Van Cliburn: Pianist brought on Cold War thaw, showed arts' power
FORT WORTH — For a time in Cold War America, Van Cliburn had all the trappings of a rock star: sold-out concerts, adoring, out-of-control fans and a name recognized worldwide. He even got a ticker-tape parade in New York City.
And he did it all with only a piano and some Tchaikovsky concertos.
The celebrated pianist played for every American president since Harry Truman, plus royalty and heads of state around the world. But he is best remembered for winning a 1958 piano competition in Moscow that helped thaw the icy rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union.
Cliburn, who died Wednesday at 78 after fighting bone cancer, was “a great humanitarian and a brilliant musician whose light will continue to shine through his extraordinary legacy,” said his publicist and longtime friend Mary Lou Falcone. “He will be missed by all who knew and admired him, and by countless people he never met.”
The young man from the small east Texas town of Kilgore was a baby-faced 23-year-old when he won the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow just six months after the Soviets' launch of Sputnik embarrassed the United States and inaugurated the space race.
Cliburn returned to a hero's welcome and the ticker-tape parade — the first for a classical musician. A Time magazine cover proclaimed him “The Texan Who Conquered Russia.”
But the win also showed the power of the arts, creating unity despite the tension between the superpowers. Music-loving Soviets clamored to see him perform. Premier Nikita Khrushchev reportedly gave the go-ahead for the judges to honor a foreigner: “Is Cliburn the best? Then give him first prize.”
In the years that followed, Cliburn's popularity soared. He sold out concerts and caused riots when he was spotted in public.
His recording of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 with Russian conductor Kirill Kondrashin became the first classical album to reach platinum status.
He used his skill and fame to help young musicians through the Van Cliburn International Music Competition, held every four years and one of the top showcases for the world's best pianists.
President George W. Bush presented Cliburn the Presidential Medal of Freedom — the nation's highest civilian honor — in 2003. The following year, he received the Order of Friendship of the Russian Federation from Russian President Vladimir Putin.
He retired upon the death of his father in 1974, but emerged from his sabbatical in 1987, when he played at a state dinner at the White House during the historic visit of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Gorbachev leapt from his seat to give the pianist a bear-hug and kisses on the cheeks.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Foreign influx in Allegheny County at ‘tipping point’
- 1 intruder killed, other shot and wounded in Carrick home invasion
- Steelers WR Wheaton wants to produce after injury-plagued rookie year
- Steelers hope group of low-budget cornerbacks can deliver
- GM Colbert expects Roethlisberger to end career with Steelers
- Observers mixed on grid backup amid carbon rules, natural gas uncertainty
- Roethlisberger ‘prays’ he can stay with Steelers when deal expires
- Arnold man sentenced for armed robbery
- Rossi: Steelers behind in a couple of ways
- Central Blood Bank parent in merger talks with Florida system
- Pittsburgh Zoo welcomes 1,500 to its Summer Safari