In 1958, at the age of 23, Van Cliburn traveled behind the Iron Curtain to Moscow, USSR to compete in the first Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition.
With the aspirations of a nation on his shoulders, he emerged as the gold medal winner against all odds.
Cliburn returned home as an international celebrity with massive fanfare. His picture was on the cover of Time magazine and he was honored with a tickertape parade and ceremony in New York.
Shortly thereafter, the Fort Worth Piano Teacher’s Forum hosted a dinner honoring Van’s mother and first teacher, Rildia Bee O’Bryan Cliburn. Strategically seated between Van and his mother was Dr. Irl Allison, founder of the National Guild of Piano Teachers, who announced that night that the National Guild would provide a $10,000 cash prize for an international piano competition to be named in honor of Rildia Bee’s little boy Van.
With a tip of the hat, the deal was sealed. The location for the competition was unknown, surely a competition named in honor of a man of such prestige, such talent and international celebrity would be held in New York City, but in the audience that evening was a formidable woman named Grace Ward Lankford, who knew in her heart then, and spent the remainder of her life demonstrating to the world that no city other than Fort Worth, with its community support, tradition of volunteerism, dedication to arts and culture, and gracious hospitality could host such a competition.
In contrast to the music capitals like New York and Los Angeles, Fort Worth was an unlikely host for such a competition, but an enthusiastic community of volunteers came together to establish the Van Cliburn Foundation and in 1962, hosted the first Van Cliburn International Quadrennial Piano Competition.
With Cliburn’s reputation drawing the most talented musicians from around the world, the contest was a huge success, and quickly became one of the most prestigious in the piano world.
The Cliburn is unique in that it was the first to provide commission-free career management for competition winners, booking hundreds of national and international tour dates for each of them.
Every four years the city transforms to host thousands of competition attendees, competitors, and official guests and millions of online viewers who tune in from around the world. From musical celebrities, to aspiring pianists, to people who have never played a note in their life, individuals from all walks of life gather to share in the thrill, the drama, and the excitement of launching talented young artists’ careers. All eyes are on Fort Worth, and each time the city delivers the finest of Texas hospitality.
With the competition taking center stage across international media, the streets of downtown Fort Worth can be seen flooded with camera crews and paparazzi swarming the streets, and yet these competitors, who have traveled thousands of miles to Texas, are able to feel at home for the 3 week-long competition because of the spirit of the volunteers around them.
The only event of it’s kind created and run by volunteers and private funding, the Cliburn Competition continues to be a full community effort. Thousands of volunteers dedicate countless hours to the Cliburn, shaping many people’s futures along the way.
Over the years, the mission of the organization expanded far beyond the professional piano competition at its roots. There was a need to engage the local community in between the quadrennial competitions. As Fort Worth’s appreciation for classical music evolved, the Foundation established Cliburn Concerts in 1976. This annual concert series brings the world’s finest classical musicians and composers to local performance venues around Fort Worth. There is a great desire among these musicians to return year after year because of the Van Cliburn name, the competition’s prestige and the Fort Worth audience.
Community Concerts are also held around the city free of charge, giving everyone the chance to enjoy the arts if they can’t make it to Bass Hall or the museums in Dallas and Fort Worth.
In 1999, the Foundation found a way to celebrate the importance of making music even for those who don’t make it a career. The International Piano Competition for Outstanding Amateurs gives talented pianists from all professions a chance to be recognized for making music a part of their daily lives.
Music education has always been important to the Foundation. Even in the early days, the Cliburn would host lectures in local museums and take competitors to perform in area schools. In 2001, it developed a curriculum-based initiative targeted to elementary school students. Through this Musical Awakenings program, the Foundation takes a grand piano into every elementary school it visits, giving thousands of children access to interactive music education.
All of these programs help to fulfill the Foundation’s mission and at the heart still lies Van Cliburn’s belief that music transcends all barriers. Through all it efforts, the Cliburn provides a place where great musicians thrive, allowing the beauty of music to touch lives in the modern world.
More than 50 years since Van Cliburn first inspired the world through music, his legacy lives on in the future generations that share his passion.