Van Cliburn’s legacy will be that of a musical ambassador…

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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.

First Movement

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Second Movement

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Third Movement

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The performance still resonates today and has inspired countless people to take up playing the piano, including yours truly…

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About John

I taught myself how to play the piano and read music when I was 9 years old. I've been been consumed by music ever since. I majored in Piano performance in College and I still play, although not as well as when I had time to practice 4 -6 hours per day. This blog is about music. Music is the sound track of our lives. All it take is one song, one composition; and we are transported across time and space. I think it was Beethoven that said: "Music is the landscape of the soul."
This entry was posted in Classical Music, Life Events, LP Records and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Van Cliburn’s legacy will be that of a musical ambassador…

  1. Joe Norman says:

    You did a great post on Van Cliburn John. I learned things I didn’t know and I will return to listen to the recordings you posted later. I was hoping you’d write something about him. Great work brother! ~ Joe

    • John says:

      Thanks Joe. I think I will also post his recording of the Rach Third… It is better than the Tchaikovsky 1st. When he played it in Moscow he received an 8 minute standing ovation…

  2. Ken West says:

    I was saddened to hear of Van Cliburn’s passing-read a wonderful tribute at the Ft Worth Star-Telegram’s website last night,he was a generous, good hearted soul with a physical presence and heart as big as the state he was proud to call home. I posted on FB about him yesterday-my mother had that recording of the Tchaikovsky, and it was the first classical work that captured my attention as a boy. I have it today on a Living Stereo SACD, and it’s still one of my favorites. Love his Rach 3rd, too-doesn’t have the fireworks of the Argerich (what recording does?) but the poetry in his playing is second to none.

    • John says:

      I have an original of the Rach Third too. I thought about posting that instead. Maybe I should post it anyway… It is in many ways better than the Tchaikovsky 1st. The only Rach 3rd I ever heard to rival Argerich is the live recording of Horowitz with Ormandy and The New York Philharmonic. It is still my favorite recording of the concerto, especially considering it was “Live” without a net….

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