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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
video
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Southern charm: Nicolas Cage and Tye Sheridan in ‘Joe’
filmReview: Actor delivers astonishing performance in low budget drama
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Up my street: The residents of the elegant Moray Place in Edinburgh's Georgian New Town
tvBBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past
Extras
indybest
News
Albus Dumbledore, the headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry has been the teaching profession's favourite teacher
education
Sport
Luis Suarez looks towards the crowd during the 2-1 victory over England
sport
Life and Style
Cheesecake frozen yoghurt by Constance and Mathilde Lorenzi
food + drinkThink outside the cool box for this summer’s frozen treats
News
John Barrowman kisses his male “bride” at a mock Gretna Green during the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony
peopleBarrowman's opening ceremony message to Commonwealth countries where he would be sent to prison for being gay
Sport
Sir Bradley Wiggins removes his silver medal after the podium ceremony for the men’s 4,000m team pursuit in Glasgow yesterday
Commonwealth games Disappointment for Sir Bradley in team pursuit final as England are forced to settle for silver
Sport
Alistair Brownlee (right) celebrates with his gold medal after winning the men’s triathlon alongside brother Jonny (left), who got silver
England's Jodie Stimpson won the women’s triathlon in the morning
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SQL Report Analyst (SSRS, CA, SQL 2012)

£30000 - £38500 Per Annum + 25 days holiday, pension, subsidised restaurant: C...

Application Support Analyst (SQL, Incident Management, SLAs)

£34000 - £37000 Per Annum + excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Lt...

Embedded Software / Firmware Engineer

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Pension, Holiday, Flexi-time: Progressive Recruitm...

Developer - WinForms, C#

£280 - £320 per day: Progressive Recruitment: C#, WinForms, Desktop Developmen...

Day In a Page

Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform