Legendary pianist Van Cliburn dies at 78

FORT WORTH, Texas — Van Cliburn’s talent alone might have earned him a place among the 20th-century giants of his instrument, alongside classical pianists like Arthur Rubinstein and Vladimir Horowitz. But after a magical Moscow spring in 1958, Cliburn’s fame eclipsed even those musical contemporaries, rivaling that of another young superstar of his time, Elvis Presley.

Cliburn was “The Texan Who Conquered Russia,” according to a Time magazine cover. At the height of the Cold War, the lanky 23-year-old traveled to Moscow and won the first Tchaikovsky International Competition, an event created to showcase Soviet cultural superiority. Cliburn’s unlikely triumph was thus said to bring a thaw in tensions between the rival superpowers and created a mythic parable about the power of art to unite mankind.

The man at the heart of that parable died Wednesday morning at his mansion near Fort Worth. It had been announced Aug. 27 that Cliburn, who turned 78 in July, was suffering from advanced bone cancer.

While the world mourns a cultural icon, many in North Texas remember a friend — a shy man of uncommon graciousness.

A friend to American presidents, foreign leaders and Hollywood celebrities, Cliburn also became a fixture in the life of Fort Worth. In the 1980s, he moved from a New York City apartment to a mansion in the exclusive Fort Worth suburb of Westover Hills. In the decades since, he was often seen at local cultural events or handing out medals to winners of the prestigious Fort Worth piano competition that bears his name.

A famous night owl, Cliburn was well-known for his off-hours visits to the Ol’ South Pancake House on University Drive, always dressed in his trademark dark suits. A man of deep Christian faith, he was a member at Broadway Baptist Church, sneaking into a back pew just before services began each Sunday he was in town.

“One of the most profound truths that has characterized my life is St. Paul’s advice to ‘pray without ceasing,’” Cliburn told Brent Beasley, his pastor at Broadway Baptist, shortly before his death. “That’s how I have lived my life.”

Beasley and others who spent time with Cliburn after his recent diagnosis described a man bent on reminiscing from the moment he woke up daily, but a person unafraid of the end.

“He actually made the comment, ‘I’m more afraid of living than dying,’” Beasley said.

For all his local familiarity, Cliburn largely belonged to the world.

Through much of the 1960s and 1970s, he was among the most sought-after soloists and recording artists of his generation. But he would always be, first and foremost, the humble young man of the Tchaikovsky triumph, which came when the cloud of nuclear confrontation hovered over the world.

From childhood, the musician born in Shreveport, La., and raised in the East Texas town of Kilgore seemed to channel the Russian soul, an affinity that was quickly obvious in that first trip to Russia. Max Frankel, then a Moscow correspondent for The New York Times, began to hear of Russian audiences at the competition that were completely enthralled by the one known as “Cleeburn.”

“Especially the young girls were going absolutely crazy about Van’s performances, heaping flowers on him,” Frankel, who eventually became the Times’ executive editor, said in 2008. “And there were long lines to get in (when he played), even longer than usual.”

Frankel sought out another American in Moscow, Mark Schubart, dean of the Juilliard School.

“Is this kid really so phenomenal, or is this just another case of Frank Sinatra bobby-soxers?” Frankel asked him.

“No, he’s a hell of a musician,” Schubart said. “He’s well in line to win this thing if the Russians ever let him.”

After a series of historic performances before rapturous throngs — playing works by the Russians’ best-loved composers, Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky — jurors voted to award first prize to Cliburn, first finding it necessary to obtain the blessing of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. Later, Cliburn and Khrushchev, himself a classical music aficionado, became good friends.

The triumph was front-page news around the globe and earned Cliburn a ticker-tape parade in New York City on his return to the United States, the only classical musician ever afforded that honor.

He eventually performed for every American president from Harry S. Truman on. He began every performance by playing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” In 2003, Cliburn was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush. In 2004, Russian President Vladimir Putin presented Cliburn with the Order of Friendship. In another White House ceremony in 2011, President Barack Obama presented Cliburn the National Medal of the Arts.

“He understood the role music could play in the lives of diverse people,” said Robert Blocker, dean of the Yale School of Music. “He just saw music as a vehicle of hope. He lived that out, whether it was with (President) Carter or Khrushchev. I see him as being one of the world’s great cultural leaders. The message he carried to presidents and to children was that music is important.”

Cliburn’s path seemed fated, a destiny that he recognized early.

“I was old when I was born,” he said in May. “I told my parents when I was 5, ‘I am going to be a concert pianist. They thought I was crazy. I played in public when I was 4, then made my debut with the Houston Symphony when I was 12, and my debut with the New York Philharmonic, I had just turned 20. I had so much ambition, but first of all I loved the music.”

He was born in Shreveport on July 12, 1934, to Harvey Lavan Cliburn, an oil company executive, and Rildia Bee O’Bryan Cliburn, herself a classical pianist with an impeccable pedigree. The daughter of a lawyer and former mayor of the small Texas town of McGregor, Cliburn’s mother had gone away to study piano at the Cincinnati Conservatory, and then to New York. Her teacher there was Arthur Friedheim, who had been a pupil of piano legend Franz Liszt.

Rildia Bee Cliburn’s piano career would consist mostly of teaching, and her most prominent pupil was her talented and precocious son. In the recent interview, Cliburn remembered his mother as a very demanding instructor.


“I was about 9 or 10 and she was taking me through the ‘Transcendental Etudes’ of Liszt,” Cliburn said. “She said, ‘Oh, no, dear.’ I said, ‘I can’t play this because I don’t have perfect hands like you.’”

His voice became stern as he remembered his mother’s reply.

“No one has perfect hands!” she said. “Everyone has problems. Your responsibility is to solve your problems.”


Cliburn graduated from Kilgore High School at age 16, and from Juilliard three years later. Jerome Lowenthal, another American pianist and a classmate at Juilliard, remembered that Cliburn was famously innocent, even then.


“We had a class together in Renaissance music, and one of the things we would do is sing,” Lowenthal recalled in 2008. “Van was special because he would always put a lot of emotion into it. I can see it to this day with his eyebrows going up. We were all too self-conscious to do that.

“I remember once meeting him on the street in New York. He was coming back from a Billy Graham evening, and he was very excited, and he talked with great enthusiasm and emotion,” Lowenthal said. “He was just different than other people I knew. And he was a wonderful artist. He was the Van you know today, only much less sophisticated.”


Well before his victory in Moscow, Cliburn seemed headed toward classical music stardom. In 1954, he won the prestigious Leventritt Competition in New York City, which led to performances with major orchestras across the United States and a debut with the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall on Nov. 14, 1954.

His playing also attracted the attention of Sol Hurok, a leading music impresario of the time, who became Cliburn’s longtime manager.


Tim Madigan: tmadigan@star-telegram.com


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