Who was Van Cliburn?
Harvey Lavan Cliburn, Jr., more popularly known as Van Cliburn, was an American pianist who shot to worldwide fame when he won the International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow in 1958, becoming the first American to do so. What made his achievement even more special was that he won at the height of Cold War when the political relations between the Soviet Union and the U.S were stressed. Cliburn’s musical talent was apparent from his childhood when he started playing the piano all by himself at the age of three. On noticing his interest, his mother, an accomplished pianist began to teach him. He made his first appearance with the Houston Symphony Orchestra when he was only 12. The child prodigy grew up to be an immensely talented young man who at the age of 20 won the highly prestigious Leventritt Competition. He rose to worldwide acclaim when he won the first International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow at the height of the Cold War. The young musician received a hero’s welcome back home when he returned to New York. He recorded the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 with RCA Victor and the album went on to become the best-selling classical album in the world for more than a decade.
Childhood & Early Life
Van Cliburn was born in Louisiana to Harvey Lavan Cliburn, an oil company executive, and Rildia Bee O'Bryan Cliburn, a classical pianist. At the age of three he began playing the piano by himself.
His mother, a former student of the great Arthur Friedheim started giving him piano lessons and he developed a rich voice tone as he learnt to sing each piece.
He won a statewide piano competition at the age of 12 which enabled him to make his debut with the Houston Symphony Orchestra.
At the age of 17, he went to the Juilliard School in New York and studied under Rosina Lhevinne. He was trained in the tradition of the Great Russian romantics.
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Cliburn grew up to be a young man with exceptional talent and won the highly prestigious international Leventritt Award when he was just 20 years of age and made his Carnegie Hall debut.
He participated in the first ever International Tchaikovsky Competition held in 1958 in Moscow—an event held to demonstrate the cultural superiority of the Soviet Union during the cold war. He gave a scintillating performance in the competition and created an international sensation by winning it.
After returning to New York, he repeated his celebrated performances at the Carnegie Hall with the conductor Kirill Kondrashin who had conducted his prizewinning performances in Moscow.
Impressed by his success, RCA Victor signed him to an exclusive contract. His first album with them was the recording of The Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No.1 with conductor Kirill Kondrashin which went on to sell more than three million copies.
Cliburn traveled all over the Soviet Union and played in several international concert halls between 1960 and 1972, and made numerous recordings of major piano concerts which were often televised. His love for the Soviet Union was warmly reciprocated by the people there.
As a well-loved star in both the U.S. and the Soviet Union, he served as an unofficial goodwill ambassador at the times of the Cold War.
He performed at the Interlochen Center for the Arts, Michigan, in 1961 for the first time and continued to perform there for 18 more years. He returned in 2006 to perform there for one last time.
He took a hiatus from public performances during the 1970’s following certain personal issues. In a comeback performance, he played for U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev at the White House in 1987.
His biggest achievement was the winning of the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1958 when the cold war was at its peak and the relations between the Soviet Union and America were strained. His win served as an ice-breaker and promoted better cultural relations between the nations.
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His recording of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 was the first classical album to go platinum; it eventually went multi-platinum with sales of more than three million copies. The recording won him the 1958 Grammy Award fro Best Classical Performance.
Awards & Achievements
Cliburn won the first ever International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow in 1958 at the age of just 23.
He was awarded The Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2003, by the then president George Bush, for having made "an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors".
In 2004, the Russian Order of Friendship was bestowed upon him by the Russian government. The award is presented to foreign nationals whose “work, deeds and efforts were aimed at the betterment of relations with the Russian Federation and its people”.
Personal Life & Legacy
Van Cliburn was homosexual and had a long term domestic partner, Thomas Zaremba. Zaremba had once unsuccessfully filed a palimony suit against Cliburn claiming a share in his vast income and assets.
He suffered from advanced bone cancer during his later years and died on 27 February, 2013 at the age of 78.
The Van Cliburn International Piano Competition was created by the National Guild of Piano Teachers as a living tribute to the great artist upon his win and the first competition was held in 1962. The competition is held every four years.
He was offered roles in two Hollywood movies which he declined.
His picture was used on a box of chocolates in the Soviet Union as a form of advertisement.
He was the only classical musician to have received a ticker-tape parade in New York.
Kirill Kondrashin, the conductor who conducted his prizewinning performances in Moscow was the first Russian conductor to have visited the U.S. since the Cold War.