Pianist Van Cliburn Dies At 78

Van Cliburn was given a ticker-tape parade in New York City after winning 1958 Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow at the height of the Cold War.(Photo: http://www.cliburn.org/van-cliburn/vans-50th-anniversary/)
Van Cliburn was given a ticker-tape parade in New York City after winning 1958 Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow at the height of the Cold War.(Photo: http://www.cliburn.org/van-cliburn/vans-50th-anniversary/)

I was sorry to read of the death of pianist Van Cliburn, this morning at his home in Fort Worth. He was 78. He had been diagnosed with bone cancer last summer.

How many classical artists have been given ticker tape parades? Cliburn had such a reception in 1958. At the height of the cold war, Van Cliburn went to Moscow and won the Tchaikovsky International competition. The conductor Kiril Kondrashin leapt up from the judge’s desk to climb onstage and kiss this lanky, awkward Texan.  I doubt that happened again, either.

Cliburn went from nowhere to world-wide fame literally overnight. He was more famous than Elvis. He really was. The media glommed on to him-even then, and made him a world darling.  What the media didn’t know or care about was that Van Cliburn was a shy, church going boy from Texas who loved his daddy and mama, the formidable Rilda Bee O’Bryan Cliburn. You do not mess with these Texas ladies.

“Miz Clahburn” traveled the world with her famous only child, and they lived together until her death not so very long ago.

Cliburn never recovered from the world-wide hoo-hah.  He may have been an extraordinary pianist in the years following 1958. I suspect we’ll never know. He spent 15 years on tour, recording and appearing with the world’s great orchestras.

My mother took me to hear him in Boston’s Symphony Hall in 1971.

Cliburn was very tall-and walked out in a gray flannel suit quite assured. He played The Star Spangled Banner. Believe it or not, some hooted at this, not realizing that all Cliburn concerts began with the National Anthem.

In Boston he went on to play Chopin, Schumann and Scriabin. The house was packed. The only other time to this day I’ve heard such cheering and screaming was for Maria Callas, also in Symphony.

Boston had three daily papers back then. The critic for the Boston Globe was the estimable Michael Steinberg.  He and his colleagues, one after the other wrote the most scathing reviews I’ve ever seen. They called Cliburn a hack and am amateur-not in the good sense of that lovely word. I’ve never read such vitriol. Forget the cheering sold out house.

I learned later that it was fashionable to revile Cliburn in print. To love him in the papers was akin to professional suicide. He was a one shot deal and that shot had been in Russia in 1958.  You couldn’t prove that by me.

I may have been a kid, but I still had an ear in 1971. I heard drama and color and beauty. He played like he owned the place, and to me, he did.

Cliburn dropped out of sight not long after that Boston concert. He’d go to social events. He’d play at the White House whenever a Soviet delegation was visiting. The Russians never lost their adoration for Van Cliburn. I suspect his passing is the lead news story in Moscow at this very moment.

His legacy includes the world-class Van Cliburn International Piano Competition formed in his name. His legacy also includes thrilling a high school kid in Boston many years ago.

Comments
  • Mkstanton

    We were at the same concert in 1971.  I was a music student at the Fine Arts School Boston University.  I was glad to read your article.  I will never forget that concert or the one that Artur Rubenstein did that year too.

  • PATRICIA REVES

    I was fortunate enough to hear van Cliburn once in Saratoga, eight years ago.  He took my breath away!  He was a real American treasure and will always be regarded as such.
    Indee there has been quite a bit of sarcasm about Mr. Cliburn.  A little power of going write-ups of his concerts – whatever.  He was an ENORMOUS talent nd a wonderful man and he will be greatly missed.                                           PATRICIA REEVES