Piano Legend Van Cliburn Dies at 78

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Van Cliburn, one of the most celebrated American pianists of the modern age who also became one of its more enigmatic public figures, died on ­­­­Wednesday in Fort Worth, TX. Cliburn had been struggling with advanced bone cancer. He was 78 years old.

His death was confirmed by Mary Lou Falcone, his publicist and friend.

Cliburn is said to be one of the greatest pianists in history. His most celebrated accomplishment came in the spring of 1958 when he won the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. This Cold War victory, at age 23, landed him on the cover of Time magazine and was celebrated with a ticker-tape parade in Lower Manhattan, making him the only classical musician afforded that honor.

Cliburn came to embody what piano competitions mean in the modern era. Starting in 1962, he became the namesake of one of the world’s most famous competitions for classical pianists, which is still held is held every four years in Fort Worth. His albums sold in the millions, reaching sales levels that many popular singers of the 1960's achieved.

Born in Shreveport, Louisiana on July 12, 1934, Cliburn was raised in raised in the East Texas town of Kilgore. He was the son of Harvey Lavan Cliburn, an executive at Magnolia Petroleum (now known as ExxonMobil), and Rildia Bee O’Bryan Cliburn. Cliburn’s pianist mother – herself a student of Arthur Friedheim (a pupil of Franz Liszt) – began teaching him piano when he was 3 years old. Cliburn made his debut with the Houston Symphony Orchestra at age 12. He began his studies at the Juilliard School at age 17, where he was a student of Rosina Lhévinne.

In 1954, during the course of his studies, Cliburn won the prestigious Leventritt Competition in New York City. This led to solo appearances with several renowned orchestras including the New York Philharmonic.

Cliburn's Tchaikovsky Competition triumph – in which he performed Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto – came with the blessing of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. The competition, ironically, was intended as a vehicle to prove Soviet superiority; it instead transcended politics and cultural barriers.

After returning to the US, Cliburn invited conductor Kirill Kondrashin (who had conducted Cliburn’s performances in the Tchaikovsky Competition) to repeat his award winning performance in three American venues: at Carnegie Hall, the Academy of Music in Philadelphia, and in Washington D.C. The two men also collaborated on a recording of the Tchaikovsky Concerto, which became the best-selling classical album in the world for more than a decade (it went platinum in its first year and eventually triple platinum).

Following these events, Cliburn was feted by politicians and celebrities. Cliburn’s name became as popular as Elvis Presley’s; the Elvis Presley Fan Club in Chicago even modified its name to the Van Cliburn Fan Club after hearing Cliburn play in Grant Park. Cliburn also returned to the Soviet Union several times between 1960 and 1972, in an era when US-Soviet relations were particularly strained. Cliburn’s Russian fans referred to him as “Vanya” or “Vanushka.” His face appeared on a brand of Soviet chocolates, which became the most popular sweets in the Soviet Union.

In an interview with WQXR program director Abram Chasins on May 26, 1958, Cliburn considered his achievements.

“This kind of a success which has come to me, I feel very, very grateful for," he said. "And I also know that it could certainly have happened to someone else. It just so happened that I, maybe, was given something to say and I said it. But above everything, I was faced with no alternative, and when one is in a position faced with no alternative, one does something whether it’s right or wrong...”

In the same interview, Cliburn recalled the warm reception 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.

Awards and a Hiatus

In addition to his success at the first International Tchaikovsky Competition, Cliburn has been honored at numerous events. Cliburn won the Kennedy Center Honors Award in 2001. In 2004, Cliburn was presented with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. President Vladimir Putin gave him with the Order of Friendship (typically awarded to Russian citizens) for “significant contribution into the strengthening of friendship and cooperation of nations and nationalities.”

After 20 years of his successful career, Cliburn took a nine-year long hiatus from the piano in 1978. His partial retirement partly occurred due to the stressful expectations of winning a competition, soloing, and touring, as he explained at a talk at the New York Public Library in 2012. “I was on the stage and taking another curtain call and thinking ‘oh I should have done this in the second movement, and this in the third movement,’” he said. “It's terrible. It’s really awful. You’re wanting it to be so perfect.”

Cliburn returned to the concert stage in 1987, starting with a White House summit that included President Ronald Reagan and the General Secretary of Russia, Mikhail Gorbachev. Still, many critics and industry professionals believe the stress of fame took its toll and Cliburn never attained the artistic success of his early years. In recent decades he was active with his foundation and on the social circuit in Fort Worth, where he lived in a mansion in the suburb of Westover Hills.

Cliburn has given a performance for every president since Harry Truman. In 2003, George W. Bush awarded Cliburn the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 2011, Barack Obama awarded him the National Medal of the Arts.

In 1962, the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition was founded by citizens of Fort Worth, Texas in honor of Cliburn’s significant achievements. To this day, it is one of the most prominent and influential competitions in the world. The winners of the competition are awarded a $50,000 cash prize and international concert tours and career management for three concert seasons subsequent to the competition. Olga Kern and Jon Nakatsu are among the more noteworthy winners.

In response to his success, Cliburn adds, “I thank the United States, its people, its musicians, for being so wonderful; for affording me the opportunity to study, and the trip to the Soviet Union. I thank the Soviet Union for being so appreciative of what I could do. And I also, and most important, thank God for giving me something to say.”

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