Van Cliburn was transformed from a highly regarded yet relatively unknown artist to musical superstar faster than any other classical musician in history. Through grand playing in the style of great pianists of the past and the luck of timing, he became a worldwide celebrity in the late 1950s. Cliburn was revered as a hero when he won the first Tchaikovsky Competition in the Soviet Union in 1958, idolized both by Soviet fans who respected his immense talent and by Americans who saw him as a symbol of triumph in the Cold War against Communism.
After capitalizing on his new fame by signing a long-term recording contract with RCA after his return from Moscow, Cliburn toured relentlessly over the next two decades. However, over the years his playing lost its freshness, and his performances became more broad and overwrought. Many critics feel that the artist never reached his potential as a concert pianist.
Cliburn was a musical prodigy whose mother was also a gifted pianist and piano teacher. Rildia Bee Cliburn had studied with Arthur Friedheim, who had been a pupil of Franz Liszt in the nineteenth century. Upon hearing the three-year-old Van, who could not yet read music, playing a song she had been teaching one of her pupils, Cliburn’s mother began giving her son lessons. She remained his only teacher until he went to New York 14 years later to study at the Juilliard School of Music. Discussing his mother in Vogue, Cliburn said, “She watched me like a hawk, even if she wasn’t in the same room. She taught me to listen; she taught me everything. And I just loved to play; it seemed like I was born to play the piano.”
Progressing rapidly, Cliburn performed at the age of four at Dodd College in Shreveport, Louisiana. He practiced relentlessly, getting up to play for an hour before school, another hour after school, and again after dinner. Family life was subjugated completely to his progress as a musician. His father even had a studio constructed for his son on the back of the garage. In school Cliburn was allowed to avoid physical education classes to prevent hand injury. He continued his studies after the family moved to Killgore, Texas, where he also played clarinet in his in high school band.
At age 13 Cliburn played his first performance of Tchaikovsky’s Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Minor, one of the pieces that would later make him famous, with the Houston Symphony Orchestra. One year later he performed for the first time at Carnegie Hall as a result of winning the National Music Award. By this time it was
For the Record…
Born Harvey Lavan Cliburn, Jr., July 12, 1934, in Shreveport, LA; son of Harvey Lavan Cliburn (an oil company executive) and Rildia Bee (O’Brian) Cliburn (a concert pianist and piano teacher). Education: Studied with Rosina Lhevinne at Juilliard School of Music, 1951-54.
First public performance, 1940; made debut with Houston Symphony Orchestra, 1947; appeared with Dallas Symphony Orchestra, 1952; first appeared with New York Philharmonic Orchestra at Carnegie Hall, 1954; toured United States as concert pianist, 1955-56; returned to Texas to help his sick mother and teach her music classes, 1957; achieved immense popularity in Soviet Union after winning major piano competition in Moscow, 1958; signed recording contract with RCA, 1958; broke sales records for a classical music with his first RCA recording of Tchaikovsky’s B-Flat Minor Concerto, 1958; helped establish Van Cliburn Foundation, 1958; maintained rigorous touring schedule throughout the U.S. and Europe, performing up to 100 concerts a year, 1958-78; helped organize first Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in Forth Worth, TX, 1962; began conducting, 1964; stopped performing in public, 1978; came out of retirement to perform at White House for President Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Gorbachev, 1987; began first national tour in 16 years, 1994.
Awards: Texas state prize, 1947; National Music Festival Award, 1948; G. B. Dealey Award (Dallas, TX), 1952; Kosciuszko Foundation Chopin Award, 1952; Juilliard Concerto Contest, 1953; Edgar M. Leventritt Foundation Award, 1954; Carl M. Roder Memorial Award, 1954; first prize, International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition, 1958.
Addresses: Office —Van Cliburn Foundation, 2525 Ridgmar Blvd., Suite 307, Fort Worth, TX 76116.
clear that Cliburn preferred to play pieces by Romantic composers such as Liszt, Chopin, Rachmaninoff, and Tchaikovsky.
Cliburn attended summer school classes in order to finish high school by age 16 so he could move on to higher musical studies. He entered Juilliard in 1951, where he studied with Rosina Lhevinne, the wife of the late concert pianist Josef Lhevinne. He became one of the top students there, winning a number of awards and continuing to appear with major symphony orchestras such as the Dallas Symphony in 1952 and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra at Carnegie Hall in 1954. Cliburn earned his Philharmonic performance by winning the Edgar M. Leventritt Foundation Award that year, an award that had not even been presented for five years before Cliburn was honored. In his review of the concert at Carnegie Hall, Irving Kolodin in the Saturday Review called Cliburn the “most talented newcomer of the season,” who “literally commands the piano as he plays and in many ways the music too.”
After graduating from Juilliard with top honors in 1954, Cliburn began a very active touring schedule. He performed in 30 engagements during the next concert season and continued playing in major U.S. cities over the following two years. Virtually every performance was regarded with critical acclaim. As Michael Sternberg noted in the introduction of The Van Cliburn Legend, “In his early career Cliburn was admired for the completeness of his technical command and for his massive, unpercussive tone.”
Despite the steady stream of accolades for his playing, Cliburn did not break into the top ranks of concert pianists during the mid-1950s. Requests to perform had decreased significantly by late in the decade, and he found himself in debt. Further interrupting his progress was his mother’s illness, which necessitated his return home to Killgore to help out with his mother’s teaching and physical needs. Although he was ready to stage a European tour in 1958, he was urged by Lhevinne and others to take part in the first International Tchaikovsky piano competition to take place in Moscow that year. In hopes of resuscitating his flagging career, Cliburn practiced up to 11 hours a day for two months while preparing his pieces for the Moscow performance.
Cliburn’s work for the Tchaikovsky competition paid off, and almost immediately he took the proceedings by storm. Despite rumors that the Soviet cultural ministers had already ordered the prize to be awarded to a Soviet musician, Cliburn’s mastery and his massive popularity with thousands of fervent Soviet fans overruled any favoritism. The judges were unanimous in awarding him the top prize, even though Cliburn had to play with a bandaged index finger and suffered a broken piano string during his final concert.
Many musicians and critics in the Soviet Union compared Cliburn’s performing and tour of Russia to that of Liszt in the previous century. Further publicizing the victory was Americans’ eagerness to find an edge over the Soviet Union after the Russians’ successful launching of Sputnik, which put a human in space for the first time. By winning the adulation of both Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Cliburn seemed to have single-handedly eased Cold War tensions. He was quoted in Texas Monthly as saying, “I think that political events come, and they pass. They have no staying power. But art always remains with us.”
Cliburn returned to the United States to a welcome similar to that received by Charles Lindbergh after his epic transatlantic flight in the 1920s. He was the only classical musician in history to be honored by a ticker-tape parade in New York City, and his face appeared on the cover of Time magazine as “The Texan Who Conquered Russia.” He cashed in on his new fame by signing the most lucrative recording contract ever, with RCA Victor. His debut recording of Tchaikovsky’s B-flat Minor Concerto for his new label became the first classical record to achieve sales of one million dollars.
Cliburn was besieged by requests to appear on talk shows and to perform upon his return to the United States. After appearing at Carnegie Hall to thunderous acclaim, he moved on to concert engagements in Philadelphia, Chicago, Hollywood, and Denver. Next he went abroad to play in Brussels, London, Amsterdam, and Paris. Cliburn demonstrated his patriotism in every performance of his concerts by leading off with his rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner.”
After losing a season due to an infected finger, Cliburn returned to the Soviet Union to stage a triumphant tour in 1960. He began conducting on a limited basis in 1964, but never advanced in that musical realm. Rapid fame and an exhausting schedule of touring, which often had Cliburn playing three days out of four during subsequent years, took their toll on the performer. Partly due to the demands of audiences to hear him play his prize-winning Tchaikovsky piece, he did not broaden his range as critics hoped he would. He was accused of lacking the intellectual curiosity that was necessary to fully develop his talent.
Cliburn became inconsistent in his recitals, and his sound became rougher and trivialized by affectations. He also became somewhat of a prima donna, feeling crippled by expectations and stage fright, and often appearing late or cancelling concerts. Gradually Cliburn reduced his appearances until, after two decades of performing in almost 100 concerts a year, he withdrew completely from the concert circuit in 1978. At the time he insisted that it was only a temporary respite, although he offered no timetable for returning to public performances.
During the next decade he lived at home with his mother in one of the largest and most famous houses in an exclusive neighborhood of Forth Worth, Texas. In a home with 15 pianos, he spent his time composing both popular and classical music, including a piano sonata that he never performed. Cliburn finally returned to the public as a performer in 1987, when he performed a recital in a concert for U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev at the White House. Over the ensuing years he made occasional appearances, including as a soloist performing Liszt and Tchaikovsky piano concertos with the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1989. That year he also returned to Moscow to play.
In 1994, at the age of 60, Cliburn began his first national tour since 1978, in accompaniment with the Moscow Philharmonic. Despite his lack of development, Cliburn will always be considered one of the great intuitive musicians, a performer who could channel his emotions into the keyboard to bring out the full intensity of the Romantic composers. As Michael Walsh wrote in Time, “Cliburn really is a throwback to the piano’s Golden Age of blazing virtuosity and emotional extravagance.”
(With Kiril Kondrashin) Tchaikovsky, Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Minor, RCA, 1958.
(With Kondrashin and RCA Symphony Orchestra) Rachmaninoff, Concerto No. 2 in c. Minor, RCA Red Seal, 1958.
(With Kiril Kondrashin and the Symphony of the Air) Rachmaninoff, Concerto No. 3 in D Minor, RCA.
Chopin, Sonata No. 2 in B-flat Minor (‘Funeral March’) and Sonata No. 3 in B Minor, RCA.
My Favorite Debussy, RCA.
Chasins, Abram, and Villa Stiles, The Van Cliburn Legend, Doubleday, 1959.
Reich, Howard, Van Cliburn, Thomas Nelson, 1993.
Musical America, September 1989; March 1991.
New York Post, May 16, 1958.
New York Times, April 12, 1958; April 28, 1991; October 24, 1993; March 3, 1994.
Ovation, September 1989.
Saturday Review, November 27, 1954.
Texas Monthly, May 1987.
Time, April 21, 1958; July 32, 1989; July 25, 1994.
U.S. News, April 25, 1958.
Vogue, October 1990.