"I said to myself, 'Life is too short.' I was missing so much," he told The New York Times in 2008. After winning the competition, "it was thrilling to be wanted. But it was pressure, too."
Cliburn emerged from his sabbatical in 1987, when he played at a state dinner at the White House during the historic visit of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Gorbachev leapt from his seat to give the pianist a bear-hug and kisses on the cheeks. Nancy Reagan, then the first lady, has called that night one of the greatest moments of her husband's presidency.
"After not playing in public for many years, he agreed to make an exception for this occasion, and his beautiful music brought the whole room to tears," Reagan said in a statement Wednesday, adding that "the world has lost a true treasure."
Cliburn was born Harvey Lavan Cliburn Jr. on July 12, 1934, in Shreveport, La., the son of oilman Harvey Cliburn Sr. and Rildia Bee O'Bryan Cliburn. At age 3, he began studying piano with his mother, herself an accomplished pianist who had studied with a pupil of the great 19th century Hungarian pianist Franz Liszt.
The family moved back to Kilgore within a few years of his birth.
Cliburn won his first Texas competition when he was 12, and two years later he played in Carnegie Hall as the winner of the National Music Festival Award.
At 17, Cliburn attended the Juilliard School in New York, where fellow students marveled at his marathon practice sessions that stretched until 3 a.m. He studied under the famed Russian-born pianist Rosina Lhevinne.
Between 1952 and 1958, he won all but one competition he entered, including the G.B. Dealey Award from the Dallas Symphony, the Kosciusko Foundation Chopin Scholarship and the prestigious Leventritt. By age 20, he had played with the New York Philharmonic and the symphonies of most major cities.
Cliburn's career seemed ready to take off until his name came up for the draft. He had to cancel all shows but was eventually excused from duty due to chronic nosebleeds.
Over the next few years, Cliburn's international popularity continued as he recorded pieces ranging from Mozart to a concerto by American Edward McDowell. Still, having been trained by some of the best Russian teachers in the world, Cliburn's heart was Russian, with the Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff concertos.
After 1990, Cliburn toured Japan numerous times and performed throughout the United States. He was in the midst of a 16-city U.S. tour in 1994 when his mother died at age 97.
Cliburn, who made his home in Fort Worth, endowed scholarships at many schools, including Juilliard, which gave him an honorary doctorate, and the Moscow and Leningrad conservatories. In December 2001, he was presented with the prestigious Kennedy Center Honors Medallion at the televised tribute held in Washington.
He practiced daily and performed limited engagements until only recently. His last public appearance came in September at the 50th anniversary of the prestigious piano competition bearing his name.
Speaking to the audience in Fort Worth, he saluted the many past contestants, the orchestra and the city: "Never forget: I love you all from the bottom of my heart, forever." The audience responded with a roaring standing ovation.
Associated Press writer Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.
Van Cliburn Foundation: http://www.cliburn.org