One of the leading musicians of the 20th century — who played an unusual role in U.S.-Soviet relations during the Cold War — has died. The Los Angeles Times reports that piano master Van Cliburn, who was 78, died today, Feb. 27, 2013, of bone cancer at his home in Fort Worth, Texas.
Cliburn, who had been a child prodigy, remained relatively unknown outside music circles until he gained instant fame by winning an international music competition in Moscow in 1958. Cold War tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union were high at the time, six months after the Soviets had launched the first Sputnik satellite.
Cliburn’s win at age 23 represented a triumph for the U.S. in the Cold War.
“Competing against 49 other pianists from 19 countries at the first Tchaikovsky International Piano and Violin Festival, the technically brilliant Cliburn created a sensation with the romantic sweep of his playing in the first two rounds of the competition,” the Times reports. “By the time he came on stage to play in the final round, ‘the crowd had become nearly hysterical,’ Chicago Tribune arts critic Howard Reich wrote in ‘Van Cliburn,’ his 1993 biography. ‘Roughly 1,500 people had jammed the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory; thousands more waited outside.’
“Instantaneous ovations greeted Cliburn’s playing of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto, Reich wrote, and his performance of a new solo piece required of all finalists, a rondo by Soviet composer and contest judge Dmitry Kabalevsky, earned him a standing ovation.”
The Times report continues: “But when Cliburn finished Rachmaninoff’s technically difficult Third Piano Concerto, the audience erupted into a thunderous standing ovation that continued after he left the stage. Then, the jury stood and joined in. Two judges even jumped up and hugged each other.”
The Soviet and Soviet bloc judges — who held the deciding votes — were reluctant to award the victory to an American and, according to Reich’s book, that question was taken by the Soviet minister of culture to the man at the top — Nikita Khrushchev, who was chairman of the Council of Ministers.
The conversation is retold this way:
"What do the professionals say about him? Is he the best?" Khrushchev asked.
"Yes, he is the best," the minister of culture replied.
"In this case, give him the first prize," Khrushchev said.
The Times adds: “Trumpeted on the cover of Time magazine as ‘The Texan Who Conquered Russia,’ the lanky, 6-foot-4 Cliburn was given a hero’s welcome in New York City with what was a first for a classical musician: a ticker-tape parade.”
Commenting on Cliburn’s win in the Soviet Union on the heels of the Sputnik launch, Reich said: "They had beat us in space, and we beat them in their own backyard, in culture of all things."
Here’s a clip of Cliburn playing Tchaikovsky, said to be from his 1958 performance in Moscow: