Tim Page is a Professor in both the Thornton School of Music and the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California. He won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1997 for his writings about music in The Washington Post. (July 2017)
When the World Stopped to Listen: Van Cliburn’s Cold War Triumph and Its Aftermath
by Stuart Isacoff
Moscow Nights: The Van Cliburn Story—How One Man and His Piano Transformed the Cold War
by Nigel Cliff
When Van Cliburn died in 2013, he was by far the most famous concert pianist in American history, although he had effectively retired from performance decades before. His had been a strange and complicated life.
There are certain creative figures whose mature works are almost tangential to their enduring artistic influence. Marcel Duchamp falls into this group, as does Andy Warhol. And so, certainly, does John Cage. He opened doors—floodgates, really—and dissolved definitions; if most of his own compositions now seem less interesting than the ramifications of his ideas, there can be little doubt that his oceanic spirit changed the topography.
By the time Richard Strauss died, many musicians and critics considered him an embarrassing fossil. Born while Berlioz and Rossini still lived—and a dozen years before Johannes Brahms had written any of his own symphonies—Strauss composed steadily for some sixty-five years and died a few months after the premieres of Elliott Carter’s Cello Sonata and John Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano. But the path he took long overshadowed a clear assessment of his enormous accomplishments as a composer of opera and orchestral music.
There are certain composers whose music we can recognize and identify immediately. It is unnecessary to listen to more than a few moments of any mature work by Olivier Messiaen, Elliott Carter, or Philip Glass (to name three dissimilar artists) to realize who was responsible for its creation. But there are others whose music may change radically from piece to piece—or, for that matter, from measure to measure. The German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen falls into this camp.
Vladimir Horowitz Live at Carnegie Hall—some thirty hours of music—doesn’t include every performance the pianist played there (he made his house debut in 1928, more than a decade before the invention of magnetic tape would have permitted such sustained recording) but offers extensive documentation of performances ranging from 1943 through 1976.
It is now just a year since the death of the composer Elliott Carter and his absence still seems a little unreal. He lived a very long life—he died thirty-six days before his one hundred and fourth birthday—and he remained active up to the end, creating some of the warmest, most direct and intimate music of his career in his final years. Such longevity in itself is astounding: think of long-lived composers like Giuseppe Verdi, Richard Strauss, and Jean Sibelius, and then consider that all of them were either dead or retired at the point when Carter was embarking on his first and only opera, What’s Next?, at the age of eighty-eight, with another fifteen years of work yet ahead of him.
That the New York City Opera had kept going for seventy years was more than a little amazing. It had been a star-crossed organization for years, beset by strikes, warehouse fires, financial woes and the devastation of the early years of AIDS. Fortunately, throughout the years, there were always enough extraordinary young artists for the Opera to champion—Beverly Sills, Samuel Ramey, Placido Domingo, Renee Fleming, Carol Vaness, Sherrill Milnes, Frederica von Stade and David Daniels, to mention only some of the most famous. But it is the “habit” of the New York City Opera that I will miss the most. By that I mean its sheer presence in town, night after night, as it was from the 1940s through the 1990s and afterward.