1958: A Conversation with Van Cliburn

The First of Ten Classic Broadcasts from the WQXR Archives

Friday, September 23, 2011

On May 26, 1958, WQXR program director Abram Chasins interviewed the Texan pianist Van Cliburn, just a few weeks after he won the first International Tchaikovsky Competition.

The Tchaikovsky Competition, as legend has it, was the product of the Cold War, an attempt by the Soviets to claim their cultural dominance just as they had in the space race with the launch of the Sputnick satellite in 1957. After Cliburn took the first prize, he returned home to a ticker-tape parade in New York, as well as international celebrity. His recording of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 was the first classical recording to sell more than a million copies.

As Cliburn tells Chasins, he received a warm reception in Moscow from the Soviets, who enjoyed not only his playing of big romantic works by Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff, but also his version of a Mozart C-major Sonata.

Cliburn also talks about the potential to raise the classical music's visibility in American popular culture. “If I am the tool – or the incident – that will awaken the possibility of giving the possibility to give more ticker tape parades to musicians in the United States, this is wonderful, and for this, then I am happy.”

"I feel very, very grateful for," he adds. "I experienced the feeling in a small way that our movie idols experience. It was thrilling and at the same time scary because I very much feel responsibility."

Below: Three experts join host Jeff Spurgeon to discuss this classic interview: conductor and commentator Rob Kapilow; musicologist Elaine Sisman and host Robert Sherman.

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