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.
“Van Cliburn was an international legend for over five decades, a great humanitarian and a brilliant musician whose light will continue to shine through his extraordinary legacy,” Falcone said in a statement. “He will be missed by all who knew and admired him, and by countless people he never met.”
Cliburn made what would be his last public appearance in September at the 50th anniversary of the prestigious piano competition named for him. Speaking to the audience in Fort Worth, he saluted the many past contestants, the orchestra and the city. “Never forget: I love you all from the bottom of my heart, forever,” he said to a roaring standing ovation.
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.
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.
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