After a tense decade of air raid sirens, duck-and-cover drills and fears of Soviet superiority, hope for America came in an unlikely form in the late 1950s: a lanky, 23-year-old Texan with a head full of curls and huge hands that ranged across a piano keyboard with virtuosic power.
With his transcendent performances of Tchaikovsky’s First and Rachmaninoff’s Third piano concertos, Van Cliburn brought 1,500 Russians to their feet in a Moscow concert hall.
Declared the victor of the first International Tchaikovsky Competition, the young American became a hero of the Cold War era and an object of adoration around the world, whose fame helped bring classical music to the masses.
After the humiliation of Sputnik, Americans declared a cultural victory with Cliburn. Dubbed the “American Sputnik,” he was feted like no other classical musician before him, with a ticker-tape parade in New York City and fan clubs to rival a movie idol’s.
Cliburn, whose breakthrough success in 1958 made him one of the world’s most celebrated pianists, died Wednesday of bone cancer at his Forth Worth home, said his publicist, Mary Lou Falcone. He was 78.
He kept up a frenetic schedule of more than 100 concerts a year for two decades, until retiring from the performance circuit in 1978. In the mid-1990s he embarked on a long-anticipated comeback tour that drew poor reviews.
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 the New York Philharmonic and other orchestras.
But he remained little known outside music circles before arriving in Moscow in 1958.
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 in the first two rounds of the competition.
By the time he came on stage to play in the final round, “the crowd had become nearly hysterical,” Chicago Tribune arts critic Howard Reich wrote in “Van Cliburn,” his 1993 biography. “Roughly 1,500 people had jammed the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory; thousands more waited outside.”
Instantaneous ovations greeted Cliburn’s playing of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto, Reich wrote, and his performance of a new solo piece required of all finalists, a rondo by Soviet composer and contest judge Dmitry Kabalevsky, earned him a standing ovation.
But when Cliburn finished Rachmaninoff’s technically difficult Third Piano Concerto, the audience erupted into a thunderous standing ovation that continued after he left the stage. Then the jury stood and joined in. Two judges even jumped up and hugged each other.
“A boyish, curly-haired young man from Kilgore, Texas, took musical Moscow by storm tonight,” a New York Times correspondent reported. “Mr. Cliburn is clearly the popular favorite and all Moscow is wondering whether an American will walk off with top honors.”
The jury, particularly the Soviet and Soviet bloc judges who would cast the deciding votes, feared the consequences of awarding the prize to an American.
According to Reich’s book, the Soviet minister of culture took that question all the way to the top — to the chairman of the Council of Ministers, Nikita Khrushchev.
“What do the professionals say about him? Is he the best?” Khrushchev asked.
“Yes, he is the best,” the minister of culture replied.
“In this case, give him the first prize,” Khrushchev said.
Trumpeted on the cover of Time magazine as “The Texan Who Conquered Russia,” the rangy, 6-foot-4 Cliburn was besieged by screaming admirers in cities where he appeared. And after he played 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.
“He was bigger than a rock star,” Reich told The Times last summer. “Very few rock stars get an invitation to the White House and the Kremlin. This was so beyond anything in American entertainment and culture.”
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.