His hair was so wild and frizzy, he looked like he had stuck his impressively long fingers into a light socket. A tall, skinny, 23-year-old, Louisiana-born, Texan Van Cliburn didn’t look like the greatest classical pianist in the world, but in 1958, that is exactly what he was. A year before Walt Disney turned an entire generation on to Tchaikovsky with the animated Sleeping Beauty, Harvey Lavan “Van” Cliburn, Jr. introduced America to the power and brilliance of Tchaikovsky’s and Rachmaninoff’s concertos with his winning performances at the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow.
No one expected the clear winner to be an American. This was supposed to be a showcase for the Soviet Union. Everyone knew, only a Russian could properly perform the complex works of Russia’s greatest composers. Yeah, right. Cliburn’s performance was so spectacular, earning an 8 minute standing ovation, that the judges had to slink off to ask Premier Nikita Khrushchev for permission to award the upstart American the prize. A world audience had heard his performance and knew how much he deserved that prize. To have denied it to him for political reasons would have been a greater embarrassment to the Soviet Union than awarding it. To his credit, Khrushchev didn’t take a moment to think about any of that. He simply asked if Cliburn was the best, and told the judges to award the prize.
Van Cliburn died Wednesday, at the age of 78, after a long battle with bone cancer. He had announced the diagnosis last August. He had not regularly performed in public for thirty-five years.
Cliburn began studying piano at the age of three. His mother had studied under a student of composer Franz Liszt and found her son mimicking her students one day. At 17, he traveled to New York to attend Julliard. He was a client of impresario Sol Hurok after his triumph in Moscow, and commanded extraordinary fees for concerts and recorded anything he chose to. His recording of the Competition-winning Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 became the first classical album to go platinum (one million albums sold), eventually went triple-platinum and topped the classical sales charts until the 1970s. He was the first and only musician given a ticker tape parade in Manhattan. We loved him. We adored him. He wasn’t just a brilliant pianist, he was a “golly, shucks” kind of humble, shy, Mayberry boy.
Suddenly, in 1978, it was all over. Cliburn quit performing and recording. He made a handful of appearances for special occasions, and did a small, 16-city tour in 1994. He traveled from his home in Fort Worth to draw a full circle around his professional life by performing at the White House for President Ronald Reagan and Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev. There was a belief among some in the classical music world that Cliburn’s early fame and the public demand for his Russian romantic composers limited what might have been an even greater career.
After retirement, it was Cliburn’s personal life that make headlines and caused whispers. A 40-something unmarried man who lived with his mother? Even though he was a lifelong Baptist who contributed large sums to his church, there was still a lot of “nudge, nudge, wink, wink” about Cliburn. Then, in 1996, the speculation ended. Cliburn was sued for “palimony” by Thomas Zaremba following a 17-year relationship. Zaremba accused Cliburn of “possibly” exposing him to the AIDS virus. The lawsuit was dismissed on the grounds that a palimony suit was not permitted under Texas law unless there had been a written agreement of shared assets, but it pushed the intensely private Cliburn into the agonizing position of having his personal life splashed all over the tabloids.
Cliburn supported the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, which was founded in 1958 by the National Guild of Piano Teachers, a private, non-profit enterprise that awards winners cash prizes, a Carnegie Hall debut and a two year concert tour.
He was awarded the Kennedy Center Honor in 2001, the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2003, the Russian Order of Friendship and the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2004, and the National Medal of the Arts in 2011.
Cliburn is survived by his “long-standing friend” Thomas L. Smith.