Farewell to: Van Cliburn, American Classical Pianist March 02 2013

Van Cliburn - American Pianist - In Performance

Van Cliburn, one of America’s most famous pianists, unfortunately passed away in 2013. He left behind a legacy of storied musical achievements, humanitarianism, and a competition that draws young pianists to this day, the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.

Musical Achievements

Cliburn was born on July 12, 1934, in Louisiana. He began studying the piano with his mother and won his first major piano competition—a Texas statewide competition—at 12 years old. He continued studying at New York’s prestigious Juilliard School and won many competitions at a young age. He debuted at the famous Carnegie Hall when he was only 20 years old.

Van Cliburn was a classical musician made for the 20th century. His repertoire of the Russian greats, including Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky, and storied Germans such as Schumann, won him many accolades and made audiences weep. Cliburn also knew how to find success in the modern musical market. He even won a Grammy for the Best Classical Performance in 1958.

Although Cliburn was a renowned concert pianist, many of his most famous performances occurred behind closed doors. He was a favorite of heads of state, including American presidents and royalty. He played for every president since Eisenhower.

Musical Cold Wars

Despite his acclaim in the United States, one of Van Cliburn’s most significant achievements occurred in Moscow, the capital of the United States’ number one enemy at the time, the Soviet Union. In 1958, Soviet authorities hosted the first International Tchaikovsky Competition. Although the contest was supposed to show the strength of Soviet cultural achievement, Cliburn, an American, was the winner.

Instead of sparking an international incident, Cliburn’s victory was welcomed in the United States and the Soviet Union. The local people gave him a standing ovation and were endeared when he began to play the popular local song, “Moscow Nights.” Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev personally gave him the prize and laughed at a judge who asked for permission before awarding him first place. Cliburn also received a hero’s welcome back home, including a ticker-tape parade in New York City.

However, Cliburn never used his success to further American nationalism or champion antagonism during the Cold War. Instead, he dedicated his life to cultural diplomacy and bridging the differences between the Soviet and American people.

Personal Life

Cliburn’s mother, Rildia Bee, was a woman with some musical talent of her own. She was a pianist and teacher who had studied with Arthur Friedheim, an accomplished Russian pianist and student of Franz Liszt.

Cliburn was a gay man and lived with his partner, Thomas Zaremba, for 17 years. However, his personal life was often plagued by distress. At one point, Zaremba sued him for potentially exposing him to HIV. Although the lawsuit was thrown out of court, it still caused the pianist some upset.

Cliburn’s most lasting legacy is the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. This contest is held every four years for young pianists from around the globe and is one of the most prestigious such competitions.


Cliburn, Van - Signed Menu

Cliburn, Van - Original Photos in Rehearsal


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