Van Cliburn

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Van Cliburn
Van Cliburn 1966b.jpg
Cliburn in 1966
Background information
Birth nameHarvey Lavan Cliburn Jr.
Also known asVan Cliburn
Born(1934-07-12)July 12, 1934
Shreveport, Louisiana, U.S.
DiedFebruary 27, 2013(2013-02-27) (aged 78)
Fort Worth, Texas, U.S.
Genres Classical music
Occupation(s) Pianist
Instruments Piano
Years active1946–2013
Labels RCA Victor Red Seal

Harvey Lavan "Van" Cliburn Jr. ( /ˈklbɜːrn/ ; July 12, 1934  February 27, 2013) [1] was an American pianist who, at the age of 23, achieved worldwide recognition when he won the inaugural International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1958 (during the Cold War). [2] Cliburn's mother, a piano teacher and an accomplished pianist in her own right, discovered him playing at age three, mimicking one of her students and arranged for him to start taking lessons. [2] Cliburn developed a rich, round tone and a singing-voice-like phrasing, having been taught from the start to sing each piece. [2]


Cliburn toured domestically and overseas. He played for royalty, heads of state, and every US president from Harry S. Truman to Barack Obama. [3]

Life and career

Early life

Cliburn was born in Shreveport, Louisiana, the son of Rildia Bee ( née O'Bryan) and Harvey Lavan Cliburn Sr. [4] At age three, he began taking piano lessons from his mother, who had studied under Arthur Friedheim, [5] a pupil of Franz Liszt. [2] When Cliburn was six, his father, who worked in the oil industry, [6] moved the family to Kilgore, Texas.

At age 12 Cliburn won a statewide piano competition, which led to his debut with the Houston Symphony Orchestra. [7] He entered the Juilliard School in New York City at the age of seventeen [7] and studied under Rosina Lhévinne, [7] who trained him in the tradition of the great Russian romantics. At age twenty, Cliburn won the Leventritt Award [7] and made his debut at Carnegie Hall. [8]

Moscow, Russia

Cliburn with his mother in the Netherlands in 1966 Van Cliburn and mother 1966.jpg
Cliburn with his mother in the Netherlands in 1966

His triumph in Moscow propelled Cliburn to international prominence. [9] The first International Tchaikovsky Competition in 1958 was an event designed to demonstrate Soviet cultural superiority during the Cold War, after the USSR's technological victory with the Sputnik launch in October 1957. Cliburn's performance at the competition finale of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 and Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3 on April 13 earned him a standing ovation lasting eight minutes. [10] [11] After the ovation, Van Cliburn made a brief speech in Russian, and then resumed his seat at the piano and began to play—to the surprise and delight of the Russian musicians visible behind him in the film made of his part in the competition—his own piano arrangement of the much-beloved song "Moscow Nights," which, as the response shows, further endeared him to the Russians. When it was time to announce the winner, the judges were obliged to ask permission of the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to give first prize to an American. "Is he the best?" Khrushchev asked. "Then give him the prize!" [10] [12] Cliburn returned home to a ticker-tape parade in New York City, the only time the honor has been accorded a classical musician. Arriving at City Hall after the parade, Cliburn told the audience:

I appreciate more than you will ever know that you are honoring me, but the thing that thrills me the most is that you are honoring classical music. Because I'm only one of many. I'm only a witness and a messenger. Because I believe so much in the beauty, the construction, the architecture invisible, the importance for all generations, for young people to come that it will help their minds, develop their attitudes, and give them values. That is why I'm so grateful that you have honored me in that spirit. [13]

A cover story in Time magazine proclaimed him "The Texan Who Conquered Russia". [14]

Cultural diplomat

New York Times writer Bernard Holland shared some beautiful words from Cliburn in a 1989 article. My relationship with the Russians was personal, not political, Mr. Cliburn said in a recent interview. I had looked at pictures of Moscow when I was 5 years old, and I had always wanted to go there. My first night there I got permission to go down and see Red Square and the Kremlin. I felt so at home with these people, and I felt it immediately. In this article, Bernard Holland writes about Cliburn's heart that stayed consistent through his career as an artist and as a diplomat. Holland also tells of Cliburn's lasting relationship with Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet diplomat who was a huge fan of Cliburn and actually the one who is pictured at the Tchaikovsky competition pinning an award on Cliburn. Cliburn's lasting love and care for the Russians was evident over the years in his music and his life. [15]


Upon returning to the United States, Cliburn appeared in a Carnegie Hall concert with the Symphony of the Air, conducted by Kirill Kondrashin, who had led the Moscow Philharmonic in the prize-winning performances in Moscow. [7] The performance of the Rachmaninoff 3rd Piano Concerto at this concert was subsequently released by RCA Victor on LP. Cliburn was also invited by Steve Allen to play a solo during Allen's prime time NBC television series on May 25, 1958. [16] He later went to the White House to meet with President Eisenhower to discuss relations with the USSR.

RCA Victor signed him to an exclusive contract, and his subsequent recording of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 won the 1958 Grammy Award for Best Classical Performance. It was certified a gold record in 1961, and it became the first classical album to go platinum, achieving that certification in 1989. [17] [18] It was the best-selling classical album in the world for more than a decade.[ citation needed ] It eventually went triple-platinum. [19] In 2004, this recording was re-mastered from the original studio analogue tapes, and released on a Super Audio CD.

Other standard repertoire Cliburn recorded include the Schumann Piano Concerto in A minor, Grieg Piano Concerto in A minor, Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2, Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 4 and No. 5 "Emperor", and the Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 3.

In 1958, during a dinner hosted by the National Guild of Piano Teachers, [20] President and Founder Dr. Irl Allison announced a cash prize of $10,000 to be used for a piano competition named in Cliburn's honor. Under the leadership of Grace Ward Lankford and with the dedicated efforts of local music teachers and volunteers, the First Van Cliburn International Piano Competition was held from September 24 to October 7, 1962, at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. [7] Until his death, Cliburn continued to serve as Director Emeritus for the Van Cliburn Foundation, as host of the quadrennial competition and host of other programs honoring his legacy.

In 1961, he first performed at the Interlochen Center for the Arts during its summer camp. He went on to do so for eighteen more years, his last visit to the school being in 2006.

Cliburn returned to the Soviet Union on several occasions. [7] His performances there were usually recorded and even televised. In a 1962 Moscow appearance, Nikita Khrushchev, who met Cliburn again on this visit, [12] and Andrei Gromyko, the Soviet Foreign Minister, were "spotted in the audience applauding enthusiastically". [21] According to The Wall Street Journal , "Mr. Cliburn's affection for the Soviet people—and theirs for him—was notable in its warmth during a prolonged period of superpower strain." [2] A 1972 concert performance of the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2 with Kondrashin and the Moscow orchestra, as well as a studio recording of Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini , were later issued on CD by RCA Victor. [22]

On May 26, 1972, Cliburn gave a concert at Spaso House, the residence of the United States Ambassador to Russia, for an audience that included President Richard Nixon, Secretary of State William P. Rogers, and Soviet government officials.


Cliburn performed and recorded through the 1970s, but in 1978, after the deaths of his father and of his manager, Sol Hurok, he began a hiatus from public life. In 1987, he was invited to perform at the White House for President Ronald Reagan and Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev [2] and afterward was invited to open the 100th anniversary season of Carnegie Hall. He embarked on a 16-city tour in 1994, commencing with a performance of the Tchaikovsky concerto at the Hollywood Bowl. Also in 1994, Cliburn made a guest appearance in the cartoon Iron Man, playing himself in the episode "Silence My Companion, Death My Destination". In his late seventies, he gave a limited number of performances to critical and popular acclaim.[ citation needed ] Cliburn appeared as a Pennington Great Performers series artist with the Baton Rouge Symphony Orchestra in 2006. In 2006 he performed at Interlochen Center for the Arts, spending two hours talking to the students afterwards and signing their programs while many waited at a reception at the school's president's house.

He played for royalty and heads of state from dozens of countries and for every U.S. president from 1958 until his death. [23]


Receiving the Order of Friendship in Moscow, Russia, in 2004 Van Cliburn.jpg
Receiving the Order of Friendship in Moscow, Russia, in 2004
Van Cliburn Way in the Fort Worth Cultural District MVI 2791 Van Cliburn in Fort Worth Cultural District.jpg
Van Cliburn Way in the Fort Worth Cultural District

Cliburn received the Kennedy Center Honors on December 2, 2001. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom on July 23, 2003 [24] by President George W. Bush, and, on September 20, 2004, the Russian Order of Friendship, the highest civilian awards of the two countries. He was also awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award the same year and played at a surprise 50th birthday party for United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. He was a member of the Alpha Chi chapter of Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia, and was awarded the fraternity's Charles E. Lutton Man of Music Award in 1962. He was presented a 2010 National Medal of Arts by President Barack Obama on March 2, 2011. [23] [25]

Cliburn's 1958 piano performance in Moscow, when he won the prestigious Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition, has been added to the National Recording Registry in the Library of Congress for long-term preservation. [26]

Personal life

In 1998, Cliburn was named in a lawsuit by his domestic partner of 17 years, mortician Thomas Zaremba. [27] In the suit, Zaremba claimed entitlement to a portion of Cliburn's income and assets and asserted that he might have been exposed to HIV, causing emotional distress. The claims were rejected by a trial court and an appellate court, [28] on the basis that palimony suits were not permitted in the state of Texas unless the relationship is based on a written agreement.

Cliburn was known as a night owl. He often practiced until 4:30 or 5 a.m., waking around 1:30 p.m. [29] "You feel like you're alone and the world's asleep, and it's very inspiring." [30]


On August 27, 2012, Cliburn's publicist announced that the pianist had advanced bone cancer, had undergone treatment and was "resting comfortably at home" in Fort Worth, where he received around-the-clock care. [31] [32] Cliburn died on February 27, 2013, at the age of seventy-eight. [33]

Cliburn was a member of Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth and attended regularly when he was in town. [34] His services were held on March 3, 2013, at the Broadway Baptist Church with entombment at Greenwood Memorial Park Mausoleum in Fort Worth. [13] His obituary lists as his only survivor his "friend of longstanding", Thomas L. Smith. [13]


The Wall Street Journal said on his death that Cliburn was a "cultural hero" who "rocketed to unheard-of stardom for a classical musician in the U.S." [2] Calling him "the rare classical musician to enjoy rock star status", the Associated Press on his death noted the 1958 Time magazine cover story that likened him to "Horowitz, Liberace, and Presley all rolled into one". [9]

A year after Cliburn's death, a free anniversary concert was held on February 27, 2014, in his honor in downtown Fort Worth. "It's part of the Cliburn ideology of sharing the music with the larger audience," said Jacques Marquis, the Cliburn Foundation president. Cliburn lent his name to the International Piano Competition, which he viewed as a gathering of classical masterpieces played by young gifted artists. [35]

A highlight of Cliburn's legacy was the profoundly positive reception of his person and performances in the Soviet Union during and after the Tchaikovsky competition. The same is true of his reception during and after the Cold War in the Soviet Union. According to Life (1958), the excitement and hype surrounding the news of Cliburn's debut in Moscow was almost too much to bear for some. They became infatuated with him and made no attempt to conceal it. “In the preliminaries, which had enlisted 50 young pianist from 19 different countries, Van was the big crowd-pleaser. Fans called him Vanyusha. Girls trailed him to the hotel. Soviet record companies pleaded with him to wax anything. In the finals, when he crashed out the last chords of the Rachmaninoff Third Concerto, the ecstatic audience in Moscow chanted “first prize-first prize.” [36]

Mark MacNamara of the San Francisco Classical Voice wrote: "The 6-foot 4-inch aw-shucks kid from Shreveport was 23, the son of an oil executive and a Juilliard graduate, and by all accounts didn't have a mean bone in his body. Indeed, much of his charm, then and throughout his life, was that he seemed so genuinely unaware of intrigue and enmity. Cliburn's talents were astounding, and he had a heart that loved people and music. This is a legacy that lasts." [37]

As of the last International Tchaikovsky Competition (2019), Van Cliburn is still the only American to win the competition in piano. Interestingly, only two native-born Americans have won the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in its 58 year history.

Lasting Impact

Cliburn's contributions to society were many and one of his greatest contributions was the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.

Lisa McCormick, writing in Sage Journals (2009), explains the competition this way:

Founded in 1958, the Cliburn is held every four years and is open to pianists between the ages of 18 and 30. Through screening auditions held in five cities around the world, 35 pianists are chosen to participate in the competition in Fort Worth, Texas, where their performances are open to the public and judged by a distinguished international jury. Since its third cycle, the Cliburn has qualified to be a member of the World Federation of International Music Competitions. (Sage Journals 2009)

For many young pianists, Cliburn is not only a symbol of talent and inspiration, but a friend to the arts that shows how appreciation for music is powerful, and his impact on the tensions of the Cold War was certainly one of distinct and unique merit. [38]


See also

Further reading

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