Famed pianist Van Cliburn, who won the first Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition in Russia during the height of the Cold War in 1958 and became one of the most renowned pianists ever, died from bone cancer Feb. 27 at age 78 at his Fort Worth, Texas home.
“Van Cliburn was an international legend for over five decades, a great humanitarian and a brilliant musician whose light will continue to shine through his extraordinary legacy,” said Mary Lou Falcone, Mr. Cliburn’s long-time friend and publicist.
His last public appearance was on Sept. 6 at the 50th anniversary concert for the world-famous Van Cliburn International Piano Competition he founded in Fort Worth.
He defied advanced cancer to make the surprise appearance, and thanked supporters “from the bottom of my heart – I love you all forever.”
The audience at Fort Worth’s Bass Performance Hall showed their love by giving him thunderous standing ovations before and after he spoke.
Their enthusiasm evoked the adoration of Russian audiences for the 23-year-old Cliburn when he won the 1958 piano competition in Moscow.
The Soviets had just launched Sputnik, beginning the space age and the USSR-US space race — but the Americans had launched Cliburn, winning the arts race. And on the Russian side of the Iron Curtain.
At the Tchaikovsky competition, he “dazzled the audience with a display of technical skill that Russians have long considered their special forte,” wrote “New York Times” Moscow Correspondent Max Frankel. He became the “rage of the town”.
The judges consulted Soviet Premiere Khrushchev before daring to award the prize to a non-Soviet. Khrushchev is said to have asked, “Is he the best? Then give him the prize.”
“It was just one of the most exciting things in my life,” Cliburn told the “Fort Worth Star Telegram” last year. “Khrushchev was telling me that they had watched me for two years. I never talk about any of this. He said: ‘You’re very wise. You don’t engage in politics.’ I said, [if I did] my grandfather would come back from the dead and kill me, because he told me: ‘Politics is a great art, but it is divisive. Great classical music is for everyone all over the world.’ Khrushchev agreed. He said, ‘I’m proud of you because you love classical music.'”
Cliburn gave this recollection of his win in a different interview, “I was amazed. And I said, ‘Well, I think this may be — not for me — but this may be hopefully the grandest moment or a grand moment for classical music.'”
He returned to a New York City ticker tape parade, the only one ever for a classical musician, and was greeted like the Beatles would be a decade later.
A “Time” magazine cover proclaimed him “The Texan Who Conquered Russia.” (The tall 6′ 4″ Texan was actually born in Shreveport, La., but grew up in Texas.)
His recording of the conquering selection, Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, became the first classical album to sell a million copies. Later it became the first classical recording ever to be awarded a platinum record, and has sold almost four million copies.
His most recent honor came in 2011, when President Obama presented Cliburn with the 2010 National Medal of Arts — America’s highest cultural distinction.
The medal recognized “his contributions as one of the greatest pianists in the history of music and as a persuasive ambassador for American culture,” the White House statement said.
Click here to watch the presentation ceremony.
Cliburn had said that he ranked the National Medal of Arts “extremely high, when your government, your president, extends you an accolade for what you’ve been able to do.”
He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2003 by President George W. Bush, and was a Kennedy Center Honoree in 2001, among many other honors, including playing for every President since Harry Truman.
Cliburn once said he realized his entire life would be classical music “when my mother first started teaching me when I was 3.” His mother, Rildia Bee O’Bryan Cliburn, had studied with Arthur Friedheim, who had been a pupil of Franz Liszt.
Cliburn’s mother was his only teacher throughout his youth. At age 12, he made his orchestral debut with the Houston Symphony Orchestra, and two years later, he debuted at Carnegie Hall.
After graduating from Kilgore (Texas) High School, he studied at his mother’s alma mater, Juilliard School in New York, with the great Russian teacher Rosina Lhevinne.
She said of his performance of Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3, “Not even Rachmaninoff ever played it better. It couldn’t be done.”
He took a long leave from performing publicly in 1978, but made limited appearances in recent years, and practiced daily until recently.
The glorious musician was known for his optimism and good spirits, even while taking care of both his parents when each was seriously injured in 1957, and throughout his battle with cancer.
“Life in general has many terribly rough roads,” Cliburn once said, “but you can transcend those inevitable difficulties by where you set your ideals.”
He was the ideal musician, unofficial ambassador, and humanitarian, establishing the Van Cliburn Foundation and its Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.
The media has termed it “the most prestigious classical piano contest in the world” and “the musical Olympics of the western world”.
At his final appearance, appearing ebullient although weak, Cliburn told the audience, “God has richly blessed all of you, our great city of Fort Worth, the great state of Texas, and our great country.”
All the world was blessed by this richly blessed man.