Eulogy Feature



A Tribute to Van Cliburn, a Larger-than-Life American Artist

February 28, 2013 - Raleigh, NC:


Perhaps you have seen it.

It may not be the most famous classical music photo ever, but it is certainly tops among those who came to admire, respect, and even love the late Harvey Lavan Cliburn, Jr.

It's a fuzzy black-and-white image snapped by an Associated Press photographer during the Tchaikovsky competition in Moscow in 1958. The photographer is at the rear of the stage looking out into the audience. Cliburn is seated at the piano, his eyes turned heavenward, as was so often the case. The hall is packed – so crowded that the space between the front row of seats and the stage is jammed with admirers. At the bottom left of the photo are two young women. One has her arms wrapped around the other, and their faces are lit with rapture.

Dozens of flowers, thrown by the adoring Russians, litter the stage. This probably means that Cliburn is performing an encore. It hardly matters what the piece is; the photo is its own perfect music.

(To see this photo, click here; and to read the obit by Scott Cantrell that appeared in The Dallas Morning News, click here.)

I hardly have to tell readers of this website that the 1958 Tchaikovsky competition was where the Cliburn phenomenon began. But I can tell you something about what this wonderful victory meant to those of us living in small Texas towns, and especially to this reporter, then 9 years old and just beginning piano lessons.

1958 had been a horrible year for central Texas. A historic drought had turned entire lakes into beds of cracked black clay. Fallout shelters dotted vacant lots in some cities and towns. The cold war raged; the end could come at any time.

But then Van Cliburn, from the east Texas town of Kilgore, and who had already won several competitions stateside, went to Moscow. His performances of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto in B-flat and the Rachmaninoff 3rd brought thundering ovations. At the end of one performance, the audience began a rhythmic chant: "First prize! First prize!"

You may have read elsewhere that when it came time to award that first prize, the terror-stricken head juror went straight to Nikita Khrushchev. He needed to find out if it would be a crime against the state to award the top prize to an American.

The Russian leader is supposed to have said, "Was he the best? Then give him the prize."

The response back home was one of delirious pleasure and unbounded pride.

The recent success of the Soviets' launch of Sputnik had grievously wounded American confidence. Now that was avenged. I'm sure you know about the ticker-tape parade down Broadway, the first for a classical musician.

And in Texas, we were over the moon.

Daniel Sternberg, conductor of the Waco Symphony and dean of the Baylor School of Music, lost no time. Sternberg, who had fled the Nazis from his native Austria in the 1930s, had already come to know the young Van Cliburn. By the end of the year, Cliburn had agreed to perform the Tchaikovsky concerto with the Waco Symphony. He would return and do it again in 1966. In 1992, Cliburn lent his time and talent in a recital performance to open a new concert hall at Baylor. I doubt he even took a fee.

After the Moscow win, Cliburn's career was off like one of those missiles we felt sure the Russians wanted to lob at us. Endless concert bookings, an exclusive RCA recording contract. The recording of the Tchaikovsky concerto with Kiril Kondrashin conducting eventually went triple platinum. From the late 1950s to the mid-1970s he produced an admirable body of recordings: Chopin, Rachmaninoff, Debussy, Brahms, Grieg, even Barber. Not so much Beethoven and Mozart. His passion, lyricism and sonorous tone clearly made him a voice for the Romantics.

As the 1960s turned into the '70s, enthusiasm for Cliburn's performances waned, perhaps predictably. Critics, especially, grew weary of hearing the same concertos. Reviews became tepid. Audiences still loved him, but the piano world began turning its attention to other luminaries: Argerich, Ashkenazy, Perahia.

It was rumored that he had been seduced by glamour. It's no secret that he loved to stay out late at night. He and his beloved mother, who was also his first piano teacher, would frequently close restaurants at 3 or 4 a.m.

Others began even to doubt his commitment to his art. A pianist I met who had just won the 1974 Naumberg competition in New York expressed grudging admiration this way: "If he practiced, he'd put us all out of business."

I heard Cliburn in a recital in Austin, TX in 1977. The performance was fine, but the joy was gone from his face.

By the next year he had had enough. He would not perform again in public for another 9 years.

But during all those years and before, Cliburn had never ceased to be a tireless champion of great music. Shortly after his Moscow victory, Irl Allison, head of the National Guild of Piano Teachers, persuaded Cliburn to allow his supporters to use his name to begin an international piano competition in Fort Worth. Allison later told me that Cliburn was not enthralled with the idea, but he allowed it. And until his death he was always present at the competitions, delivering inspirational speeches about the power of music, offering encouraging words to competitors, posing for photos with fans.

When the Cliburn Foundation launched its first International Piano Competition for Outstanding Amateurs in 1999, Cliburn amazed the competitors by inviting all of them to dinner at his luxurious Fort Worth home. One of those competitors told me he counted 12 grand pianos.

During all this time, Cliburn retained his affection for Russians (once likening them to Texans), as they did for him. In 1987 he famously appeared at the Reagan White House, where he played a special tune for a clearly charmed Mikhail Gorbachev. Some of us like to think the end of the Cold War began that evening.

I had the opportunity to interview the artist on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of Texas independence. He spoke of "my beloved Texas" and he meant it. He was always three things: a proud American, a devout Baptist, and a fiercely loyal Texan.

I heard him perform two more times: at the 1989 opening of the Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas (yes, the Tchaikovsky concerto!) and that recital at Baylor in 1992. The recital at Baylor was a revelation. His performance of the Chopin Sonata No. 2 was as fine as any I have heard.

He always began his later recitals this way, by taking center stage and announcing: "Ladies and gentlemen, will you please rise for our national anthem." He would then play a flawless and un-showy "Star-Spangled Banner."

A few years ago Fort Worth renamed one of its streets Van Cliburn Way. Van Cliburn's way – as a performer, as a musical diplomat, as an inspiration to young musicians – remains magnificent.