Remembering Van Cliburn: “The Texan Who Conquered Russia”


“I do not have fingers. I have ten voices and they must all sing.”
Van Cliburn

Against the backdrop of the Cold War and the Space Race, a lanky 23-year-old classical pianist burst onto the scene as an unlikely ambassador of cultural understanding. At the inaugural International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition, Van Cliburn won the hearts of Soviet audiences—including Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev (seen with Cliburn above) and the eminent Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter—and with his triumph there in Moscow in 1958, Cliburn inspired a torrent of patriotic pride here in the United States.

He received a ticker-tape parade upon his return and the cover of Time Magazine. Cliburn instantly became the classical artist most in-demand on concert stages around the country.

Van Cliburn reminded us that music could cross borders and cultures, bridge conflicts, and bring people together. As Dan Rather put it, he “helped take the chill off the Cold War.”

As the musical world reacts to the death of “Hero of the Piano”, Van Cliburn, KUSC reached out to those who knew him:

From LA Opera Music Director James Conlon, who knew the pianist for almost 40 years, since they first collaborated together:

Classical music has lost one of its great artists today. Van Cliburn’s immeasurable pianism was equaled by his humanity which, taken together, earned him a legendary status. He demonstrated the power of art to bind humans together across the opposing lines of the Cold War. He transformed the fruits of his monumental success to help generations of young pianists around the world. Today I mourn the loss of a friend, the kindest, most generous, gentle, hospitable and courteous man who has ever graced the concert stage.



Renowned pianist and longtime USC Thornton School of Music faculty member Daniel Pollack was the other American top prize-winner at the first International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition.

Van and I shared a most unique experience in world history — two Americans in the midst of a Russian winter behind the mythical Iron Curtain of the Soviet Union at the 1958  First International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition held in Moscow. But what was at first daunting, turned out to be one of the most exciting events for Americans — showing that an American pianist could win a First Prize among Russian pianists! Van’s passionate pianism touched the souls of the Russians. He had that level of projection that was rare even among the best of the best of Russians. His personality was the spark that lifted the spirits of a divided world. It was Emil Gilels who sought permission from Khruschchev to let an American get the First Prize. The Russians were dumbfounded that it was granted not just for Van, but also to allow for another American prizewinner in the same competition. The two of us remained musical friends for more more than 50 years. His passing is a tragic loss and I will miss him. 



Finally, KUSC’s own Rich Capparela cherishes a fond memory of a very special interview:

In the early ’90s I was producing a radio series for the RCA label. One of the biggest perks of that job was getting extended time on the phone for an interview with Van Cliburn. I’ve interviewed many, many talented musicians over the course of my career, but I found myself kind of nervous for this one. After all, this was the one classical musician whose name was known to my non-classical music dad. “He’s a real American hero” I remember him saying with pride. The man was as much icon as musician. As it turned out, I had nothing to worry about. Van Cliburn was easy going, congenial, self-effacing and warm.  The phone call felt less like an interview than catching up with a dear old friend. He was a man of class, dignity and humility. I treasure the memory of having had a chance to make his acquaintance.


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