Cliburn's win in Moscow came only six months after the Soviet Union had launched its first Sputnik satellite.
"They had beat us in space," Reich said, "and we beat them in their own backyard, in culture of all things."
After signing with RCA Victor, Cliburn's recording of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 became the first classical album to be awarded a platinum record; it went on to sell more than 3 million copies.
In the wake of Cliburn's Moscow victory, a group of music teachers and others in Fort Worth created the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. The first was held in 1962.
With his career soaring — TV appearances included a live chat on Edward R. Murrow's "Person to Person" — Cliburn spent the next two decades touring the United States and abroad, performing.
In time, he was criticized by some for overplaying the Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff concertos that had brought him fame, for not expanding his repertoire (though it was larger than many critics realized) and for being inconsistent in his performances.
Weary from touring, Cliburn withdrew from the concert stage in 1978, saying he wanted more time to himself.
Or as he put it, "Every good career, like a good concert, requires an intermission."
The intermission lasted nine years, a time in which he and his beloved mother, Rildia Bee Cliburn, moved into a three-story Tudor-style mansion in Fort Worth that at one point boasted nine Steinway grand pianos.
After she died at 97 in 1994, he was sued for palimony by a longtime associate, Thomas E. Zaremba, but the suit was dismissed. For more than 20 years Cliburn lived with Thomas L. Smith, his friend and manager who survives him.
Cliburn returned to performing in 1987, when he was invited to entertain Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev at the Reagan White House, and he soon resumed his concert career. The comeback tour included a 1994 appearance at the Hollywood Bowl that Cliburn, who struggled with stage fright, aborted halfway through.
He had maintained his technical mastery during his time away from the concert platform, telling The Times in 1994, "I didn't abandon the piano; the piano was always there."
Harvey Lavan Cliburn Jr. was born in Shreveport, La., on July 12, 1934. His father was an oil company executive; his mother, who had been a pupil of Russian-born pianist Arthur Friedheim, was a music teacher.
"I was very shy as a little child, and I still am," Cliburn told the Boston Globe in 2001. "I would just sit in the corner and listen to [his mother] practice, and observe her teaching. I was never permitted to go to the piano and bang on it."
But one day after his mother had sent a young pupil home when Cliburn was 3, he recalled, "I just went to the piano and started imitating what the child had done. She thought the student had come back, or hadn't left, and she came running in and found me at the piano. She told me if I really wanted to play, she would teach me."
Cliburn, whose family moved to Kilgore when he was 6, played Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto with the Houston Symphony when he was 12. Following his mother's advice after graduating from high school in 1951, he began studying at Juilliard with the renowned Rosina Lhevinne.
Lhevinne later urged Cliburn to participate in the competition in Moscow, for which he is said to have prepared for by practicing up to 11 hours a day for two months.
Cliburn won a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2004. He also received a Kennedy Center Honor in 2001, the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2003 and the National Medal of the Arts in 2011.
McLellan is a former Times staff writer.
Times staff writer Elaine Woo contributed to this report.