R.I.P Van Cliburn: Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1

In 1958, Van Cliburn shocked the world by winning the 1958 Tchaikovsky International Competition in Moscow in its inaugural year.

Mr. Cliburn, a Texan, was a lanky 23-year-old when he clinched the gold medal in the inaugural year of the Tchaikovsky competition, and the feat, in Moscow, was viewed as an American triumph over the Soviet Union at the height of the cold war. He became a cultural celebrity of pop-star dimensions and brought overdue attention to the musical assets of his native land.

When Mr. Cliburn returned to New York, he was given a ticker-tape parade in Lower Manhattan, which offered the sight of about 100,000 people lining the streets and cheering a classical musician.

In another highly unexpected scene, Premiere Nikita Khrushchev gave him a hearty embrace after the competition. And in a compassionate outburst for humanity, the Russian people also wildly cheered the 23 year old 6 ft 4 in, 23 year old American.

The impact of Mr. Cliburn’s victory was further enhanced by a series of vivid articles written for The New York Times by Max Frankel, then a foreign correspondent based in Moscow and later an executive editor of the paper. The reports of Mr. Cliburn’s progress — prevailing during the early rounds, making it to the finals and becoming the darling of the Russian people, who embraced him in the streets and flooded him with fan mail and flowers — created national anticipation as he went into the finals.

In his 1999 memoir, “The Times of My Life and My Life With The Times,” Mr. Frankel recalled his coverage of Mr. Cliburn’s triumph in Moscow: “The Soviet public celebrated Cliburn not only for his artistry but for his nationality; affection for him was a safe expression of affection for America.

So much money has been cut from our education system (especially for music programs) since Reagan took office, I'm still surprised that classical music lives on. I was introduced to music and was guided down that path after a test in the sixth grade uncovered I had a certain affinity towards music. I was admitted into the junior high school band and then took off to college and got a performance degree. I heard Van Cliburn at Hunter college for the first time -- it was the Tchaikovsky concerto piping through the college radio station. He left an indelible mark across the world and influenced pianists worldwide, and for that we should all be truly grateful. RIP Van Cliburn as your Cliburn Competition lives on.


We welcome relevant, respectful comments. Please refer to our Terms of Service for information on our posting policy.