FORT WORTH, Texas — Van Cliburn, the internationally celebrated pianist whose triumph at a 1958 Moscow competition helped thaw the Cold War and launched a spectacular career that made him the rare classical musician to enjoy rock-star status, died Wednesday after a fight with bone cancer. He was 78.
Cliburn died at his home in Fort Worth surrounded by loved ones, said his publicist and longtime friend Mary Lou Falcone.
The Grammy winner had made his last public appearance in September at the 50th anniversary of the prestigious piano competition in Fort Worth named in his honor. To a roaring standing ovation, he saluted many past contestants, the orchestra and the city, saying: “Never forget: I love you all from the bottom of my heart, forever.”
“His legacy is one of being a great humanitarian, a great musician, a great colleague, and a great friend to all who knew and loved him. Van is iconic,” said Carla Kemp Thompson, chairwoman of the Van Cliburn Foundation, which hosts the competition. “(We) join the international community in mourning the loss of a true giant.”
Cliburn skyrocketed to fame when he won the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow at age 23 in 1958, six months after the Soviets’ launch of Sputnik embarrassed the U.S. and propelled the world into the space age. He triumphantly returned to a New York City ticker tape parade — the first ever for a classical musician — and a Time magazine cover proclaimed him “The Texan Who Conquered Russia.”
But the win also proved the power of the arts, bringing unity in the midst of strong rivalry. Despite the tension between the nations, Cliburn became a hero to music-loving Soviets who clamored to see him perform and 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, and the young man from the small east Texas town of Kilgore sold out concerts, caused riots when spotted in public and 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.”
Cliburn performed for royalty, heads of state in Europe, Asia and South America, and for every U.S. president since Harry Truman.
“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.
But he also used his skill and fame to help other young musicians through the Van Cliburn International Music Competition, although he was never a judge.
Created by a group of Fort Worth teachers and citizens in 1962, the competition, held every four years, remains a pre-eminent showcase for the world’s top pianists. An amateur contest was added in 1999.
“It is a forum for young artists to celebrate the great works of the piano literature and an opportunity to expose their talents to a wide-ranging international audience,” Cliburn said during the 10th competition in 1997.
The 14th competition is to be held in May and June and will be dedicated to Cliburn’s memory.
Cliburn’s “Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No. 3” won a Grammy for best classical performance in 1959, and he was awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2004.
The Recording Academy, which bestows the awards, said Wednesday that Cliburn transcended cultural barriers and politics through the power of his music, and “his legacy will continue to have a great impact not only on classical music, but on our culture as well.”
In 2003, President George W. Bush presented Cliburn with the Presidential Medal of Freedom — the nation’s highest civilian honor. The next year, he also 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.
He told The New York Times in 2008 that among other things, touring robbed him of the chance to enjoy opera and other musical performances. “I said to myself, `Life is too short.’ I was missing so much,” he said. After winning the competition, he added, “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 to Washington of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Gorbachev leapt from his seat to give the pianist a bear-hug and kisses on the cheeks.
The 13th Cliburn competition, held in 2009, made history when a blind pianist from Japan, Nobuyuki Tsujii, and a teenager from China, Haochen Zhang, both won gold medals. They were the first winners from any Asian country, and Tsujii was the first blind pianist to win. And it was only the second time there were dual first place winners.
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, Texas, 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. Cliburn 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 arguably 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 made his home in Fort Worth, where in 1998 he appeared at the opening of the Nancy Lee and Perry R. Bass Performance Hall, both in recital and as soloist with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra. He endowed scholarships at many schools, including Juilliard, which gave him an honorary doctorate, and the Moscow and Leningrad Conservatories.
In December 2001, Cliburn was presented with the prestigious Kennedy Center Honors Medallion at the televised tribute held in Washington.
Until only recently, Cliburn practiced daily and performed limited engagements.
Cliburn is survived by his manager and longtime friend, Thomas L. Smith.