In 1958, the Soviet Union announced its “First International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition”. The idea was to showcase that, in addition to being superior to the west in technology and military capabilities, they were also superior in the arts. The Russians take their music seriously.
Think of the time: Nikita Khrushchev is Premier, and it had only been five years since the death of Josef Stalin. The United States had been beaten into space by Russia’s launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957.
Khrushchev had proclaimed, “we will bury you,” in 1956. Tensions were building, leading up to the Berlin Wall, the Bay of Pigs invasion, shoe-banging in the United Nations, and the Cuban Missile Crisis—all set to the backdrop of a nuclear arms race.
Van Cliburn was born in Louisiana, but moved to Texas as a child and was always considered a Texan. He began his piano studies with his mother, who had studied under a direct pupil of Franz Liszt. He was studying at Juilliard when he entered the 1958 competition.
He was 23 years old, 6 feet, 4 inches tall, and very skinny. Soon after his arrival, the talk at the Moscow competition was, first,“this American is good”. That soon became, “he is very good.” Events converged to create a true history-making event at the piano competition.
First and foremost, there was Cliburn’s extraordinary technique: his ability to play the most technically-challenging passages as if they were simple and effortless. His ability to pick his hands up high off the keyboard and come crashing down flawlessly, faster than the eye could see, with speed and agility that were mesmerizing. His superb technical capability was matched by an ability to emphasize the deep emotional nuances buried in the music. All these elements combined to make magic.
If that wasn’t enough— Cliburn the human being was so very sincerely, genuinely humble and kind that it was hard not to fall in love with the guy. And that is exactly what the Russians did: they fell in love with Van Cliburn, and Van Cliburn fell in love with them.
During his performances, audiences chanted, “first prize, first prize”. He was mobbed everywhere. Women went nuts for him—and so did Nikita Khrushchev.
As the popularly-recounted story goes, the judges sought Khrushchev’s approval, afraid to give the first prize to an American. “Is he the best?” Khrushchev asked. “Yes,” the judges replied.
“Then give him the prize,” Khrushchev said.
After winning the competition he returned home a superstar hero—Elvis and Mickey Mantle, combined. He is on the cover of Time Magazine, with the heading, “The Texan who conquered Russia”, and is given a monumental ticker tape parade in NYC.
Cliburn launched a whirlwind concert schedule that continued for decades, and played for every American President and ex-President from Harry Truman to Barack Obama. He was the only recipient of both the American Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Russian Order of Friendship.
He passed away in 2013. His recorded legacy continues to inspire, and the Cliburn International Amateur Piano Competition continues to help younger pianists launch their careers.
Here is the recording of Van Cliburn playing the signature concerto at the Moscow Competition which fueled my love affair with great classical music.
I had the blessing of meeting and briefly speaking with Van Cliburn in 1994. His presence was regal, but without a trace of pretense. He seemed like a monarch who only sought to serve, and do what is good and kind for everyone.
He gave me his full and undivided attention while I lectured him about classical music in general and his important role in it specifically. He made me feel as if every word I said about music was a pearl of wisdom for him.
Yeah, I guess it was hard to not fall in love with the guy.
I sobbed on the ride home,and that bothered me until I realized why: Shaking hands with Van Cliburn was the closest I would ever come to shaking hands with Tchaikovsky or Rachmaninoff, Beethoven or Brahms, Chopin or Liszt.
So here is my exclamation point: four minutes of piano, composed by Sergei Rachmaninoff, brought to life by Van Cliburn.
“Great classical music is universal and eternal. We are privileged to hear it, to know its value and to reward its worth.” Van Cliburn