Van Cliburn, U.S. Pianist, Dies at 78

Van Cliburn, the pianist from Texas whose triumph in a 1958 Tchaikovsky competition in Moscow united Americans and Russians in appreciation of his artistry, providing a brief thaw in the Cold War, has died. He was 78.

He died today, the Associated Press reported, citing his publicist, Mary Lou Falcone. On Aug. 27 he said through his representative that he had advanced bone cancer.

At a time when the U.S. and Soviet Union were competing for military and political supremacy not just around the world but in space, with the successful launch of Sputnik shattering Americans’ confidence, Cliburn’s prodigious musical abilities managed to draw East and West together.

At 23, he traveled to the U.S.S.R. in March 1958 for the first Tchaikovsky International Piano and Violin Festival, held at the Moscow Conservatory.

Within days, he had emerged from the field of 50 competitors, from 19 nations, “as the darling of the serious listeners and bobby-soxers alike,” the New York Times reported, and was “mobbed everywhere by fans, autograph seekers and girls bearing flowers.” The two-week competition ended with composer Dmitri Shostakovich handing Cliburn the first-place prize of 25,000 rubles, then worth about $6,250.

Feted at the Kremlin, the 6-foot-4-inch Cliburn got a hug from Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, who, according to an account in Time magazine, asked him why he was so tall.

“Because I’m from Texas,” Cliburn replied.

Hero’s Return

He performed in Moscow, visited Tchaikovsky’s home-turned-museum in Klin, then played to crowds in Leningrad, Riga, Kiev and Minsk, delighting fans with his willingness to play encore after encore. Back home, he was greeted by President Dwight Eisenhower at the White House and given a ticker-tape parade up Broadway in Manhattan.

Time magazine hailed him on its cover as “The Texan Who Conquered Russia” and reported:

“Through a rare combination of sheer talent, the tension of the cold war and the thunderous amplifier of modern publicity, the long-legged 23-year-old winner of Moscow’s International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition had overnight become the object of the most explosive single outpouring of popular acclaim ever accorded a U.S. musician.”

His recording of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, one of the pieces he had played at the Moscow competition, was certified platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America by topping 1 million copies sold. The Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, held every four years, was established in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1962.

Nixon Performance

He returned to the Soviet Union during concert tours in the 1960s and 1970s. During a 1972 visit, he performed for President Richard Nixon and Soviet officials at the Moscow residence of the U.S. ambassador.

“Of all the Americans of his generation, Cliburn was able to produce the most sensuous of sounds -- rich, never percussive, a real piano sound that reminded old-timers of the great romantic pianists of the past,” Harold C. Schoenberg wrote in “The Great Pianists” (1987).

He took a break from performing from 1978 to 1987 and followed a highly selective concert schedule after that.

“Right now, this is my intermission ” he told Texas Monthly magazine in 1987, a year after he had moved from New York to Fort Worth. “Every good concert program has an intermission, and I’m waiting for the second half to begin.”

For Gorbachev

He ended his hiatus in December 1987, accepting an invitation from President Ronald Reagan to perform at the White House state dinner in honor of Mikhail Gorbachev and his wife.

In a 2008 interview with National Public Radio, Cliburn said he was happiest watching and listening to his first love, opera.

“I was never really the kind of person that needed the stage,” he said. “I love music. I love listening to it. When you listen to music, you can be 100 percent. When you’re having to serve music, you must be thinking of others, not yourself.”

Harvey Lavan Cliburn Jr. was born on July 12, 1934, in Shreveport, Louisiana. He was the only child of Harvey Lavan Cliburn, a purchasing agent with Magnolia Petroleum Co. (a predecessor of Exxon Mobil Corp.) and the former Rildia Bee O’Bryan, a pianist whose own budding performance career had been halted by her parents.

Cliburn began learning piano from his mother at 3. His first recital, at Dodd College at Shreveport, was at age 4.

Orchestral Debut

When he was 6, the family moved to Kilgore, Texas, about 120 miles east of Dallas. He made his orchestral debut with the Houston Symphony Orchestra at 12. Excused from physical education at 14 to protect his hands, he expedited his studies so that he could graduate from Kilgore High School in 1951, before his 17th birthday.

He moved to New York City to study at Juilliard School of Music under Rosina Lhevinne, an illustrious piano instructor born in Russia who had left before the Communists took power in 1917.

In 1954 he won the international Leventritt Competition for young pianists and violinists, which gave him the opportunity to perform with the New York Philharmonic and orchestras in Cleveland, Denver, Indianapolis and Pittsburgh. He toured the U.S. in 1955 and 1956. Inducted into the Army, he was declared ineligible to serve because of recurring nose bleeds.

Urged by Lhevinne to enter the 1958 Tchaikovsky competition, he spent two months in his West 57th Street apartment, across from Carnegie Hall, spending six to eight hours a day on the “staggering repertory each entrant was expected to master,” Time reported.

Cliburn made a surprise appearance at the 50th Anniversary Gold Medalists Concert in September. Prior to the performance, he walked out on stage at Fort Worth’s Bass Performance Hall and thanked the audience.

“Thank you for your faithful support,” he said. “I love you from the bottom of my heart, forever.”

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