For many years, churches in certain towns and large villages in this region had opened their doors to performances of classical music organised locally and given by performers of repute. Although blessed with a number of suitable venues, Stavelot could only really accommodate small-scale works, and so it was natural that the concerts begun in 1916 by Octave Micha, the father of Raymond, should be orientated towards chamber music. These concerts carried his name right through until the foundation of the Festival proper in 1957.
By the outbreak of the Second World War, some sixty Micha Concerts had been given, thanks to the tireless efforts of the organisers and willing participation of artists. The series saw the involvement of many local performers of note from Liege, Verviers and Spa, as well as friends of Octave such as Joseph Jongen, Jean Rogister and Léon van Hout, who all found a home from home here. Whilst many of the performances were of mainstream repertoire or important Belgian works, there was some adventurous programming of relatively modern twentieth century masterpieces, such as Ravel’s String Quartet in 1925, and the Quartet in G minor by Debussy, written for, and performed here by Léon van Hout, the renowned viola player, in his role within the Ysaye Quartet.
In 1939, with the support of some friends, Octave began a violin competition known as The François Prume Prize, in memory of the great Stavelot violinist who died in 1849. In his time, François Prume was in the vanguard of virtuoso artists, playing with Liszt and Mendelssohn, and he was instrumental in establishing the worldwide reputation of the Belgian Violin School (listen to some notes). The first competition was won in spectacular style by Arthur Grumiaux, but the project was interrupted by the outbreak of war.
Undeterred, the organisers who were able to remain in the area made preparations for the future. Together with Octave, they decided to amalgamate the series of concerts and the competition into a more general artistic venture under one name, the François Prume Circle. In addition to the Micha Concerts and violin competition, it was envisaged that there would also be exhibitions, conferences and music and design courses. But misfortune overtook them; the meagre resources that they had been able to assemble were utterly destroyed in the Ardennes offensive of December 1944. Artistic endeavours had to take a back seat to the needs of the time, and the ideas for the François Prume Circle saw very little development during the period after the war, save for a few concerts which took place until the death of Octave in 1956.
Raymond Micha recalled a very personal memory. ‘’In 1931, I was with my father on one of his favourite walks. He said to me, with complete confidence, that one day, the sounds of quartets and sonatas would fill the rooms of the town, because chamber music had always found a ready audience in Stavelot - and besides, you could almost smell a festival in Stavelot!’’ And indeed, it is chamber music that always lies at the heart of the festival and the ancient Abbey, where it has its home. The music that Octave brought to a small but faithful public over a hundred years ago is now given by Belgian and international artists of the highest calibre to a wide and knowledgeable public, in a festival of international repute.
However, before celebrating the Festival as it is today, we should look back on various activities and events which, following the period between the end of the war and the death of Octave, and A Week of Music in 1957, led to the official founding of the Festival de Stavelot (The Stavelot Festival).
If the immediate postwar years were, understandably, a difficult time for artistic endeavours, the revival of the François Prume violin competition in 1949 was the moment of rebirth. Marcel Debot was the worthy winner of this second contest which attracted a large audience and international competitors. The gravity of the international situation of 1939 meant that the first competition of 1939 passed almost unnoticed. By contrast, that of 1949, covered by radio and the press, played a decisive role in putting Stavelot firmly on the cultural map. Even so, only one further competition took place in 1951, won by Andre Cauvin.
Following the death of Octave in 1956, his friends determined to honour his memory by organising A Musical Week, to take place in the Abbey in the summer of 1957. Raymond Micha was able to look for support and expertise from Marcel Hastir, then director of the Atelier de Bruxelles, with whose help he was able to run a series of seven consecutive evening performances, and this led directly to the official foundation of The Stavelot Festival.
There could have been no better time to start a festival; blessed with a wonderful performance space, a burgeoning tradition of concert promotions, and with indefatigable support from so many friends, the great adventure of our summers of music-making could begin. And in 1971, the Festival was further invigorated by becoming a part of the Festival de Wallonie, which brought together under one umbrella a number of other local music festivals, including those of Liege and Saint-Hubert, founded in the same year as Stavelot.