Competitions Are for Horses, Not for Artists

Béla Bartók? Joseph Szigeti? Nick Cave? A. M. Rosenthal? Joe Eszterhas? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Competitions are commonplace in the world of athletics, academics, arts, and business. The acclaimed Hungarian composer Béla Bartók apparently expressed opposition to high-stakes contests in the domain of music. Here are four English versions of his remark:

(1) Competitions are for horses, not artists.
(2) Competition is for horses, not artists.
(3) Competitions are for horses, not for musicians.
(4) Competitions should be for horses, not musicians.

I have been unable to find a solid citation. Would you please help?

Quote Investigator: Béla Bartók died in 1945. The earliest match in English located by QI appeared in “The New York Times” in 1958. Journalist A. M. Rosenthal attended an international music contest featuring eighty young musicians held in Bucharest, Rumania. Rosenthal presented miscellaneous comments he overheard from participants at luncheon tables and in hotel lobbies. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

“Claudio Arrau does not like the way I play Chopin, and I do not like the way Claudio Arrau plays Chopin. The only difference is that he is on the jury.” . . .

“I know a man in New York who will bet $10,000 that Van Cliburn will never be great.”

“I am for Bartok. What did he say? ‘Competitions are for horses, not artists.’”

The above posthumous citation was not ideal because it was indirect and delayed. This article presents a snapshot of current research which is incomplete.

A direct quotation in Hungarian would best. Unfortunately, QI’s ability to search for quotations in Hungarian is sharply circumscribed. QI does not have access to large databases of Hungarian documents. The Google Books database does contain some Hungarian books, but QI was unable to find a substantive Hungarian match in that database.

The most interesting clue about the original phrasing appeared in the 1969 book “Szigeti on the Violin” which suggested that Béla Bartók used the word “verseny”. See the details further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1962 “The Saturday Review” printed an article titled “Piano Competitions: Talent Hunt or Sport?” by Carl Battaglia which included the saying: 2

Bela Bartok probably spoke for a good many musicians when he said, “Competitions are for horses, not artists.” Nevertheless, it is a fact that more young performers than ever before—particularly pianists—are availing themselves of the opportunities afforded by this “sport.”

In 1964 the reference “Contemporary Quotations” compiled by James B. Simpson included an entry for the saying: 3

Competitions are for horses, not artists.
Béla Bartók, composer, Saturday Review, Aug. 25, 1962.

In 1969 Hungarian violinist Joseph Szigeti published “Szigeti on the Violin”. He attributed the saying to Bartók, and he suggested that the Hungarian word “verseny” was part of the expression: 4

For good or ill, competitions are a major force in the world of music today. Bartók took a dim view of them; and he said, using the Hungarian word verseny which also means horse-racing; ‘Competitions are for horses, not for musicians’. It is hardly necessary to point out that this gamble on the unforeseeable chances at competitions is incompatible with the slow maturing either of the performing personality or of the repertoire.

In 1970 “The Musical Times” published an examination of Szigeti’s book, and the book reviewer reprinted the saying: 5

The first part, for instance, which he considers ‘somewhat pessimistic’, is a jeremiad on the conditions that now form the young artist: the international competitions—‘for horses, not musicians’, said Bartók …

In 1978 “The Washington Post” printed a version using the singular verb “is”: 6

Bela Bartok once said, “Competition is for horses, not artists.”

The 1986 book “No Contest: The Case Against Competition” by Alfie Kohn included the saying together with a citation pointing to “The Saturday Review” article: 7

Béla Bartók once said, “Competitions are for horses, not artists” (cited in Carl Battaglia, “Piano Competitions: Talent Hunt or Sport?” p. 31).

The 1996 reference “The International Thesaurus of Quotations” included the saying and also pointed to “The Saturday Review” article: 8

Competitions are for horses, not artists.
Béla Bartók, Saturday Review, Aug. 25, 1962

Also, in 1996 rock musician Nick Cave sent a note to the MTV network asking for the withdrawal of his nomination for the Best Male Artist Award. Cave’s reasoning was thematically similar to the saying under examination: 9

My relationship with my muse is a delicate one at the best of times and I feel that it is my duty to protect her from influences that may offend her fragile nature.

She comes to me with the gift of song and in return I treat her with the respect I feel she deserves — in this case this means not subjecting her to the indignities of judgement and competition. My muse is not a horse and I am in no horse race and if indeed she was, still I would not harness her to this tumbrel — this bloody cart of severed heads and glittering prizes.

In 2006 screenwriter Joe Eszterhas published “The Devil’s Guide to Hollywood” and presented another version of the saying: 10

If you win an Oscar, display it proudly.
Screenwriter Ben Hecht used his as a doorstop in his home in Nyack, New York.

If you’re not nominated for an Oscar . . .
Hungarian composer Béla Bartók said, “Competitions are for horses, not men.”

In 2009 Michael Johnson who served on the board of the London International Piano Competition penned an op-ed for “The New York Times” titled “The Dark Side of Piano Competitions”, and he mentioned the saying: 11

The Hungarian pianist and composer Bela Bartok famously said competitions should be for horses, not musicians. He refused to sit on competition juries because he didn’t want the decisions on his conscience. Bartok would probably be appalled at what has happened in the world of piano competitions since his death in 1945.

The Hungarian quotation website “Citatum” has a webpage for the saying, but the supporting citation points to the 2006 book by Joe Eszterhas. So the Hungarian instance was derived from an English instance. Here is the Hungarian saying followed by an English rendering: 12

A verseny lovaknak való, nem embereknek.
The race is for horses, not humans.

In conclusion, there is substantive evidence that Béla Bartók did craft a remark decrying competitions in the music domain. Regrettably, QI has not yet located the original Hungarian statement. Bartók died in 1945, and the earliest instance located by QI appeared in English in 1958; hence, there is considerable room for improvement. Uncertainty remains, and QI hopes that future researchers will help to clarify this topic.

Image Notes: Public domain depiction of musical notes from Gerd Altmann at Pixabay. Image has been resized.

(Great thanks to Mary Brandt whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Brandt told QI about the attribution to Béla Bartók and the letter from Nick Cave.)

Update History: On October 31, 2021 the 1978 citation was added.

Notes:

  1. 1958 September 5, New York Times, Fete in Bucharest Draws Musicians by A. M. Rosenthal (Special to The New York Times), Quote Page 23, Column 4, New York. (ProQuest)
  2. 1962 August 25, The Saturday Review, Section: SR/Recordings, Article: Piano Competitions: Talent Hunt or Sport?, Author: Carl Battaglia, Start Page 31, Quote Page 31, Saturday Review Associates Inc., New York. (Unz)
  3. 1964, Contemporary Quotations, Compiled by James B. Simpson, Chapter: Music and the Dance, Quote Page 428, Thomas Y. Crowell Company, New York. (Verified with scans)
  4. 1979 (1969 Copyright), Szigeti on the Violin by Joseph Szigeti, Chapter 4, Quote Page 14, Dover Publications, New York. (Verified with scans)
  5. 1970 April, The Musical Times, Volume 111, Number 1526, Review: Random Szigeti, Review by: Robert Anderson, Reviewed Work: Szigeti on the Violin by Joseph Szigeti, Quote Page 394, Column 1, Published by: Musical Times Publications Ltd. (JSTOR) link
  6. 1978 April 23, The Washington Post, Key Judgments: The Fine Art of Picking the Best Pianists by Paul Hume, Quote Page G12, Column 1, Washington D.C. (ProQuest)
  7. 1986, No Contest: The Case Against Competition by Alfie Kohn, Section: Notes, Note 41 for Chapter 3, Quote Page 209, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Verified with scans)
  8. 1996, The International Thesaurus of Quotations, Compiled by Eugene Ehrlich and Marshall DeBruhl, (Revised and Updated), Topic: Competition, Quote Page 103, HarperResource: HarperCollins, New York. (Verified on hardcopy)
  9. Website: Letter of Note, Article title: My muse is not a horse, Date on website: February 6, 2012, Letter description: Note declining a nomination sent from Nick Cave to MTV, Date on letter: October 21, 1996, Website description: An online museum of correspondence founded and operated by Shaun Usher. (Accessed lettersofnote.com on October 25, 2021) link
  10. 2006, The Devil’s Guide to Hollywood: The Screenwriter as God! by Joe Eszterhas, Part 2: Learning the Business, Lesson 6: Don’t Take Your Clothes Off!, Quote Page 114, St. Martin’s Press, New York. (Verified with scans)
  11. 2009 August 7, New York Times (Online), The Dark Side of Piano Competitions by Michael Johnson, New York. (ProQuest)
  12. Website: Citatum, Quotation: A verseny lovaknak való, nem embereknek, Ascription: Bartók Béla, Date posted on website: May 12, 2021, Website description: Hungarian quotation website. (Accessed citatum.hu on October 25, 2021) link