JEFFREY BROWN: A giant of American culture has died. Van Cliburn rocked the classical and Cold War worlds in the late 1950s and beyond. He died today at his home in Fort Worth of bone cancer.
I had the chance to spend time with Van Cliburn in 2008. Here’s an excerpt from that story.
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: 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.
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.
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.
JEFFREY BROWN: Piano great Van Cliburn dead today at age 78.
And you can watch our full profile and hear more from him. That’s on our website.