Van Cliburn Reflects on 1958 Tchaikovsky Competition

April 11, 2008 at 12:00 AM EDT
Master pianist Van Cliburn reflects on his historic victory at the 1958 Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow and on the vitality of the classical arts.

JEFFREY BROWN: April 1958, a young Texan named Van Cliburn is the surprise winner of the first International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow.

Coming just six months after the Soviets launched Sputnik, amid a mounting arms race and heightened Cold War tensions, the performance galvanized the nation and received worldwide attention.

NARRATOR: New York City adds its own “bravo” to the worldwide crescendo of applause for Van Cliburn.

JEFFREY BROWN: On his return to the U.S., the 23-year-old Cliburn was given a ticker-tape parade down Broadway, the only classical musician ever so honored.

VAN CLIBURN, Classical Musician: I was amazed. And I said, “Well, I think this may be — not for me — but this may be hopefully the grandest moment or a grand moment for classical music.”

JEFFREY BROWN: Fifty years later, Van Cliburn lives in a grand home just outside Fort Worth, still very much the tall Texan, as he was so often described back then. He was recently feted by friends with a grand anniversary gala.

VAN CLIBURN: Classical music, classical art is forever.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, he says, he remembers every detail of his experience in Moscow.

VAN CLIBURN: I got off the plane. And there was this very lovely, gracious, nice lady, Henrietta Vileava (ph). And I still know her to this day. And she said, “Mr. Van ‘Clee-burn’?” And I thought, “Yes?” “Welcome to Moscow.”

So all the time I was there, I never told them that in this country we pronounce it “Van Cliburn.” So have two names, “Van Clee-burn” and Van Cliburn.

Reflecting on historical impact

JEFFREY BROWN: When you went to Moscow, did you feel that you were part of history at that moment?

VAN CLIBURN: No, no, you didn't feel that way. The history was that this was the very first competition that they had had in Russia. And it was very exciting, particularly for me to see the jury. It was an unbelievable jury, Shostakovich, Emil Gilels, Sviatoslav Richter...

JEFFREY BROWN: The greatest musicians of the Soviet Union.

VAN CLIBURN: ... Kabalevsky, Oborren (ph). I mean, it was just unbelievable. And, I mean, it was very -- that was frightening. The jury was more frightening than the audience.

But then, after time passed, and we got to -- I got to have the privilege of being with them, they were so real and such nice people. And they were -- the simplicity within complexity of great music shone.

JEFFREY BROWN: What does that mean?

VAN CLIBURN: Classical music is supposed to seem simple. Within simplicity is great, enormous complexity.

JEFFREY BROWN: So you have to make it easy and simple?

VAN CLIBURN: I have to make it look simple or easy.

JEFFREY BROWN: And how do you do that?

VAN CLIBURN: I don't know.

But it is complex. There's so much to it. It's architecture. You have a time span that your mind must comprehend. When you walk out to play a piece, you must see the last note as you start the first note.

JEFFREY BROWN: Back in 1958, Time magazine put Cliburn on its cover, as "the Texan who conquered Russia." But that's clearly not the way he saw it.

VAN CLIBURN: Well, that's not possible, not in great art. If they appreciate what you did -- I am so grateful, because they were wonderful to me. There was such great audiences; I cannot begin to tell you. I didn't conquer anything. As a matter of fact, they conquered my heart.

Bearing a great responsibility

JEFFREY BROWN: Indeed, the Soviet audiences adored Cliburn. And soon enough, so did audiences around the world. His concerts were regularly sold-out. His album of Tchaikovsky's first piano concerto, one of the pieces he'd played in Moscow, became the first classical recording to sell a million copies.

From the beginning, as in this interview with Edward R. Murrow, Cliburn used a word that still peppers his speech today.

VAN CLIBURN: I, of course, felt the deep personal gratification. But I'll tell you, Mr. Murrow, more than that, it's a terrific responsibility.

You feel that responsibility, yes, because when you're dealing with great thoughts and great minds, such as the great composers, it inspires you so deeply and you want to be faithful to what they wrote. You want to be able to convey that to someone else.

JEFFREY BROWN: Did the responsibility become a kind of pressure to be more than "just" -- I say "just" in quotations -- "just" a great musician?

VAN CLIBURN: If you are a performer, that is part of your raison d'etre, to perform, many places, all over. But the pressure began when you first realized that your whole life was going to be in classical music. And I realized that when my mother first started teaching me when I was 3.

JEFFREY BROWN: Cliburn's mother, Rildia Bee O'Bryan, attended the prestigious Juilliard School in New York before marrying Harvey Cliburn, a mid-level oil industry executive, and becoming a piano teacher.

Van first served notice of his piano prowess by imitating his mother's students. And she was his only teacher until he went off to Juilliard himself at age 17.

In one room of Cliburn's home, two of his nine grand pianos sit side-by-side, much like how he and his mother would play when he was younger. The house is filled with mementos from his travels and portraits of the people he's gotten to know along the way, from Reagan to Rachmaninoff.

Cliburn is a night owl who does his practicing alone after midnight.

VAN CLIBURN: This is the workbench.

JEFFREY BROWN: This is it, huh?

VAN CLIBURN: This is it. As you practice over, and you try to perfect something. When you go to a hall, you must then and there gauge the distance that you feel to be aware between yourself and the last person in the balcony.

JEFFREY BROWN: Oh, you're aware of that last person and you want to reach them?

VAN CLIBURN: Yes, very much. But when you get to the stage -- in fact, I always practice with the lid down. There is no reason why to put the lid up, because when you get to the hall that is the moment of truth.

JEFFREY BROWN: That's when it has to come out?

VAN CLIBURN: That's when it has to come out.

JEFFREY BROWN: Are you a tough critic on yourself?



VAN CLIBURN: Too hard. Very, very hyper-critical, yes. You want so for it to be not perfect; more than perfect.

Retreat and re-emergence

JEFFREY BROWN: In 1978, after the deaths of his father and his manager, Cliburn stopped playing in public. There had been no announcement. And for a while, he was almost as famous for not playing as he'd been for his youthful victory.

He says now it was all about having more time for other things he loves, especially opera.

Cliburn was not heard again until 1987, when he performed at the White House for Ronald Reagan and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. He made several very public returns after that, including a concert for 350,000 people in Chicago's Grant Park in 1994.

And he still performs, though he's reduced the number of concerts to about half-a-dozen a year.

Cliburn is also well-known now for another competition, the one that bears his name. The Van Cliburn International Music Competition, held every four years, was started in 1962 in his honor by music teachers and private citizens in Fort Worth.

Recently, a group of past winners and their families returned to Texas as part of the 50th anniversary celebration for Cliburn. Olga Kern performed with her young son.

VAN CLIBURN: These young people who are so talented that come here. When I go to hear them, I am so inspired I want to go home and practice.

Rachmaninoff said once, "Great music is enough for a lifetime, but a lifetime is not enough for great music."

JEFFREY BROWN: And you still have the same curiosity and excitement?

VAN CLIBURN: Yes, and the same joy in hearing these compositions. But it's always there. It will be there after you and I and everyone we know today are dead; that music will still be alive.

JIM LEHRER: You can hear extended excerpts of Jeff's interview with Van Cliburn by visiting our Web site at