Classical KUSC



Remembering Van Cliburn: "The Texan Who Conquered Russia"

Posted By: Brian Lauritzen · 2/28/2013 10:21:00 AM


"I do not have fingers. I have ten voices and they must all sing."
Van Cliburn

Against the backdrop of the Cold War and the Space Race, a lanky 23-year-old classical pianist burst onto the scene as an unlikely ambassador of cultural understanding. At the inaugural International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition, Van Cliburn won the hearts of Soviet audiences—including Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev (seen with Cliburn above) and the eminent Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter—and with his triumph there in Moscow in 1958, Cliburn inspired a torrent of patriotic pride here in the United States.

He received a ticker-tape parade upon his return and the cover of Time Magazine. Cliburn instantly became the classical artist most in-demand on concert stages around the country.

Van Cliburn reminded us that music could cross borders and cultures, bridge conflicts, and bring people together. As Dan Rather put it, he “helped take the chill off the Cold War.”

As the musical world reacts to the death of “Hero of the Piano”, Van Cliburn, KUSC reached out to those who knew him:

From LA Opera Music Director James Conlon, who knew the pianist for almost 40 years, since they first collaborated together:

Classical music has lost one of its great artists today. Van Cliburn's immeasurable pianism was equaled by his humanity which, taken together, earned him a legendary status. He demonstrated the power of art to bind humans together across the opposing lines of the Cold War. He transformed the fruits of his monumental success to help generations of young pianists around the world. Today I mourn the loss of a friend, the kindest, most generous, gentle, hospitable and courteous man who has ever graced the concert stage.



Renowned pianist and longtime USC Thornton School of Music faculty member Daniel Pollack was the other American top prize-winner at the first International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition.

Van and I shared a most unique experience in world history — two Americans in the midst of a Russian winter behind the mythical Iron Curtain of the Soviet Union at the 1958  First International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition held in Moscow. But what was at first daunting, turned out to be one of the most exciting events for Americans — showing that an American pianist could win a First Prize among Russian pianists! Van's passionate pianism touched the souls of the Russians. He had that level of projection that was rare even among the best of the best of Russians. His personality was the spark that lifted the spirits of a divided world. It was Emil Gilels who sought permission from Khruschchev to let an American get the First Prize. The Russians were dumbfounded that it was granted not just for Van, but also to allow for another American prizewinner in the same competition. The two of us remained musical friends for more more than 50 years. His passing is a tragic loss and I will miss him. 



Finally, KUSC’s own Rich Capparela cherishes a fond memory of a very special interview:

In the early '90s I was producing a radio series for the RCA label. One of the biggest perks of that job was getting extended time on the phone for an interview with Van Cliburn. I've interviewed many, many talented musicians over the course of my career, but I found myself kind of nervous for this one. After all, this was the one classical musician whose name was known to my non-classical music dad. "He's a real American hero" I remember him saying with pride. The man was as much icon as musician. As it turned out, I had nothing to worry about. Van Cliburn was easy going, congenial, self-effacing and warm.  The phone call felt less like an interview than catching up with a dear old friend. He was a man of class, dignity and humility. I treasure the memory of having had a chance to make his acquaintance.


Leave a comment:

showing all comments · Subscribe to comments
  1. Jo S posted on 02/28/2013 02:26 PM
    This is so sad. I never met him but remember well the excitement of hearing that he had won. I loved to hear him play and found him very humble, funny and oh, so talented.
  2. Joyce Harn posted on 02/28/2013 02:36 PM
    What a wonderful treat to be able to hear and see the great Van Cliburn perform the beautiful and lyrical 3rd Piano Concerto by Rachmaninoff!
    The 2nd has always been my favorite, but I was very moved by the beauty of his playing the 3rd. Thank you so much for providing such a lovely break today as I prepare to go to a concert at Disney Hall this evening with Maestro Dudamel conducting.
    You folks bring great musical happiness to me. My car and my home Bose
    set is always tuned to KUSC. And l really enjoy reading my monthly members guide. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!!
  3. Leni Posner posted on 02/28/2013 02:52 PM
    Thank you for bringing back wonderful and vivid memories of one of the great talents of our (my) time.
  4. Barbara Hansen posted on 02/28/2013 05:05 PM
    The video is extraordinary. His hands appear to float, with no effort. So beautiful.
  5. Ed Parkyn posted on 02/28/2013 05:22 PM
    I was in the 3rd grade and remember well when he won the competition. Our children's newsletter was filled entirely with his story. It seemed that everyone around us, family, friends, news organizations, etc were all trumpeting his accomplishment. Even when the world of Rock exploded just a few years later, the mere mention of his name would cause everyone talking to stop and listen. His passing is indeed sad but he paved the way for many young people all around the world to reach for and seize the same sky he did. He was absolutely one of the most amazing artists of our time.
  6. Leslie Heumann posted on 02/28/2013 06:02 PM
    The first time I saw Van Cliburn in concert I was a student at UCLA in the late 1960s. I went to see him, with great anticipation, in recital at Royce Hall. It was a marvelous concert, not only because of his playing but also because of the aplomb with which he handled not just one but two piano strings breaking. After the second one snapped, he broke with tradition and chatted with the audience. It was a memorable experience.
  7. Jaime Hudson posted on 02/28/2013 06:47 PM
    Everytime I hear the great Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto I always 'hear' Van Cliburn' playing - even when it's not him. I like to think he is now playing on an even greater concert stage now. We were so fortunate to have had him here...
  8. Gregg posted on 03/07/2013 10:33 AM
    I was saddened to hear of his passing. I still remember him playing the Tchaikovsky piano concerto and the Rachmaninoff piano concerto at one concert in St. Paul. This was in the early '60s. I sat way in back, but the acoustics were wonderful. I have never heard of anyone since performing two major concertos in one concert by one soloist! His recording of the Tchaikovsky was the second classical record I bought when it was first released.
showing all comments
Stay in the Loop

Receive our free monthly email newsletter filled with informative

commentary, news of upcoming events, special programming, one-time-only offers and much more. Sign up now!