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Van Cliburn, The 'American Sputnik' Of Piano, Dies At 78

Legendary pianist Van Cliburn has died at his home in Fort Worth, former CEO of the Cliburn Foundation Richard Rodzinski confirms. Cliburn was diagnosed with bone cancer in August. 

The 78-year-old Texan soared to world fame in 1958 when he won the first Tchaikovsky International Music Competition in Moscow. It was the height of the Cold War.  Cliburn returned to a ticker-tape parade in New York City, the only musician to ever receive one. 

When a tall, slim Harvey Lavan Cliburn Jr., was 23,  just a few years out of New York’s famed Juilliard music school, the first Tchaikovsky competition beckoned. Here was a chance to further his career and visit a far-off place the Texan had dreamt of since he was five.

"I saw this photograph of the Church of St. Basil," Cliburn told KERA in 2008. "It was just breathtaking. I said Mommy, Daddy, take me there. Oh surely son, yes.

"And of course I had heard famous stories about the Moscow conservatory, that just legendary place, and St. Petersburg conservatory. And to play on that stage where so many great famous people had performed was just breathtaking."

In April of 1958, Cliburn became one of those famed musicians. His performance of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto was a stunner.

Stuart Isacoff is a music journalist, pianist, and composer. He says the tension of the times helped seal Cliburn’s status as an icon.

"He played like an immortal, he played like a legend.  He seemed to show them more of who they were than their own players were demonstrating.

"In some ways there was a perfect cultural storm taking place at that event. Because  it was the middle of the Cold War, the Russians had launched Sputnik, people like me were diving under desks at school in case the Russians dropped the atomic bomb on us. And there was a general feeling of tension and concern."

Cliburn was dubbed the “American Sputnik.” That November, in the midst of an international concert tour, he came back to Fort Worth for a dinner honoring his music-teacher mother. One of the speakers had a surprise.

Cliburn recalled the story: “Ladies and gentlemen, I have a check here for $10,000.  And I wish for it to be first prize of a competition, international piano competition. I want it to be named for my good friend, Rildia B. Cliburn’s little boy, Van.”

A foundation was established and the first competition was held in 1962. But Cliburn shrugged off all the attention, saying he was just a musical servant.  Richard Rodzinski says the pianist took the word seriously. Rodzinski oversaw the Cliburn competition for more than 20 years. He’s now general director of the Tchaikovsky Competition.

" ‘Serving’ is a big word in [Cliburn's] vocabulary," said Rodzinski.  "He refers to Presidents of the United States who serve a term, a queen who will serve  her people. He feels he is serving the purpose of being able to bring beautiful music as he sees it, from his garden to an audience."

Cliburn’s recording of the Tchaikovsky Concerto went platinum, the first million-seller in classical music history.

John Giordano has been Cliburn’s friend since 1973.  For decades, he conducted the Fort Worth Symphony, and has been involved in nearly every Cliburn competition.

"He gets the sound out of a piano that sings like nobody I’ve ever heard," said Giordano. "Opera is his favorite medium. So he emulates the voice and is cognizant of the way a singer would play a particular a phrase. Which ends up, whether people realize it or not, reaching into their hearts."

Including the heart of Russian pianist Olga Kern, who won the Cliburn competition in 2001. Her musician-parents heard and loved Cliburn in 1958, and played his music at home.

"And I grew up on it, you know, and absolutely loved it," said Kern. "I loved  how he transformed that music to a different level. He opened for Russian musicians how this Russian music can sound completely different, more melodic, more softer, more dramatic,  it  sounded so new and so fresh. It was incredible."

The reverence among the Russian people persists.  In 2011, for the first time since his 1958 victory, Cliburn returned to the Tchaikovsky competition as an honorary judge. He was mobbed on the street.

Yet Cliburn was not without critics. In the late 1970s, the pianist withdrew from the public stage, Some blamed burnout, others said he had lost his touch. Pianist Veda Kaplinsky, who teaches at Juilliard and has served as Cliburn competition judge, has a different answer.

"He’s a perfectionist," said Kaplinsky. "Which is why he eventually left the concert scene. because he was never satisfied with what he could do. He always wanted to do more."

He did more behind the scenes. He endowed scholarships at various music schools. He funded some of the Cliburn Competition scholarships.

But he may be best remembered for his 1958 victory in Moscow. He recalled riding through New York City surrounded by cheering fans.

"As I was waving to them,  I was thinking,  isn’t this wonderful. Not for me, they’re honoring classical music.  I was only an instrument."

Those closest to him say that modesty was the real thing. Before arriving in Moscow in 2011, he asked friends, in all sincerity, “Do you really think they’ll remember me?”

See Van Cliburn charm presidents and dignitaries through decades of his career in this slideshow.

Longtime Cliburn fans were surprised by his unannounced final public appearance in September at Fort Worth's Bass Hall for the 50th anniversary of the Cliburn Competition. Russian pianist Alexander Kobrin, who won the competition in 2005, shared heartfelt words about his legacy with Lyndsay Knecht forArt&Seek.

Bill Zeeble has been a full-time reporter at KERA since 1992, covering everything from medicine to the Mavericks and education to environmental issues.