By Katherine Cole
On the obituary pages, virtuoso classical pianist Van Cliburn has been described as a ” Cold War Musical Envoy” and “The Texan Who Conquered Russia.” Talent alone was enough to place him among the other giants of the keyboard like Vladimir Horowitz, Rudolf Serkin and Arthur Rubinstein. But at its height, Van Cliburn’s fame was more like Elvis Presley’s, with both men having legions of screaming female fans. You can read more about that interesting comparison here.
Van Cliburn became an overnight star in 1958 after winning the top prize at the Tchiakovsky International Competition in Moscow. He was only 23 years old at the time, tall and lanky with a healthy head of blond curls.
Cliburn’s win at that first Tchaikovsky competition came at the height of the Cold War and it was an unexpected triumph. The contest had been established by the Soviets in an effort to prove their cultural supremacy, taking place just a few months after they had seemingly proved their supremacy over the U.S. (and the world) in the “space race” by launching the Sputnik satellite. According the CBS obituary, Van Cliburn was not supposed to win the contest. Then Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev reportedly gave the go-ahead for the judges to honor the American, saying “Is Cliburn the best? Then give him first prize.” His unlikely win has been said to bring a thaw in the tensions between the rival superpowers and propelled the American pianist to a very successful, albeit short-lived, career.
It also turned the young man into a hero the world over. When Mr. Cliburn returned home after his win, he was given a ticker-tape parade in New York City. It’s estimated that more than 100-thousand cheering people lined the streets of Lower Manhattan, hoping for a glimpse of the pianist.
Van Cliburn dedicated many years of his life to helping aspiring young artists by creating scholarship programs at schools and universities throughout the world. In 1962, he established the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in Fort Worth, Texas. It is still one of the most important (and lucrative) piano competitions.
I’ve only been able to share a tiny bit about Van Cliburn and his very interesting life and career. Clicking on the links above will take you to some of the other appreciations that have been published in the days following his death on Wednesday at 78. I included a bit more music in the obituary that’s featured on our website–you can find it here! And the Washington Post ran a beautiful appreciation of Van Cliburn, written by a woman who had the great fortune of hearing the pianist playing in her parents apartment. More than 50 years later, she remembers the occasion as if it took place last night.