibaud