Van Cliburn was a Cold War cultural ambassador

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Van Cliburn, the lanky Texan pianist who died Wednesday at 78, was an unofficial cultural ambassador for the United States during much of the Cold War. His win at the 1958 International Tchaikovsky competition in Moscow made him a beloved musical figure both in the U.S. and the U.S.S.R.

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In the above video created by the musician’s foundation, Cliburn is shown performing in Moscow to appreciative audiences. His victory, at age 23, made the cover of Time magazine, which dubbed him “The Texan Who Conquered Russia.”


Nearly 30 years later, Cliburn was still an important cultural-political figure, though he had largely retired from public performance by that time. The pianist performed for President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev during a summit in 1987.

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As was his custom, Cliburn opened his recital with a rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Here’s a video of the 1987 recital, which also shows Cliburn performing a singalong version of “Moscow Nights” with his distinguished audience.

As narrator Dan Rather puts it, Van Cliburn “helped take the chill off the Cold War.”


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