An Elusive Cold War Star

Anatoliy Garanin/Sputnik/AP Images
Van Cliburn performing in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory during the first Tchaikovsky International Competition, which he won, April 1958

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. He was a brilliant student at Juilliard, from which he graduated in 1954, won a couple of prestigious prizes, and made his debut with the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall. But his career stalled, and he went home to Kilgore, Texas, to live with his parents.

Then, in April 1958, Cliburn, at the age of twenty-three, traveled to Moscow and won the gold medal in the first Tchaikovsky International Competition. The competition had been set up specifically to laud the superiority of Soviet culture, and was meant as a follow-up to the scientific triumph of the first Sputnik launch. It was the height of the cold war, a time when the United States and USSR, both armed to the hilt, mostly denounced and threatened one another. William Faulkner had summed up the mood in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1950:

Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up?

Yet this young American’s victory was hailed as a bit of genuine good news by both East and West. His playing won over Soviet audiences, the jury—which included such renowned pianists as Emil Gilels and Sviatoslav Richter—and even the first secretary of the Communist Party of the USSR, Nikita Khrushchev. The competition culminated in Cliburn’s dazzling performances of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3, which Heinrich Neuhaus, one of the jury members, later described as “the most phenomenal events since the October Revolution.” Stuart Isacoff, in When the World Stopped to Listen: Van Cliburn’s Cold War Triumph and Its Aftermath, calls them “perhaps the best concert of his life…an instant of artistic grace.”

The spontaneous beauty of Cliburn’s playing, the mixture of immaculate technique and urgent lyricism he brought to the music, earned him an eight-minute standing ovation. “Van looked and played like some kind of angel,” the Russian pianist Andrei Gavrilov said. “He didn’t fit the evil image of capitalists that had been painted for us by the Soviet government.”

Joseph Horowitz wrote in The Ivory Trade (1990):

His lanky six feet four inches, his blue eyes and mop of frizzy blond hair, were recognized everywhere. People hugged and kissed him on the street, calling him “Vanya” and “Vanyushka.” He was showered with flowers and personal mementos. Women wept when he played, and students shouted “First prize!” Outside the…

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