FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) — Legendary pianist Van Cliburn was remembered Sunday as a gifted musician who transcended the boundaries of politics and art by easing tensions during the Cold War and introducing classical music to millions.
About 1,400 people attended a memorial service for Cliburn, who died Wednesday at 78 after fighting bone cancer. As the service began, the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra accompanied a choir while pall bearers carried his flower-covered coffin into a Fort Worth church.
Several speakers referred to what made Cliburn famous: winning the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1958, when he was just 23. At the height of the Cold War, the win by the pianist who grew up in Texas helped thaw the icy rivalry between the United States and Soviet Union.
"Over the course of many years, during the most difficult historical times, the art of Van Cliburn brought together people from different countries, different continents and united them," Russian President Vladimir Putin said in a statement that was read during the service. "We shall always remember Van Cliburn as a true and sincere friend of the Russian people."
Former President George W. Bush told mourners that Soviets at the competition didn't find the expected stereotypical Texas cowboy but a gracious, humble young man who was "beloved, even by the enemy." Cliburn continued to spread peace and love through his music, Bush said.
"Members of the presidents' club could have taken a lesson from him in diplomacy," said Bush, who presented Cliburn with the Presidential Medal of Freedom — the nation's highest civilian honor — in 2003.
After the Moscow win, Cliburn returned to a hero's welcome and a ticker-tape parade — the first ever for a classical musician. A Time magazine cover proclaimed him "The Texan Who Conquered Russia." Cliburn's popularity soared, and he sold out concerts and caused riots when he was spotted in public.
As a result, Cliburn introduced Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff to a younger generation — those who may never have heard or liked classical music, said Juilliard School President Joseph Polisi.