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Renowned Pianist Van Cliburn Dies at 78

Van Cliburn 1963 - P 2013
Getty Images
Van Cliburn in 1963

The Texan bridged cultures and earned a ticker-tape parade down Broadway for winning a Tchaikovsky competition in Moscow during the Cold War.

Famed pianist Van Cliburn, who became an American hero for his sensational triumph at a Tchaikovsky competition in Moscow at the height of the Cold War, has died. He was 78.

Raised in Texas, taught to play by his mother and educated at the Juilliard School, Cliburn died Wednesday at his home in Fort Worth. He had announced Aug. 28 through his publicist that he had been diagnosed with advanced bone cancer.

At the inaugural International Tchaikovsky Competition in April 1958 -- an event launched during the Cold War to demonstrate the Soviet Union’s cultural superiority -- the 23-year-old Cliburn performed Tchaikovsky’s "Piano Concerto No. 1" and Rachmaninoff’s "Piano Concerto No. 3" in his first trip outside the States.

After he received a standing ovation that lasted eight minutes, the panel of 16 judges reportedly asked Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev for permission to award the gold medal to an American.

“Is he the best?” Khrushchev asked. “Then give him the prize!”

With a Time cover story on newsstands proclaiming him “The Texan Who Conquered Russia,” the lanky pianist returned home to a ticker-tape parade in New York, the only time the honor has been accorded a classical musician. With the “Canyon of Heroes” salute, he joined the list of such other conquering American luminaries as Theodore Roosevelt, Charles Lindbergh, Bobby Jones, Howard Hughes and Neil Armstrong to be so feted.

Cliburn, now signed to an exclusive contract with RCA Victor, then invited the Russian Kirill Kondrashin, who had conducted for him in Moscow, to come to New York and reprise their performance. The resulting 1958 album, Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1, spent seven weeks atop the Billboard 200 became the first classical LP to reach platinum status in the U.S. (1 million copies sold) and went on to sell more than 3 million worldwide. It remained in the chart for more than two years.

The following year, his Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 1, recorded at Carnegie Hall in May 1958, reached the Billboard top 10. Both Piano Concerto albums won Grammys, and Cliburn was honored with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2004.

"He spent his illustrious career transcending cultural barriers and politics through the power of his music," Recording Academy chief Neil Portnow said Wednesday. "His legacy will continue to have a great impact not only on classical music but on our culture as well."

By bridging cultures, he had become a diplomat.

A few years later, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and critic Harold C. Schonberg noted that “of all the Americans of his generation, Cliburn was able to produce the most sensuous of sounds … rich, never percussive, a real piano sound that reminded old-timers of the great romantic pianists of the past.”

In 1962, a group of music teachers and volunteers from Fort Worth created the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. Like the Tchaikovsky event, it is held every four years and dedicated to discovering the world’s finest young pianists.

Cliburn retired in 1978, but nine years later he emerged to give a formal recital at the White House during a summit meeting between President Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev. His public appearances in recent years were rare. His last appearance came in September at the 50th anniversary Van Cliburn competition.

“Never forget: I love you all from the bottom of my heart, forever,” Cliburn said then.

The artist received the Medal of Freedom at the White House from President Bush in 2003 and the National Medal of Arts from President Obama in 2010. He performed for every U.S. president since Eisenhower.

Cliburn, who began every concert with "The Star-Spangled Banner," told NPR in 2008 that he still practiced every day, often late at night.

“I was never really the type that needed the stage,” he said. “I love music. I love listening to it. But when you just listen, you can be 100 percent; when you have to serve music, you must be thinking of others, not yourself.”

Harvey Lavan “Van” Cliburn Jr. was born July 12, 1934, in Shreveport, La. (the family moved to Texas when he was 6). At age 3, his mother found her only child at the keyboard, mimicking the piece of music that her student had just played. Cliburn’s mother, Rildia Bee O’Bryan Cliburn, studied with one of Franz Liszt’s pupils and was her son’s principal teacher until he entered Juilliard in New York at age 17.

Cliburn’s first public performance was at age 4. He made his debut with the Houston Symphony Orchestra at 12 and played piano and clarinet in his high school marching band. In 1954, he won the esteemed Leventritt Competition in New York, opening doors for him to play with orchestras all over the U.S.

His debut at New York’s Carnegie Hall came later in 1954. There, he played the Tchaikovsky "Piano Concerto No. 1" under Dmitri Mitropoulos’ baton — a preview of what would become his signature piece.

Watch Cliburn, accompanied in 1962 by Kondrashin, perform Tchaikovsky’s "Piano Concerto No.  1" in Moscow: