Van Cliburn, often called a “rock star” of classical music, died of bone cancer Wednesday at his Ft. Worth, Texas home. Cliburn was a largely unknown piano prodigy in 1958. His awesome performance at the Tchaikovsky International Piano and Violin Festival changed that forever.
During the height of the Cold War, Cliburn was the best of a 19 nation competition. Judges were unsure of the political repercussions of giving the award to an American. Premier Nikita Kruschev reportedly gave his blessing, saying “Is Cliburn the best? Then give him first prize.”
He appeared on the cover of Time Magazine as “The Texan Who Conquered Russia.” He returned home to the kind of ticker tape parade usually reserved for sports and military heroes.
His recording of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 was the first classical recording to go platinum, eventually selling 3 million copies. In 1978, still incredibly popular, he announced a hiatus from touring. Cliburn’s break lasted until 1987, and again he did his part to help American and Russian relations. President Ronald Reagan, a former entertainer himself, was aware of Cliburn’s significance in Cold War history. He asked the pianist to play for Russian Premier Mikhail Gorbachev. The leader leapt to his feet, gave Cliburn a bear hug and kissed him on the cheeks. Cliburn resumed his concert career afterwards.
For his work, the pianist earned a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, Kennedy Center Honor and National Medal for the Arts. Though he earned fame, fortune and awards, it was always clear Cliburn understood music had a deeper meaning. It could touch souls, whether they were attending one of his Texas performances or listening to a recording an ocean away. Done skillfully enough, it could begin thawing the tensions of the Cold War.