A look back at the life and accomplishments of legendary pianist Van Cliburn (1934-2013). Video by Clif Bosler/Star-Telegram
A look back at the life and accomplishments of legendary pianist Van Cliburn (1934-2013). Video by Clif Bosler/Star-Telegram

Bud Kennedy

Cliburn’s victory put Texas music on the world map, and then he did same for Fort Worth

By Bud Kennedy

bud@star-telegram.com

June 08, 2017 5:51 PM

FORT WORTH

The story of the late Van Cliburn began long before Moscow, long before the Tchaikovsky, long before a world competition in Fort Worth that proudly bears his name.

Cliburn’s first appearance in local newspapers is very Texan: He played at a University Park mansion party after the Texas-Oklahoma football game.

On Oct. 12, 1947, nearly 70 years ago, The Dallas Morning News headlined: “Excitement Invades Parties Inspired by Texas-OU Game.”

At the home of oil producer D. Harold (“Dry Hole”) Byrd, Longhorns fans were entertained by a mariachi band, “hillbilly band” and barbershop quartet, the newspaper reported: “Van Cliburn, 13-year-old pianist from Kilgore, also favored guests with music.”

That was 11 years before Cliburn’s Moscow victory at the International Tchaikovsky Competition, and 15 years before the announcement of a Van Cliburn International Piano Competition here.

Back then, the Star-Telegram published little about the Kilgore teen. In 1948, he played Carnegie Hall as the winner of a national award. But the Star-Telegram listed him as “also performing” in a report on a “TCU Student to Sing in Carnegie Hall.”

Both newspapers’ coverage of young Cliburn was Texas-flavored. In 1952, The News described him: “Always busy with extracurricular activities and scholastic honors, Mr. Cliburn has appeared as soloist [on clarinet] with the Kilgore High School Band, of which he was a member, since he was in junior high school.”

In 1957, when Cliburn soloed with the Fort Worth Civic Music Association in Will Rogers Auditorium, a Star-Telegram preview said, “He grew up as any healthy young American.”

The next year, the Star-Telegram’s headline on Cliburn’s breakthrough victory in Moscow was “Texan Wins Red Contest For Pianists.”

Then came two editorials.

Cliburn’s victory, the Editorial Board wrote in 1958, “will go a long way toward convincing skeptical Europeans this is no longer a land of wild Indians and saddle tramps.”

Later, when he was welcomed back to America with a Broadway ticker tape parade, the Editorial Board lauded him but added, “get a haircut.”

Cliburn eventually moved to Fort Worth, where his name still draws musicians four years after his death at 78.

On a concert off-day Monday, Stuart Isacoff, author of the new “When the World Stopped to Listen: Van Cliburn's Cold War Triumph, and Its Aftermath,” spoke at Bass Performance Hall.

“Van’s role in the competition is as an icon and a wonderful symbol,” Isacoff said Thursday.

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“It’s set up to run without him, and that’s something that would make him very happy.”

Cliburn, always gracious, was asked in Moscow about being a success, Isacoff said.

Even that early, he said: “I’m not a success. I’m just a sensation.”

That humility never changed.

“Van’s focus was always on the music,” Isacoff said.

“He wanted people to love the music. He didn’t want them to get too focused on him.”

In Fort Worth, we continue Cliburn’s tradition of gracious hospitality.

And we still love the music.

Bud Kennedy: 817-390-7538, @BudKennedy. His column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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