Van Cliburn, the American pianist, has died aged 78. He was awarded the US’s National Medal of Arts in 2010 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2003, and was one of the world’s best-known performers of classical music.
In 2004, he received the Order of Friendship of the Russian Federation from Russian president Vladimir Putin, reflecting the cultural impact of his playing throughout his career. He was a popular figure on both sides of the Pacific for most of the second half of the 20th century, a rare feat during the Cold War.
Cliburn was taught by his mother, Rildia Bee Cliburn ‒ who in turn had been taught by Arthur Friedheim, a pupil of Franz Liszt and Anton Rubenstein ‒ and she was his sole teacher before, at the age of 17, he began studies at the Juilliard School in New York, where he studied with the great Rosina Lhevinne. At 20, he had played with the New York Philharmonic and most of the country’s major orchestras.
The quadrennial Van Cliburn International Piano Competition was organised by a group of music teachers and citizens from Fort Worth, Texas in 1962 to commemorate Cliburn’s victory at the 1958 Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition in Moscow, at the age of 23. Speaking at its 50th anniversary in September 2012, he said to the crowd: ‘Never forget: I love you all from the bottom of my heart, for ever’. It was his last public appearance.
The Tchaikovsky victory, coming in the middle of the Cold War, was a historic achievement which led him to be nicknamed ‘the American Sputnik’ by US media. He was honoured on his return to the country by a ticker-tape parade in New York. It was this success, rather than particularly strong support from the pianist himself, which allowed the competition to become the well-funded and prestigious institution it is today.
After the initial flurry of success, Cliburn’s career did not progress so easily. Doubts about classical music prompted forays into jazz and conducting which were not wholly successful and he underwent a self-imposed exile from public life from 1978 to 1987. His high-profile return to the stage saw him performing to presidents Gorbachev and Reagan at the White House, but in the subsequent decades the number of his appearances, despite being well attended, went steadily downhill. After collapsing on stage in 1998 at the inaugural concert of the new Bass Performance Hall in Fort Worth, Texas, he appeared even less.
‘Van Cliburn was an international legend for over five decades, a great humanitarian and a brilliant musician whose light will continue to shine through his extraordinary legacy,’ said his publicist and friend, Mary Lou Falcone. ‘He will be missed by all who knew and admired him, and by countless people he never met.’
Pianist Stephen Hough told the BBC that Cliburn was ‘one of the most charming and lovely men’ he had known. ‘He was very modest, gracious and generous. He was very tall, very imposing, and all of this came through in the playing ‒ he was a major personality when he played, and he really towered over the stage in every sense.’
Harvey Lavan Van Cliburn, 12 July 1934-27 February 2013