I was saddened to learn of the passing away of Van Cliburn this week. If it were not for him, I may have never taken up playing the piano. His victory at the 1958 Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition launched him into “Rock Star” status immediately. He is still the only “Classical” musician who has ever had a New York City ticker tape parade. The album you see above was the first classical LP to ever go platinum. So if you own a copy, especially an early copy like my copy, you own a historically important LP, even if it is not a rare LP.
He was born in 1934 in Shreveport, Louisiana, but moved to Kilgore, Texas in 1941. His dad was in the Oil & Gas business and his mother was a piano teacher. My Dad and I knew a very talented pianist in Dallas named Newel Oller. He grew up in Kilgore with Van Cliburn. His claim to fame was that he finish second in every piano contest he entered because Van always finished first. My Piano teacher and her son were close friends of Van and his mother. I never met him, however, I did see him perform live twice. Both times he played the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No 1 with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra.
Van lived in Texas so long that we claimed him as a native. At the age of 13 he debuted with the Houston Symphony Orchestra. In 1954 he graduated from High School and enrolled at The Julliard School in New York City. In 1954 he won the Levintritt Award which included a debut with the New York Philharmonic. Then in 1958 (the year I was born) he made history.
It is impossible to communicate exactly how stunning his victory in Moscow was. It was like “The Miracle on Ice” in the 1980 Olympics, when the USA defeated the Soviet Union in hockey. No American had even come close to winning a major international piano competition. The United States was considered a backwater of classical music talent. All the great musicians were born in and trained in Europe. This was at the height of the cold war. The cold war was so cold that the jury had to get Nikita Khrushchev’s direct permission to award the prize to Van Cliburn. He was easily the crowds favorite. After he performed his concerto he received an 8 minute standing ovation. What set him apart was his more deliberate pace that he took with the music. In that time people had fallen in love with technical excellence and there was a lot of fast and loud playing. Van took the time to make music.
He returned to America in triumph. He appeared on the cover of “Time” magazine. I love this quote from the Time magazine article describing him as “The first man in history to be a Horowitz, Liberace, and Elvis Presley all rolled into one.”
In 1962 fans of Van Cliburn in Fort Worth, Texas organized “The Van Cliburn International Piano Competition“. There is now an Amateur Piano Competition in addition to the main competition. I entered the amateur competition a few years ago, but was not accepted. I need to hire a teacher again and practice more. The Van Cliburn competition has done much for international good will. It’s value cannot be overstated. This May will mark the 14th quadrennial competition. The Cliburn is one of the premiere competitions in the world.
Van Cliburn put classical piano playing on the map in the United States. He caused numerous people to take up the challenge of playing the Piano. His victory and fame caused my mother and father to encourage me to take up the hobby. I never dreamed where it would ultimately lead me.
So my condolences to Van Cliburn’s friends and relatives, as well as music lovers everywhere. The great ambassador of music has left us, but his music and his legacy will never fade.
Here it is in its entirety. One of the most famous classical LP’s of all time. The first classical LP to go platinum. Van Cliburn, Kirill Kondrashin (Who was the conductor in Moscow during the competition) and The RCA Symphony Orchestra.
The performance still resonates today and has inspired countless people to take up playing the piano, including yours truly…