The Cliburn

Van Cliburn Career Highlights

Van Ticker tape parade for highlights

  • Van Cliburn achieved international acclaim when, in 1958, he won the first Tchaikovsky International Competition in Moscow, several months after the Russian launch of Sputnik, the first earth-orbiting satellite. The cultural and musical icons of Russia, a few of which were Shostokovich, Emil Gilles, Kabalevsky, Rostropovich, and David Oistrachk, felt the time was correct to bring equal attention to great classical music as had been shown to science, math and technology. The most beloved composer of the world was Tchaikovsky, whose legacy is forever a grand treasure of the People of Russia – hence, the Tchaikovsky Competition. Premier Nikita Khrushchev himself gave permission to the Soviet judges to award the prize to the 6’4″ 23-year-old Texan. In the first round, Cliburn received an eight-minute standing ovation from the Moscow audience for his recital performance, and his subsequent rounds were given equally tumultuous responses.
  • Mr. Cliburn came home from his victory at the Tchaikovsky Competition to a ticker-tape parade in New York City. It is the only time that honor has been bestowed on a classical musician.
  • On May 19, 1958, he was featured on the cover of Time magazine with the headline: “The Texan Who Conquered Russia.”
  • Van Cliburn studied conducting with Bruno Walter, from 1958 to Dr. Walter’s death in 1962.  It is notable that the last concert that Dr. Walter conducted was on the 4th of December, 1960, with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The performance was an all Brahms concert with Cliburn as the soloist in  the 2nd Brahms Piano Concerto. Cliburn had no intention of becoming a conductor. However, after the untimely death of Dimitri Mitropoulos, he was asked to play a memorial concert with the Symphony of the Air with Leopold Stokowski conducting. Unfortunately, an accident caused Maestro Stokowski to cancel, and Cliburn was urged on short notice to play and conduct the Concerto No. 3 by Prokofiev on March 5, 1961.  This concert was a memorial commemoration for Maestro Mitropoulos, who had played and conducted the 3rd Prokofiev many times during his career.  The concert was successful and Cliburn started receiving invitations to conduct concerts, which he did only 26 more times until 1966. Among the orchestras he conducted were the Philadelphia Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, Dallas Symphony, Moscow Philharmonic and the Leningrad Philharmonic, to name a few.
  • Van Cliburn’s RCA Victor recording of the Tchaikovsky Concerto topped Billboard’s chart for months, as did his album, “My Favorite Chopin,” for more than 37 weeks. Cliburn’s recording is the first classical LP in history to sell more than one million copies – the album eventually exceeded triple platinum.  And as the newspapers heralded, Mr. Cliburn’s exclusive contract with RCA Victor was the largest monetary contract ever awarded to any musician in all of the recording industry history at that time.
  • Mr. Cliburn became a worldwide cultural idol, achieving a degree of popular recognition on a level with Elvis Presley. He became a household name to people of all ages, in homes with no previous connection to classical music. Some high points:
    • Advance demand for tickets to Mr. Cliburn’s first U.S. appearance after the Moscow victory outsold any previous events in the then sixty-seven-year history of Carnegie Hall.
    • There was a near riot by fans in Philadelphia when Cliburn was discovered shopping in Wannamaker’s Department Store.
    • Cliburn played two concerts in Chicago’s Grant Park to an audience of over 80,000 each evening, whereupon Chicago’s Elvis Presley Fan Club changed its name to the Van Cliburn Fan Club.
    • In November 1958, for the first time in its seventy-seven-year history, the Boston Symphony Orchestra was forced by demand for tickets to schedule a repeat performance of a concert. With Mr. Cliburn as soloist, the repeat was promptly sold out as well.
    • That same year, Mr. Cliburn’s concerts also set attendance records in New York at Madison Square Garden, in Pittsburgh, and in Philadelphia, in the Hollywood Bowl, and all at the highest prices ever charged for such events.
    • Van Cliburn turned down two Hollywood offers to star in films – one of which was about Franz Liszt.
    • Mr. Cliburn’s fame was acknowledged in the Peanuts comic strip.
    • Mr. Cliburn’s face was on a box of Soviet chocolates, the “best selling candy in the USSR.”
    • In  June, 1994, at a special concert at Grant Park with the Chicago Symphony with Maestro Leonard Slatkin, newspapers reported that according to police estimates, 350,000 people were in attendance.
  • Van Cliburn’s superstar status in both the United States and Russia catapulted him into a decades-long role as unofficial diplomat and ambassador of art in the midst of the Cold War and beyond.
  •  He has played for every American president since Truman. His performance in the Reagan White House also included President Mikhail Gorbachev and his wife Raisa in the audience and was part of a summit meeting between the two leaders who eventually ended the Cold War.
  • In 2001, Van Cliburn received the Kennedy Center Honors Award as “one of the most persuasive ambassadors of American culture, as well as one of the greatest pianists in the history of music.”
  • In 2003, George W. Bush awarded Mr. Cliburn the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which recognizes individuals who have made “an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the U.S. or to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.”
  •  In 2004, President Vladimir Putin presented Mr. Cliburn with the Order of Friendship, a state decoration bestowed almost exclusively upon Russian citizens for “their significant contribution into the strengthening of friendship and cooperation of nations and nationalities…”
  • Mr. Cliburn received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2004.
  • In 2011, President Barack Obama awarded Van Cliburn the National Medal of the Arts

Our Mission

It is the mission of the Cliburn to advance classical piano music throughout the world. Its international competitions, education programs, and concert series embody an enduring commitment to artistic excellence and the discovery of young artists.

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Governance

The Cliburn is a not-for-profit organization governed by a board of directors, elected for a four year term. It is sustained by the generous support from individuals, foundations, corporations, the tireless efforts of volunteers, and embraced by the community of Fort Worth. The Van Cliburn International Piano Competition is a proud member of the World Federation of International Music Competitions.

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