Classical pianist Van Cliburn, 78, died Wednesday. The legendary performer was only 23 years old when he captured the world’s attention by winning the Tchaikovsky International Competition in Moscow. In addition to performing decades of concerts and recording numerous albums, he fostered the careers of young artists by creating several scholarship programs and establishing the annual Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in Fort Worth, Texas.
In 1958, Van Cliburn became an instant celebrity when he won the Tchaikovsky Competition. It caused a sensation for an American to win a Russian competition during the tense standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union known as the Cold War.
Cliburn’s triumph in the competition was celebrated not only by Americans, but by Russians. New York Times Moscow correspondent Max Frankel covered the competition and later wrote that “The Soviet public celebrated Cliburn not only for his artistry but for his nationality; affection for him was a safe expression of affection for America.”
Van Cliburn won the competition on the strength of his performance of the Tchaikovsky’s “Concerto No. 1.”
When he returned to the United States, RCA Records released Cliburn’s debut album containing the prize-winning work. The LP won a Grammy Award and sold more than one million copies, making Cliburn the first American artist to achieve platinum status with a debut release. Van Cliburn demonstrated his profound love of the music he performed, but felt its popularity went beyond his technical abilities.
“If you take a great piece of music into your heart, you take it for its great spiritual value,” said Cliburn. “And when you look at a wonderful piece of music, even though it may enjoy popularity, if you examine its pages very carefully, you will find the reason. And it will always be a very good reason why it is popular.
President Barack Obama presented a 2010 National Medal of Arts to Cliburn, March 2, 2011, during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington.
Born in Shreveport, Louisiana, Cliburn began studying piano at age 3 with his mother, herself a talented pianist. Cliburn made his orchestral debut at age 12 with the Houston Symphony and five years later earned a scholarship to New York’s prestigious Juilliard School. Following graduation, he spent several years performing with various major symphony orchestras, which led to his participation in Moscow’s First International Tchaikovsky Competition. Cliburn brought to his performance not only great musicianship and tremendous technical skill, but a determination to please his audience.
“You always want to play well,” he said. “You’re always hoping to play well. And if you don’t play well, YOU are the unhappiest person. So, you want to please your audience and you hope that you’re being true to the music and also true to those who want to hear you.”
Cliburn dedicated many years of his life to helping aspiring young artists by creating scholarship programs at schools and universities throughout the world. In 1962, he established the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in Fort Worth, Texas. Over the years, the competition has enhanced the careers of numerous developing musicians.