Van Cliburn, the immensely talented American piano virtuoso with the down-home charm and big romantic style, whose gold-medal win at the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in
The cause of death was bone cancer, according to his publicist, Mary Lou Falcone. On Aug. 27, she announced that Cliburn, 78, was undergoing treatment for an advanced case of the disease and was resting comfortably at home, where he received round-the-clock care.
Van Cliburn was the youngest in the great post-war generation of American pianists that included Leon Fleisher, Gray Graffman, Byron Janis and Eugene Istomin.
America had produced other gifted pianists before the Louisiana-born, Texas-bred Cliburn came along, but no American classical musician before or since captured the nation's imagination as did the lanky young man with the wavy pompadour, soft drawl, prodigious technique and golden tone, following his triumph in Moscow.
It was April 1958, only six months after the Soviets had flaunted their technological might by launching the first Sputnik satellite; the Tchaikovsky competition was supposed to display their cultural superiority as well. Cliburn, 23 at the time, came, saw and, against all odds, triumphed. His performances of the Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto and the Rachmaninov Third Concerto at the competition finale earned him a standing ovation that went on for nearly 10 minutes.
When it was time to choose a winner, the judges were obliged to ask permission of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to award the first prize to an American. "Is he the best?" Khrushchev asked. "Then give him the prize!" Cliburn's victory, trumpeted across the front pages of newspapers across the U.S., made him an instant folk hero and, some said, helped usher in perestroika decades later.
The pianist returned home to a ticker-tape parade in
RCA Victor quickly signed him to an exclusive contract, and his subsequent recording of what was to become his signature piece, the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1, was the first classical LP to go platinum. It has since sold more than three million copies.
“Cliburn was the right man, at the right place, in the right moment,” said
Cliburn did indeed command one of the most comprehensive techniques of any pianist; this, along with his massive, unpercussive tone and warmth of expression made him a definitive interpreter of the big Romantic repertory. He would go on to become one of the few genuine classical superstars, playing as many as 100 concerts a year during the 1960s and '70s. Nowhere were his performances more in demand than in Russia, which he toured 10 times following his initial triumph there.
But the mantle of cultural icon became a heavy burden. His performances grew sloppy and mannered. Although his repertory was never as small as some critics claimed, he tended to fall back on the same pieces over and over. The fevered pace and equally fevered adulation he received, post-Moscow, seemed to inhibit his artistic growth.
In 1978, at 43, Cliburn withdrew from public performance, pleading severe burnout. What was meant to be a year's "intermission," after 20 years at the top, became a 10-year withdrawal, during which the pianist played extremely selectively and mostly for philanthropic causes. His personal fortune and superstar status secure, he eased into a new role as a kind of Deep South eccentric. He adopted a nocturnal lifestyle and a taste for antiques, which filled 15 rooms at the New York hotel suite where he lived before moving back to Ft. Worth.
In 1994, he undertook a comeback via a cross-country American tour with the Moscow Philharmonic. The results were erratic. At the opening concert, Cliburn complained of dizzy spells, and, rather than attempt the scheduled Rachmaninov Third following intermission, played solo encores instead, as he did for the rest of the tour. The success he enjoyed with his glittering account of the Tchaikovsky concerto that year at Chicago’s
His final performance in the Chicago area was at Ravinia in 2005, when, at 71, he played the Grieg A minor Piano Concerto with the
"No classical career ever was like Cliburn's, and because of a changed world, none ever will be again," Reich said.
Born Harvey Lavan Cliburn Jr. in Shreveport, La., and raised in Kilgore, Texas, Cliburn climbed onto his first piano bench as a precocious 3-year-old, and from that day he undertook piano lessons from his mother, Rildia Bee O'Bryan Cliburn. He debuted with the Houston Symphony at age 12. Following the death of his father in 1974, his mother became a formidable influence as teacher, manager, adviser and companion, when he traveled between engagements. She was a pupil of Arthur Friedheim, who studied with Franz Liszt; thus she passed along to her son a direct connection to the Romantic tradition.
Wishing her son to be versed in the Russian style of piano playing, Rildia Bee determined he should study with the legendary pedagogue Rosina Lhevinne at New York’s Juilliard School of Music. Lhevinne, a close friend of hers, accepted Cliburn, then all of 17, without an audition. In 1954, he won the Leventritt Award and made his
In 1958, there were moves to create a major piano competition bearing Cliburn's name in Ft. Worth. Since its launch in 1962, the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition has lent its imprimatur to such pianists as Radu Lupu, Cristina Ortiz, Youri Egorov and Olga Kern. Cliburn graced many a competition with his courtly presence, serving up homey platitudes to the contestants. For many years he also served as director emeritus of the Van Cliburn Foundation, which hosts the quadrennial event.
Cliburn, who never married, is survived by Thomas L. Smith, with whom he shared his home for many years.