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Van Cliburn remembered

by Jerome Weeks 14 Apr 2008 8:03 AM

Van Cliburn plays Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto #1, movement 3 ______________________________________________ Van Cliburn: Concert Pianist, an hour-long documentary, narrated by Dan Rather, will be aired on KERA, Sunday, April 20 at 12 p.m. Video excerpts from the show: Part I  Part II  Part III.  Weekend Edition feature on “Treasuring Moscow After 50 Years.” To listen to this on-air feature, […]


Van Cliburn plays Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto #1, movement 3


ANNOUNCER: Fifty years ago an extraordinary confluence of international politics and art produced one of the most sensational musical stories of the 20th century. A 23-year-old Texan, Van Cliburn, won the first International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow.

For anyone born after about 1945, it’s hard to grasp the impact of Van Cliburn’s victory. The world was different back in 1958. A cold war was under way, and it was not entirely clear to many Americans who was going to win it.

The Soviet Union seemed a dark and sinister place. It was mostly closed to outsiders, and to increase Americans’ sense of vulnerability, the Soviets seemed to be surpassing them technologically. Less than six months before Cliburn emplaned for Moscow, the Soviets shocked Americans by launching Sputnik 1, the world’s first artificial satellite. Within a month’s time they launched a second. Some feared that intercontinental ballistic missiles might soon follow.

Art was less obviously dangerous, but still it was a political tool in the hands of the Soviets, and when they announced that they were planning a musical competition to be named for Russia’s most famous composer, it was clear that they expected a Soviet pianist to win and confirm superiority in art as well as technology.

It was their misfortune that there existed a young American pianist who was not only immensely gifted but who seemed to be possessed of a Russian soul. He excelled in just the sort of music that Russians considered their territory.

When Van Cliburn gave his first performance in the preliminaries on April 2, 1958, it was the Soviets’ turn to be shocked. He set the Moscow audience to buzzing. By the time he joined the Moscow State Symphony on April 11 for his finals performances — Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto and Rachmaninoff’s Third — his victory was complete. There was something just short of a riot of approval.

The Soviet members of the jury had a problem, however. If they gave the top prize to an American, there might be high-level repercussions. The matter went all the way to the top, to Nikita Khrushchev, who had become premier of the Soviet Union while Cliburn was in Moscow. Khrushchev endorsed a Cliburn victory. The decision made him an international superstar.

When Cliburn returned to the United States, there was a triumphant concert in Carnegie Hall, a ticker-tape parade down Broadway reminiscent of Charles Lindbergh’s ecstatic return from Paris 30 years previously, a meeting with President Eisenhower, an appearance on the Tonight show playing the last movement of the Tchaikovsky, and recordings that shattered sales records.

What accounted for the reaction to Van Cliburn? Talent helped, of course, and the fact that he felt artistically at home on Russian territory. Also his personality. He remains to this day a friendly and unassuming man with a sort of naiveté that is appealing in a cynical age. But above all it was the international political situation. Van Cliburn’s victory was like a huge sigh of relief in a tense age.