At the height of the Cold War, the United States and the USSR struck a note of accord through the magical music of a thin, gentle Texas resident named Van Cliburn.
In 1958, the 23-year-old pianist from Kilgore earned the respect of both countries and worldwide acclaim when he won the inaugural International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow.
In the tense political climate of the day, the Soviets certainly had not created their contest to demonstrate American cultural superiority, but Cliburn’s outstanding performances and an eight-minute standing ovation pointed to the indisputable winner. Cliburn became an Elvis-like sensation in the Soviet Union and returned a hero to the United States, where New York City celebrated his victory with a ticker tape parade. Meanwhile, the young man with blue eyes and wavy, blond hair made the cover of Time magazine next to a banner reading, “The Texan Who Conquered Russia.”
Cliburn’s continued success was more in harmonizing with international friends than in conquering them. In his diplomatic way, Cliburn invited Kiril Kondrashin, the Russian conductor with whom he had played his prize-winning performances in Moscow, on a performance tour in the United States. Their recording of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 during Kondrashin’s visit ranked as the best-selling classical album in the world for more than a decade and became the first classical recording to reach platinum status.
Born Harvey Lavan Cliburn Jr. in 1934 in Shreveport, Louisiana, Van Cliburn started learning piano at age 3 from his mother, Rildia Bee O’Bryan, a concert pianist.
When Cliburn was 6, he and his family moved to Kilgore, and at age 12, as the winner of a statewide piano competition, he made his debut with the Houston Symphony. At 17, he entered the Juilliard School of Music in New York City.
At the time of his Moscow triumph, the author of the May 1958 Time article described Cliburn as “gregarious,” “unsophisticated” and “a gangling (6 ft. 4 in., 165 lbs.), snub-nosed, mop-haired boy out of Kilgore, as Texan as pecan pie.”
“Instead of medals, he carried a well-thumbed Bible,” Time’s journalist wrote. “Instead of doeskin gloves, a single dress shirt, a plastic wing collar given to him by a friend, a ratty grey Shetland sweater that often showed under his dress jacket when he took his bows.”
Cliburn had an electrifying effect on his Russian fans.
“Total strangers, men and women, hugged and kissed him in the street, flooded him with gifts, fan mail, flowers (one bouquet came from Mrs. Nikita Khrushchev),” the 1958 Time article said. “Women cried openly at his concerts; in Leningrad, where fans queued up for three days and nights to buy tickets, one fell out of her seat in a faint.”
Cliburn handled his fame humbly and went on to give stunning performances in major concert halls on his tours across the United States and around the world.
The rigorous schedule, however, began to exhaust him by the mid-1970s, and he drifted into an 11-year hiatus from public life. As he said upon returning to the stage in 1989, “The life of a musician is the most solitary life. Sometimes I did find it very difficult.”
Still, he has led an active music career and over the years has won numerous awards. Today, Cliburn lives in Fort Worth, where he is considered a city treasure. He continues to do concert tours.
He also is the namesake of a contest rivaling the International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in prestige. The Van Cliburn International Piano Competition has been held every four years in Fort Worth since the early ’60s to discover talented young musicians.
Through the years, pianists from a variety of countries have taken the competition’s top honor.
The next Van Cliburn contest will be held May 22 to June 7, 2009, at Bass Performance Hall in Fort Worth. For details, check out www.cliburn.org.
Staci Semrad is an Austin-based freelance writer and member of Pedernales Electric Cooperative.