fb-pixel Skip to main content

Piano, guitar competitions have classical ancestors

Antonio Tempesta’s 1606 etching “Apollo Killing Python.” Harvard Art Museums

There is a small confluence of competitive music in Boston June 23: The Boston International Piano Competition, a biannual contest for amateurs, has its final round at Longy’s Pickman Hall, while at Jordan Hall, the finals of the 2013 GuitarFest Performance Competition close out that five-day six-string summit. Both events are open to the public.

Musical competitions have been around as long as there have been musicians. The ancient Greeks were holding organized competitions as early as the sixth century BC, when the Pythian Games were inaugurated at Delphi. Depending on the legend, the Games were instituted either to commemorate the feat of Apollo killing Python, the earth-dragon who lived at Delphi, or to expiate the blasphemy of his chasing Python into the sacred temple in order to do it. Either way, the singing of a Hymn to Apollo was the Pythian Games’ first contest; according to the historian Pausanias, the first champion was Chrysothemis, son of Carmanor, who (in some accounts) cleansed Apollo after his slaying of Python. But the era’s most famous musician thought the Games beneath him. “[T]hey say that Orpheus, a proud man and conceited about his mysteries,” writes Pausanius, “refused to submit to the competition in musical skill.”


More standard athletic contests, like those at the Olympic Games in Athens, eventually became part of the Pythian Games. But sports and music were not necessarily considered equals. Plutarch recorded that Alexander the Great, while instituting many prizes for musicians and poets, refused to do so for pursuits such as boxing or wrestling. “Alexander,” Plutarch concludes, “appears to have been averse to the whole race of athletes.”

Boston International Piano Competition, 508-393-6740, www.bostonpianoamateurs.org; GuitarFest Performance Competition, 617-971-8643, www.bostonguitarfest.org