Van Cliburn, a little-known pianist who in 1958 dazzled the music world by winning an international piano competition in Moscow, died Wednesday of bone cancer at his home in Fort Worth, Texas, said his publicist, Mary Lou Falcone.
A child prodigy, Cliburn was taught by his pianist mother until he entered Juilliard School of Music in New York in 1951 at age 17. Three years later he won the prestigious Leventritt international competition, which earned him solo engagements with several orchestras.
But he remained little known outside music circles before arriving in Moscow in 1958 at a time when Cold War tensions were running high, coming just six months after the Soviet Union had launched its first Sputnik satellite.
Competing against 49 other pianists from 19 countries at the first Tchaikovsky International Piano and Violin Festival, the technically brilliant Cliburn created a sensation with the romantic sweep of his playing.
Trumpeted on the cover of Time magazine as “The Texan Who Conquered Russia,” the lanky, 6-foot-4 Cliburn was given a hero’s welcome in New York City with what was a first for a classical musician: a ticker-tape parade.
Like a rock star, Cliburn was besieged by screaming admirers in cities where he appeared. And after playing before audiences of more than 80,000 on two nights in Chicago, the city’s Elvis Presley Fan Club changed its name to the Van Cliburn Fan Club.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Cliburn, who never married, is survived by his longtime friend, Thomas L. Smith.