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Texas History

Charming the Soviets

How piano virtuoso Van Cliburn twice helped thaw Cold War relations

On May 20, 1958, a ticker-tape parade through the streets of New York cheered America’s hottest celebrity, a 23-year-old Texan named Van Cliburn. The honoree’s accomplishment? He had conquered Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor, winning first place in the first International Tchaikovsky Competition’s piano division in Moscow.

The Soviet Union had intended for the event to demonstrate Russian superiority in music and achieve a propaganda victory.

The story of Cliburn’s stunning success in Moscow has been told in two recent books, Moscow Nights: The Van Cliburn Story and When the World Stopped to Listen. Both books cover the competition, the improbable American victory and the historic Cold War context.

Harvey Lavan Cliburn Jr. was born July 12, 1934, in Shreveport, Louisiana, but his family moved to Kilgore in East Texas when he was 6. His father worked for the Magnolia Oil Company, and his mother, Rildia Bee, was a classically trained pianist. Her musical roots help explain Cliburn’s deep affinity for the dramatic Russian style of performance.

Bee studied in New York at the Institute of Musical Art, the predecessor of the Juilliard School, and was a student of Arthur Friedheim, a pianist from St. Petersburg. This musicality was reinforced when Cliburn attended the Juilliard School in 1951, at age 17 and became a student of Rosina Lhévinne, who had graduated from the Moscow Conservatory. When Cliburn auditioned for her already-full class, she sensed in his technique the tradition that was her own.

Seven years later, by the time of the Tchaikovsky Competition finals in Moscow, Cliburn had won over the crowds. “His admirers in the concert hall and those who heard him on the radio or saw him on television were hooked from the moment the 23-year-old appeared on stage,” Stuart Isacoff writes in When the World Stopped to Listen. “But it wasn’t the music alone that drew them. His Southern charm was as thick as gravy on fresh biscuits as he greeted his new fans with the prim decorousness of a proper East Texas gentleman, unfailingly gracious at every turn.”

Following the Tchaikovsky piece, a Rachmaninoff concerto sealed the deal. Showers of flowers fell on the stage, and the audience chanted “Vanya, Vanya”—their name for Cliburn. It’s likely that this frenzied adulation made sure the judges’ decision in favor of the American would not be overturned by Soviet edict. Premier Nikita Khrushchev endorsed the choice and invited his new friend for return visits.

Cliburn enjoyed a successful concert and recording career for the next 20 years. He stopped performing in 1977, though he continued to make public appearances and to support the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, held in his adopted hometown of Fort Worth.

He returned to public performance in December 1987, when President Ronald Reagan hosted the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in Washington. Cliburn played an after-dinner concert starting with the state anthem of the Soviet Union followed by The Star-Spangled Banner. After the scheduled program, Cliburn played Moscow Nights, a popular Russian song that had the Russian delegation singing along. At Gorbachev’s invitation, Cliburn returned to Russia for a series of concerts and found an enthusistic welcome.

In 2012, Van Cliburn was diagnosed with bone cancer, and he died February 27, 2013. At his funeral in Fort Worth, the Fort Worth Orchestra and a chorus performed his favorite church hymns and then Moscow Nights.

David Latimer lives in Austin and teaches at Austin Community College.