Van Cliburn playing in the third round of the Tchaikovsky Competition in the Great Hall of the Conservatory (Moscow, April 1958)
Van Cliburn (July 12, 1934 – February 27, 2013) was an American hero. He was hailed as one of the most persuasive ambassadors of American culture, as well as one of the greatest pianists in the history of music. With his historic 1958 victory at the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, at the height of the Cold War, Van Cliburn tore down cultural barriers years ahead of glasnost and perestroika, transcending politics by demonstrating the universality of classical music.
Harvey Lavan Cliburn JUNIOR was born in Shreveport, Louisiana, on July 12, 1934. His father, Harvey Lavan Cliburn, was an executive with Magnolia Petroleum, now ExxonMobil. At the age of 3, he began piano studies with his mother, Rildia Bee O’Bryan Cliburn, a talented student of Arthur Friedheim, who was a pupil of Franz Liszt. He was 12 when he made his orchestral debut with the Houston Symphony Orchestra. After graduating from Kilgore High School in the spring of 1951, his mother wanted him to study with Madame Rosina Lhevinne at the famed Juilliard School in New York City.
Cliburn with his parents, Rildia Bee O’Bryan Cliburn and Harvey Lavan Cliburn
Van Cliburn with Juilliard teacher Rosina Lhevinne. Cliburn attend Juilliard at 17
In 1954, Van Cliburn won the Levintritt Competition, which had not awarded a first-place prize since 1949. The prestigious competition offered important appearances with such major orchestras as Cleveland, Denver, Indianapolis, and Pittsburgh, as well as a coveted New York Philharmonic debut with the great Dimitri Mitropoulos, which took place in Carnegie Hall on November 14, 1954.
In 1958, Van Cliburn won the coveted First prize at the inaugural International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow, Russia. A huge accomplishment on its own, Mr. Cliburn’s victory was made even more significant by the political climate of the time. Taking place just months after the Russian launch of Sputnik, the first earth-orbiting satellite, the competition was created to shine a spotlight on the country’s cultural and musical icons, and to bring equal attention to great classical music as had been shown to science, math and technology. A decade into the Cold War, the success of an American pianist at Russia’s most prestigious musical competition was a ray of hope and mutual understanding as the two countries built a connection around a shared love of classical music.
Sputnik, the first earth-orbiting satellite launched by the Soviet Union on October 4th, 1957.
Dmitri Shostakovich delivers the Gold Medal to Van Cliburn.
Dmitri Shostakovich presents Van Cliburn with the gold medal. The jury had to get permission from Khrushchev before giving first prize to an American. On the phone Khrushchev asked, "Is he the best?" and when the jury member assured the politician that Van Cliburn was indeed the best, Khrushchev replied "then give him the prize."
Van Cliburn was a huge success in Russia, both with competition officials and with the Russian public, who rewarded him with an eight-minute standing ovation for his recital performance and gave him similarly raucous responses throughout the rest of the competition.
G. Harrison, J. Lennon, and P. McCartney at the beginning of The Beatles, February 6, 1958.
His efforts also made waves in the United States. While during the competition Mr. Cliburn hadn’t realized the full extent of the media coverage he had earned stateside, on his journey home, a flight attendant described it to him, showing him a copy of the May 19, 1958 issue of Time magazine, which hailed him as “the Texan who conquered Russia.”
Returning home from Moscow, Mr. Cliburn received a ticker-tape parade in New York City, the only time a classical musician was ever honored with the highest tribute possible by the City of New York.
Following his victory, Van Cliburn became a household name and set attendance records at the country’s most prestigious concert houses and some of its most well-known venues like New York’s Madison Square Garden and Chicago’s Grant Park.
Johnny Cash at the top of his popularity, 1958.
In November 1958, for the first time in its seventy-seven-year history, the Boston Symphony Orchestra was forced by demand for tickets to schedule a repeat performance of a concert. With Mr. Cliburn as soloist, the repeat was promptly sold out as well. Even nearly half a century after his monumental victory, Mr. Cliburn continued to sell out crowds: in June, 1994, at a special concert at Grant Park with the Chicago Symphony with Maestro Leonard Slatkin, newspapers reported that according to police estimates, 350,000 people were in attendance.
The release of “King Creole” on July 2nd, 1958.
Back in the United States, Van Cliburn continued to play a key role in developing cultural diplomacy across the lines of the Cold War.
Upon Mr. Cliburn’s invitation, Kiril Kondrashin, the conductor with whom the pianist had played his prizewinning performances, came from Moscow to repeat the celebrated concert program with Van Cliburn at Carnegie Hall in New York, at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia, and in Washington, D.C. Their recording of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto, made during Kondrashin’s visit, was the first classical recording ever to be awarded a platinum record and has now sold well over three million copies
In 1987, at the invitation of President Ronald Reagan, Mr. Cliburn performed a formal recital - his first public performance after a nine-year sabbatical - in the East Room of the White House during the State Visit honoring Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet Union’s then general secretary. Repertoire included both The Star-Spangled Banner and the well-known Russian song, “Moscow Nights.”
Sixteen years later, in 2003, George W. Bush awarded Mr. Cliburn the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which recognizes individuals who have made “an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the U.S. or to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.”
The following year, he received the Order of Friendship from President Vladimir Putin at a Kremlin ceremony. The award, whose past laureates include almost exclusively Russian citizens, honors a “significant contribution into the strengthening of friendship and cooperation of nations and nationalities…”
Early in his career, a group of friends and admirers began the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition as a living legacy to Mr. Cliburn’s constant efforts to aid the development of young artists.
The first competition was held in 1962.
The Van Cliburn so captured the interest of classical music fans worldwide that each edition is now turned into a documentary following the competitors through the grueling seventeen-day competition.
The premiere of the “War Requiem” by Benjamin Britten in 1962
Carnegie Hall then requested that he play for its 100th anniversary season as soloist with the New York Philharmonic. Over the years, Mr. Cliburn has opened many U. S. concert halls, including the famous I. M. Pei Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas; the Lied Center for the Performing Arts in Lincoln, Nebraska; and the Bob Hope Cultural Center in Palm Springs, California. Mr. Cliburn was an honorary member of the Royal Academy of Music in London.
He received more than 20 honorary doctorate degrees. He provided scholarships at many schools, including Juilliard, the Cincinnati Conservatory, Texas Christian University, Louisiana State University, the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest, the St. Petersburg Conservatory, and the Moscow Conservatory.
In 1962, Igor Stravinsky returned to Russia after 52 years of exile.
Mr. Cliburn performed for every President of the United States since Harry Truman and for royalty and heads of state in Europe, Asia, and South America. He received Kennedy Center Honors as “one of the most persuasive ambassadors of American culture, as well as one of the greatest pianists in the history of music,” as well as the 2004 Grammy® Lifetime Achievement Award.
In 2003, President George W. Bush bestowed upon him the Presidential Medal of Freedom and President Barack Obama honored Mr. Cliburn with the National Medal of Arts in a ceremony at the White House in 2011.
As true global celebrity, Mr. Cliburn’s fame was so extensive that he was even featured on a best-selling box of chocolates in the Soviet Union and referenced in the beloved Peanuts comic strip by Charles Schulz. He also turned down two Hollywood offers to star in films, one of which was about pianist Franz Liszt.