Van Cliburn: Piano virtuoso who helped thaw US-Soviet relations


New York reserves its tickertape parades for returning heroes – and in 1958 America had no greater hero than a young concert pianist from Texas named Van Cliburn. That spring he had travelled to Moscow to take part in the inaugural International Tchaikovsky Competition, an event intended to showcase Russian superiority in classical music. And, against every rational probability of that Cold War era, Cliburn won.

Initially, the plan was for a European tour to raise the profile of an undubitably gifted performer who was then struggling for commercial success. But his former teacher, the Russian-born Rosina Lhevinne, urged him to put in for the Tchaikovsky Prize, and from the outset the Russians were swept away by the lanky, almost gauche, young American who seemed to stoop over the keyboard, and by the welling lyricism and romanticism of his style.

As Cliburn progressed through the rounds the acclaim grew. Covering the contest was the New York Times Moscow correspondent Max Frankel, later to become the paper's executive editor. "Just like Rachmaninov! Just like Rachmaninov!" cried a Russian musician in the next seat, who had plainly heard the great pianist and composer perform. "Did I hear you right?," Frankel asked. "Maybe even better," was the reply.

Cliburn wrapped up his performance in the final with Rachmaninov's 3rd Piano Concerto in D Minor. There followed an eight-minute standing ovation capped by a curtain call, an honour accorded no other participant. One of the judges, the legendary Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter, flatly declared him a genius.

For the enraptured audience, too, there was only one winner. But this was the Cold War, a few months after the Soviets had stunned America by launching Sputnik, the first man-made satellite. However on this occasion music transcended geopolitical rivalry. Clearly, Nikita Khrushchev, Stalin's successor as Soviet leader, had to approve the award of so prestigious a prize to a representative of his country's great ideological and military rival. "If he's the best, then give it to him," the Soviet leader, a devotee of music, reportedly declared to anxious underlings.

Cliburn's victory not only signalled a US-Soviet thaw. It was a sensation in his homeland. The Manhattan tickertape parade – the first (and surely the last) to be bestowed upon a classical musician – was but the start of the full American celebrity treatment. Time magazine put him on its cover as "The Texan Who Conquered Russia", and soon Cliburn was commanding up to $5,000 per concert, an astronomical sum at the time. Later in 1958 he became the first classical musician to have a million-selling album, a recording of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No 1 that he had also played in the Moscow final.

Over the decades that followed Cliburn returned several times to the Soviet Union and Russia, and the affinity between him and its people never died, whatever the tensions at governmental level. With its huge scale and sheer humanity Russia, he once said, reminded him of his native Texas.

Music was in Van Cliburn's blood. At the age of three he took his first lessons from his mother, the former Rildia Bee O'Bryan, who had been instructed at the piano by Arthur Friedheim, a pupil of Franz Liszt. "I was old when I was born," he explained in his hometown newspaper, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, in 1997. "I told my parents when I was five, 'I am going to be a concert pianist.' They thought I was crazy. I played in public when I was four, then made my debut with the Houston Symphony when I was 12."

Eight years later, in November 1954, he made his first performance with the New York Philharmonic, prompting one critic to describe him as the "most talented newcomer of the season" who "literally commands the piano as he plays and in many ways the music, too." By the time he went to Moscow he had reached the grand old age of 23.

Perhaps inevitably, the rest of his career was something of an anti-climax. His fame, of course, was enduring, and in 1962, Fort Worth set up the Van Cliburn International Music Competition to help other young professional musicians, a quadrennial event that still attracts the world's leading pianists.

But although he remained a superlative performer, attempts to expand his repertoire proved less than wholly successful. A 1961 performance of Beethoven's Emperor Concerto drew from one critic the comment that "it was the playing of an old-young man, but without the spirit of youth or the mellowness of age."

As the more rebellious 1960s and 1970s progressed, the church-going and well-mannered Texan, always impeccably dressed, seemed increasingly out of date. He began every performance with "The Star-Spangled Banner". To the end of his life, it was said, he never owned a pair of tennis shoes.

In 1978 Cliburn announced his retirement from the concert stage, moving with his mother into a lavish house in the Fort Worth suburbs. In December 1987, however, he made his public return in the most fitting way imaginable: at a White House banquet hosted by Ronald Reagan for the visiting Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. At the end of his recital, the guests requested a popular Russian tune. As Cliburn played "Moscow Nights" Gorbachev and his wife Raisa sang along, a high spot of a summit that heralded a new US-Soviet thaw.

Thereafter Cliburn's concert appearances were few. By the end, however, he had achieved the distinction of playing for every president from Eisenhower to Obama – and becoming the most famous American classical musician of the 20th century.

Rupert Cornwell

Harvey Lavan Cliburn, pianist: born Shreveport, Louisiana 12 July 1934; died Fort Worth, Texas 27 February 2013.

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