Van Cliburn: Musical Ambassador Extraordinary

At a time when the new teen music sounds of rock and roll had emerged with its own king in Elvis Presley, the classical music world produced the equivalency of a rock star in the person of pianist Van Cliburn.

The king of rock and roll did it with such songs as “You Ain’t Nothing But a Hound Dog,” “Jailhouse Rock” and “Blue Suede Shoes,” which solidified his march to rock royalty. Van Cliburn, a curly-haired performer from Texas, did it in 1958 by sweeping to a gold medal in the Soviet Union-sponsored Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition in Moscow, playing Tchaikovsky’s Concerto No. 1 flawlessly and with feeling.

The victory turned a shy guy from Kilgore, Texas, who had already made his Carnegie Hall debut at age 20, into an international star at a time when the cold war was raging mightily—this was the time of Sputnik—and the Soviet Union wanted to compete with the U.S. on all fronts, including the cultural one. But stories have it that even Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev approved of the victory, asking the judges if Van Cliburn (full name Harvey Lavan “Van” Cliburn”) was the best. Getting an affirmative answer, Khrushchev reportedly said, “Then, give it to him.”

The victory at the age of 23 for Van Cliburn made him not only a famous American but a national hero. He made the cover of Time Magazine where he was portrayed in a white shirt and tie, emotionally sitting at the piano, his hair a thick bundle of curls. On the cover, he was described as “The Texan Who Conquered Moscow.” And he did—the people of Moscow revered him every bit as the Americans lining the streets in a ticker-tape parade in New York City.

Cliburn was in many ways described as a natural when it came to the piano and the great music of the romantics. He played the Tchaikovsky concerto if not as often as Elvis sang his greatest hits, certainly for the same reason. The concerto was his greatest hit—a recording, the first album of classic music ever recorded that sold a million copies, which put him, popularity-wise in the Elvis amen corner. His triumph in Moscow was his greatest moment.

Music writers and others—including Cliburn himself— would probably agree that he never achieved such a height again. Although he enjoyed a big recording career and performed in most of the greatest concert halls of the world to great acclaim, the quality of his playing and the music eventually declined, to the point that he withdrew from the concert stage in the mid 1970s.

Yet he never withdrew from helping to popularize classical music among young people and in the schools, both here and abroad. He led an active social life, became rich, and moved to Forth Worth, Texas, where he died this week of bone cancer. Periodically, he would make forays into concerts , always playing the Concerto. He would continue to receive honors, and made it a point to note that he had played for every president from Dwight Eisenhower to Barack Obama. He received the Kennedy Center Honor in 2001, and President Obama awarded him the National Medal of Arts at the White House in 2010.

While the cheering never quite stopped, it never quite sounded as loud as 55 years ago. It’s fair to guess that Cliburn understood this without rancor. While he continued to perform at recitals and concerts periodically, it was not in the spirit of that other king, trying desperately to regain his mojo in Las Vegas.

The King may still be a profitable cottage industry in the record business and at Graceland. These days and today, however, Van Cliburn is deservedly remembered as a historic figure in the world of classical music and in the world, period. He was 78.


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