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Van Cliburn: "The Texan Who Conquered Russia''

By Tim Madigan -

February 27, 2013 03:56 PM

Update: Mourners on Saturday gathered at Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth for a visitation to honor legendary pianist Van Cliburn, who died Wednesday at his home in Westover Hills.

FORT WORTH -- Van Cliburn's talent alone might have earned him a place among the 20th-century giants of his instrument, alongside classical pianists like Arthur Rubinstein and Vladimir Horowitz. But after a magical Moscow spring in 1958, Mr. Cliburn's fame eclipsed even those musical contemporaries, rivaling that of another young superstar of his time, Elvis Presley.

Mr. Cliburn was "The Texan Who Conquered Russia," according to a Time magazine cover. At the height of the Cold War, the lanky 23-year-old from East Texas traveled to Moscow and won the first Tchaikovsky International Competition, an event created to showcase Soviet cultural superiority. Mr. Cliburn's unlikely triumph was thus said to bring a thaw in tensions between the rival superpowers and created a mythic parable about the power of art to unite mankind.

The man at the heart of that parable died Wednesday morning at his mansion near Fort Worth. It had been announced Aug. 27 that Mr. Cliburn, who turned 78 in July, was suffering from advanced bone cancer.

Watch a video tribute to Van Cliburn

"In 1958, he proved to the world that music is a transcendental force that goes beyond political boundaries and cultural boundaries and unifies mankind. He was a very concrete example of that," said Veda Kaplinsky, head of the piano department at the Juilliard School in New York. "Beyond that, his legacy is that of a person who personified grace, humility, talent, kindness and sincerity. He was a human being first and foremost. He never lost that."

He is survived by his longtime friend and manager, Thomas L. Smith.

While the world mourns a cultural icon, many in North Texas remember a friend -- a shy man of uncommon graciousness.

A friend to American presidents, foreign leaders and Hollywood celebrities, Mr. Cliburn also became a fixture in the life of Fort Worth. In the 1980s, he moved from a New York City apartment to a mansion in the exclusive Fort Worth suburb of Westover Hills. In the decades since, he was often seen at local cultural events or handing out medals to winners of the prestigious Fort Worth piano competition that bears his name.

A famous night owl, Mr. Cliburn was well-known for his off-hours visits to the Ol' South Pancake House on University Drive, always dressed in his trademark dark suits. A man of deep Christian faith, he was a member at Broadway Baptist Church, sneaking into a back pew just before services began each Sunday he was in town.

"One of the most profound truths that has characterized my life is St. Paul's advice to 'pray without ceasing,'" Mr. Cliburn told Brent Beasley, his pastor at Broadway Baptist, shortly before his death. "That's how I have lived my life."

Beasley and others who spent time with Mr. Cliburn after his recent diagnosis described a man bent on reminiscing from the moment he woke updaily, but a person unafraid of the end.

"He actually made the comment, 'I'm more afraid of living than dying,'" Beasley said.

For all his local familiarity, Mr. Cliburn largely belonged to the world. Through much of the 1960s and 1970s, he was among the most sought-after soloists and recording artists of his generation. But he would always be, first and foremost, the humble young man of the Tchaikovsky triumph, which came when the cloud of nuclear confrontation hovered over the world.

From childhood, the musician born in Shreveport and raised in the East Texas town of Kilgore seemed to channel the Russian soul, an affinity that was quickly obvious in that first trip to Russia. Max Frankel, then a Moscow correspondent for The New York Times, began to hear of Russian audiences at the competition that were completely enthralled by the one known as "Cleeburn."

"Especially the young girls were going absolutely crazy about Van's performances, heaping flowers on him," Frankel, who eventually became the Times' executive editor, said in 2008. "And there were long lines to get in [when he played], even longer than usual."

Frankel sought out another American in Moscow, Mark Schubart, dean of the Juilliard School.

"Is this kid really so phenomenal, or is this just another case of Frank Sinatra bobby-soxers?" Frankel asked him.

"No, he's a hell of a musician," Schubart said. "He's well in line to win this thing if the Russians ever let him."

After a series of historic performances before rapturous throngs -- playing works by the Russians' best-loved composers, Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky -- jurors voted to award first prize to Mr. Cliburn, first finding it necessary to obtain the blessing of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. Later, Mr. Cliburn and Khrushchev, himself a classical music aficionado, became good friends.

The triumph was front-page news around the globe and earned Mr. Cliburn a ticker-tape parade in New York City on his return to the United States, the only classical musician ever afforded that honor.

He eventually performed for every American president from Harry S. Truman on. He began every performance by playing The Star-Spangled Banner. In 2003, Mr. Cliburn was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush. In 2004, Russian President Vladimir Putin presented Mr. Cliburn with the Order of Friendship. In another White House ceremony in 2011, President Barack Obama presented Mr. Cliburn the National Medal of the Arts.

"He understood the role music could play in the lives of diverse people," said Robert Blocker, dean of the Yale School of Music. "He just saw music as a vehicle of hope. He lived that out, whether it was with [President] Carter or Khrushchev. I see him as being one of the world's great cultural leaders. The message he carried to presidents and to children was that music is important."

"Old when I was born"

Mr. Cliburn's path seemed fated, a destiny that he recognized early.

"I was old when I was born," he said in May. "I told my parents when I was 5, 'I am going to be a concert pianist. They thought I was crazy. I played in public when I was 4, then made my debut with the Houston Symphony when I was 12, and my debut with the New York Philharmonic, I had just turned 20. I had so much ambition, but first of all I loved the music."

He was born in Shreveport on July 12, 1934, to Harvey Lavan Cliburn, an oil company executive, and Rildia Bee O'Bryan Cliburn, herself a classical pianist with an impeccable pedigree. The daughter of a lawyer and former mayor of the small Texas town of McGregor, Mr. Cliburn's mother had gone away to study piano at the Cincinnati Conservatory, and then to New York. Her teacher there was Arthur Friedheim, who had been a pupil of piano legend Franz Liszt.

Rildia Bee Cliburn's piano career would consist mostly of teaching, and her most prominent pupil was her talented and precocious son. In the recent interview, Mr. Cliburn remembered his mother as a very demanding instructor.

"I was about 9 or 10 and she was taking me through the Transcendental Etudes of Liszt," Mr. Cliburn said. "She said, 'Oh, no, dear.' I said, 'I can't play this because I don't have perfect hands like you.'"

His voice became stern as he remembered his mother's reply.

"No one has perfect hands!" she said. "Everyone has problems. Your responsibility is to solve your problems."

Mr. Cliburn graduated from Kilgore High School at age 16, and from Juilliard three years later. Jerome Lowenthal, another American pianist and a classmate at Juilliard, remembered that Mr. Cliburn was famously innocent, even then.

"We had a class together in Renaissance music, and one of the things we would do is sing," Lowenthal recalled in 2008. "Van was special because he would always put a lot of emotion into it. I can see it to this day with his eyebrows going up. We were all too self-conscious to do that.

"I remember once meeting him on the street in New York. He was coming back from a Billy Graham evening, and he was very excited, and he talked with great enthusiasm and emotion," Lowenthal said. "He was just different than other people I knew. And he was a wonderful artist. He was the Van you know today, only much less sophisticated."

Well before his victory in Moscow, Mr. Cliburn seemed headed toward classical music stardom. In 1954, he won the prestigious Leventritt Competition in New York City, which led to performances with major orchestras across the United States and a debut with the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall on Nov. 14, 1954.

His playing also attracted the attention of Sol Hurok, a leading music impresario of the time, who became Mr. Cliburn's longtime manager.

A Moscow night

When he was 5, Mr. Cliburn's parents gave him a child's picture book of the world. When the boy came to the photograph of the colorful, onion-shaped domes of St. Basil's Cathedral in Red Square, he gasped.

"Take me there," he said.

Eighteen years later, it was that desire to see Russia, as much as anything, that caused Mr. Cliburn to enter the Tchaikovsky competition.

"Everything else was just ice cream," Mr. Cliburn once said.

The trip to Moscow was his first on a jetliner. He was met at the Moscow airport by the woman who was to be his guide and interpreter.

"I said, 'Oh, ma'am, wheresoever I am to stay, is it possible to drive past the churches?' I saw [St. Basil's] that very night, and it was snowy and it was beautiful," Mr. Cliburn remembered four years ago. "It will never be as beautiful as it was that night. It took my breath. I had a dream come true that very moment."

He checked into the Hotel Peking and quickly became friends with a handful of other young pianists, many of them Russian. Late one night, it was his turn to try out the piano in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory.

"The Great Hall is on a higher floor. There is an endless, humongous marble staircase to the anteroom of the hall," Mr. Cliburn recalled. "There was [another contestant] inside playing. She was playing the E-flat minor Opus 33 Etude-Tableau of Rachmaninoff, which is a divine piece anyway. It was empty, and there was a pin light on a statue of [composer Modest] Mussorgsky. It's something that I still can't believe. It's hallowed ground. So much famous music had been performed and written there. That was thrill enough."

But Mr. Cliburn himself would write one of the most historic chapters of the storied venue. After playing a Bach prelude and fugue from The Well-Tempered Clavier and a Mozart sonata in the Tchaikovsky's preliminary round, the tall American was forced to stand up twice and acknowledge the cheers.

"I stood up to take a bow, and I sat down, but they kept clapping," Mr. Cliburn remembered in 2008, still sounding incredulous.

'So many vitamins'

A phenomenon was taking shape.

"I was watching this thing with Van with a half-cynical detachment, but at the same time realizing that something wonderful was happening," said Lowenthal, Mr. Cliburn's Juilliard classmate and also a competitor at the 1958 Tchaikovsky. "Russian women started coming to me, to tell me about Van, saying, 'He reminds me of my son.' It was his certain air of sweet vulnerability. I think what that remark meant, and I heard it a number of times, was that he brought out the maternal feelings in them.

"Everybody fell in love with him, and that increased constantly through the competition," Lowenthal said. "He played wonderfully and projected something that obviously was quite new to the people there."

On a Friday night, April 12, 1958, New York Times correspondent Frankel fought his way through the adoring crowds to a seat near the front of the Great Hall. It was standing room only. Frankel listened to Cliburn's magisterial performance of Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto, followed by Rachmaninoff's Third. The journalist had always loved classical music but had no formal schooling in the art. With Mr. Cliburn's playing, he said, that was not necessary.

"It was magnificent, romantic but so clean," he remembered. "The technique was extraordinary. The size of his hands was extraordinary. He had this very boyish manner and looks, of course. But when he was playing, it was with extreme authority and confidence."

Frankel was also stunned by the pandemonium inside the hall, cheers that went on for nearly 10 minutes, and the scores of glassy-eyed women rushing toward the stage with large bouquets of roses. Cliburn embraced his acclaimed conductor, Kiril Kondrashin. The young pianist was allowed to take a curtain call, in violation of competition rules.

Sitting next to Frankel was an elderly Russian, a musician of some sort, who had jumped to his feet the moment Mr. Cliburn's performance concluded.

"Just like Rachmaninoff! Just like Rachmaninoff!" cried the man, who clearly had listened to the great Russian pianist and composer perform.

"Did I hear you right?" Frankel asked.

"Maybe even better," the man replied.

But Frankel knew that the significance of what he had heard transcended classical music. Joseph Stalin had been dead only five years and Khrushchev had been in his position as leader of the Soviet Union for a matter of weeks. The United States was still reeling from the launch of the world's first man-made satellite, Sputnik, the year before. The Tchaikovsky was meant to prove that the Soviets were superior in the arts, as well.

Cliburn's performance inspired a great question implicit in the article Frankel filed to New York that night.

"Would the Russians dare to let an American, who on artistic grounds would clearly be the favorite, would they allow him to walk away with the victory?" Frankel said. "That tone caused the Times to put the article at the bottom of Page One. That was clearly a political question, and it was a political act by the Times to put it on the front page."

The answer came April 14, chronicled in another front-page article under Frankel's byline.

"What I didn't know at the time is that they [the jury] went all the way up to Khrushchev," Frankel said. "Whether the Times contributed to the Russians using this as a political message, wanting better relations with the West, who knows? But it was a major question and the answer from Russia was received in that spirit."

Mr. Cliburn, meanwhile, seemed to have little inkling of his achievement's impact.

"When I got the prize, I had a few rubles and I could call home," Mr. Cliburn said in the May interview.

In that first telephone call, he asked his mother to phone a family friend and let her know what had happened.

"She knows, darling," Rildia Bee Cliburn said. "She knows."

Days later, before returning to the United States, Mr. Cliburn attended a Moscow reception for Queen Elizabeth of Belgium. Amid a huge crowd, a side door opened and a short, bald man stepped into the room. Cliburn and Khrushchev quickly found each other.

"You are so tall," Khrushchev said.

"I guess because my father gave me so many vitamins," Mr. Cliburn famously replied.

The American pianist was stunned by what he heard next.

"I listened to what he was saying through a translator, and I couldn't believe it," Mr. Cliburn said. "He [Khrushchev] said, 'I was listening to you in the second round on the radio. I loved the way you played Fantasia F-minor Opus 49 of Chopin.'"

That was not a piece the average person would know. Mr. Cliburn was shocked that the head of Soviet communism was clearly a classical music devotee.

"I could not believe it," Mr. Cliburn remembered. "I wanted to know if my ears had deceived me. So at a later concert, Mr. Khrushchev, and [Nikolai] Bulganin and [Alexei] Kosygin and all the government people were in their box, and I dedicated to Mr. Khrushchev as an encore [the Chopin piece]. We have film of him listening. It just thrilled me to death."

At another Moscow party around that time, Lowenthal overheard a comment Mr. Cliburn made to the American ambassador.

"I heard Cliburn say, 'I said to Mr. Khrushchev that in this post-Sputnik age we have to love each other,'" Lowenthal said. "I was just astonished. I think you can't do better than that. He just felt the situation so perfectly."

Hero's welcome

Mr. Cliburn returned to a hero's welcome, a ticker-tape parade through the streets of Manhattan, and, among other national television programs, an appearance on the Tonight Show with Steve Allen.

"He had the package that everyone wants," said Yale's Blocker. "One of the real interesting things is that he was so photogenic and television was coming of age. Here is this tall, handsome Texan, gregarious, young, incredibly talented. He was a rock star."

Another surprising accolade came in the fall of 1958, when Irl Allison, founder of the National Guild of Piano Teachers, announced at a Fort Worth dinner that he would offer a $10,000 first prize to the winner of a new piano competition named for Mr. Cliburn. Local piano teachers and civic leaders took up the challenge, offering to make Fort Worth the event's home. Mr. Cliburn was embarrassed by the gesture.

"Oh, don't worry," his mother told him then. "There will be one and that will be it."

Rildia Bee Cliburn could not have been more mistaken. American pianist Ralph Votapek won the first Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in 1962. Since then, the quadrennial competition has become one of the world's most prestigious, drawing the finest young pianists from around the globe to Fort Worth. Mr. Cliburn made a tradition of greeting each visiting contestant, attending many of the performances and announcing the winners.

In 1997, a Cliburn gold medal catapulted pianist Jon Nakamatsu to a robust performing and recording career that continues today. But what Nakamatsu most remembers about the competition namesake was an encounter the two of them had when he was a boy. At age 9, Nakamatsu's mother took him to a recital by Mr. Cliburn, and then to meet the famous man backstage.

"Van knelt down and signed my program and talked to me," Nakamatsu said. "I was just some kid, so inspired and so moved that this giant of a person would take the time to shake the hand of a young boy. That stuck with me. I attribute a lot of my behavior today to that moment. As important as it is to be a great musician, it's more important to be a great person. That makes even more of an impact."

Nakamatsu said that in 1997, he told Mr. Cliburn of that memory.

"Of course he didn't remember that, but he was grateful to hear it," Nakamatsu said. "That was just one of countless experiences he provided for people over his whole career. He was never one to shun the public. Every time I've met him through the years, I've had the thought that I was meeting one of the last of the Southern gentlemen, making people feel very warm and respected and valued just by his demeanor."

Though Mr. Cliburn is now gone, Nakamatsu said he hopes "the one thing that the [competition] retains is his spirit. That's what drove the organization in the first place. It was to honor the man. It's not just about who is going to win the next gold medal. That's just a side product of the celebration of this figure who has touched so many people."

Some time off

In 1978, after the death of his father and Sol Hurok, and weary from two decades of almost nonstop performing, Mr. Cliburn began a hiatus from the stage.

"I felt I was losing contact with my friends," he said. "I wanted to go to the opera more often. I wanted some time off."

The Soviet Union would again figure prominently in his eventual return. In 1987, during a summit between President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, Mr. Cliburn was invited to play a recital. He began the short program with the Russian national anthem, followed by The Star-Spangled Banner, then classical pieces.

Raisa Gorbachev, the leader's wife, had an additional request. That panicked protocol officers, but not the pianist. Mr. Cliburn turned back to the keyboard and played Moscow Nights, a popular Russian ballad. The Gorbachevs robustly sang along.

For 15 more years, Mr. Cliburn played engagements around the world. While he was in New York for a performance at the Metropolitan Opera, Mr. Cliburn received word that his mother, then 97, had suffered a serious stroke.

"I had an excruciating pain in my head during the concert," Mr. Cliburn recalled. "There was terrible trouble in my right arm. I knew she was going."

He rushed from the hall to a charter flight back to Texas and was with Rildia Bee Cliburn when she died Aug. 3, 1994.

"I was holding her," Mr. Cliburn remembered. "She went oh so peacefully. Oh so beautifully."

In the years to come, the number of his performances began to dwindle, though he remained active both in Fort Worth cultural life and as a frequent traveler around the globe, including many return trips to Russia, where he remains an icon.

In May, 150 pieces of Mr. Cliburn's jewelry, silver and furniture were auctioned at Christie's in New York. In an interview a few days earlier, he roamed from room to room in his mansion, remembering his remarkable life. Among his recollections was a return trip to Russia a few years after his 1958 triumph and renewal of his friendship with Khrushchev.

"He gave me his house for the weekend on the Black Sea. ... He took me on his boat from his dacha and we motored into the middle of Moscow so we could look up at the palace of the Kremlin," Mr. Cliburn said. "It was just one of the most exciting things of my life.

"He was telling me that they had watched me for two years. He said: 'You're very wise. You don't engage in politics.' I said, 'If I did, my grandfather would come back from the dead and kill me, because he told me, 'Politics is a great art, but it is divisive. Great classical music is for everyone all over the world.' [Khrushchev said,] 'Oh!' He agreed. He said, 'I'm proud of you because you love classical music.'"

That recent spring evening, Mr. Cliburn paused outside his mansion.

"Did I really live through that?" he said. "I'm very grateful for all the many things that have come my way."

Tim Madigan, 817-390-7544

Twitter: @tsmadigan