Van Cliburn was an American hero and an international icon for over five decades. He was heralded by U.S. Presidents, world leaders, the international press, and a vast, adoring public as one of the most persuasive ambassadors of American culture, as well as one of the greatest pianists in the history of music. He was beloved not only for his momentous gift as a brilliant musician, but also for his transcendent spirit as a great humanitarian.
At the height of the Cold War in 1958, Van Cliburn—a 23-year-old Texan—won the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, a contest designed to demonstrate Soviet cultural superiority on the heels of the country’s launch of Sputnik. When it was time to announce a winner, the judges asked permission of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to give first prize to an American. “Is he the best?” Khrushchev asked. “Then give him the prize!” Cliburn returned home to a ticker-tape parade in New York City, the only time the honor has been bestowed on a musician.
The cover of Time magazine proclaimed him “The Texan Who Conquered Russia,” later saying that the “long-legged” pianist “had overnight become the object of the most explosive single outpouring of popular acclaim ever accorded a U.S. musician.” Instant fame begat a career that included many historical achievements: the first Grammy® for classical music; the first classical album to go triple platinum; record-breaking concert ticket sales at venues such as New York’s Carnegie Hall and Madison Square Garden, Chicago’s Grant Park, and Los Angeles’ Hollywood Bowl; and performances for every President of the United States from Harry Truman to Barack Obama, and royalty and heads of state from around the world.
Over the course of his lifetime, he was honored with a multitude of accolades, among them Kennedy Center Honors, the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, Russia’s Order of Friendship, and the United States’ Presidential Medal of Freedom and National Medal of Arts. In 1962, a dedicated group of Fort Worth volunteers held the First Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in his honor; the competition is now widely recognized as one of the most prestigious in the world.
Van Cliburn was born in Shreveport, La. on July 12, 1934. He began piano studies at the age of 3 with his mother, Rildia Bee O’Bryan Cliburn, made his orchestral debut at 12, and his Carnegie Hall debut two years later. In 1951, he enrolled in The Juilliard School, studying under Madame Rosina Lhévinne, who encouraged him to apply for the Tchaikovsky Competition.
July 12, 1934 – February 27, 2013