Van Cliburn, pianist and Cold War hero, dies at 78

Published on NewsOK Modified: February 27, 2013 at 6:30 pm •  Published: February 27, 2013
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FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) — For a time in Cold War America, Van Cliburn had all the trappings of a rock star: sold-out concerts, adoring, out-of-control fans and a name recognized worldwide. He even got a ticker-tape parade in New York City.

And he did it all with only a piano and some Tchaikovsky concertos.

The celebrated pianist played for every American president since Harry Truman, plus royalty and heads of state around the world. But he is best remembered for winning a 1958 piano competition in Moscow that helped thaw the icy rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Cliburn, who died Wednesday at 78 after fighting bone cancer, was "a great humanitarian and a brilliant musician whose light will continue to shine through his extraordinary legacy," said his publicist and longtime friend Mary Lou Falcone. "He will be missed by all who knew and admired him, and by countless people he never met."

The young man from the small east Texas town of Kilgore was a baby-faced 23-year-old when he won the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow just six months after the Soviets' launch of Sputnik embarrassed the U.S. and inaugurated the space race.

Cliburn returned to a hero's welcome and the ticker-tape parade — the first ever for a classical musician. A Time magazine cover proclaimed him "The Texan Who Conquered Russia."

The win also showed the power of the arts, creating unity despite the tension between the superpowers. Music-loving Soviets clamored to see him perform. Premier Nikita Khrushchev reportedly gave the go-ahead for the judges to honor a foreigner: "Is Cliburn the best? Then give him first prize."

In the years that followed, Cliburn's popularity soared. He sold out concerts and caused riots when he was spotted in public. His fame even prompted an Elvis Presley fan club to change its name to his. His recording of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 with Russian conductor Kirill Kondrashin became the first classical album to reach platinum status.

Time magazine's 1958 cover story quoted a friend as saying Cliburn could become "the first man in history to be a Horowitz, Liberace and Presley all rolled into one."

Russian pianist Denis Matsuev, who won the Tchaikovsky competition in 1998 at the age of 23, the same age as Cliburn, said Cliburn's "romantic style captured the hearts of Soviet audience."

"Everyone was in love with him," Matsuev said. "And he loved the Soviet Union, Russia and the Russian public."

Matsuev, who knew Cliburn personally, described him as an "incredibly delicate, kind and gentle man who dedicated his entire life to art."

He also used his skill and fame to help other young musicians through the Van Cliburn International Music Competition, held every four years. Created in 1962 by a group of Fort Worth teachers and citizens, it remains among the top showcases for the world's best pianists.

"Since we know that classical music is timeless and everlasting, it is precisely the eternal verities inherent in classical music that remain a spiritual beacon for people all over the world," Cliburn once said.

President George W. Bush presented Cliburn with the Presidential Medal of Freedom — the nation's highest civilian honor — in 2003. The following year, he received the Order of Friendship of the Russian Federation from Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"I still have lots of friends in Russia," Cliburn said at the time. "It's always a great pleasure to talk to older people in Russia, to hear their anecdotes."

After the death of his father in 1974, Cliburn announced he would soon retire to spend more time with his ailing mother. He stopped touring in 1978.