Pianist Van Cliburn, Warmed Russian Hearts During Cold War | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio
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Pianist Van Cliburn, Warmed Russian Hearts During Cold War

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Van Cliburn thawed out the Cold War.

He went to Moscow in 1958 for the first International Tchaikovsky Competition. When he sat down to play, Russians saw a tall, 23-year-old Texan, rail thin and tousle-haired, with great, gangly fingers that grew evocative and eloquent when he played the music of the true Russian masters — Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky, and Borodin.

Cliburn died Wednesday at his home in Fort Worth, Texas. He was 78.

"Van looked and played like some kind of angel," the Russian pianist Andrei Gavrilov told a Cliburn biographer. "He didn't fit the evil image of capitalists that had been painted for us by the Soviet government."

Russians called him Vanya.

Cliburn won the International Tchaikovsky Competition, against all odds and expectations, and came home to a ticker-tape parade, like a triumphant general. But he told interviewers that he didn't feel he had conquered anything; he had simply played Russian music in a way that touched Russian souls.

"To know that these people knew all of this music and were interested in how I played it, that was such a thrill," he told us in 2008, on the 50th anniversary of his appearance in Moscow. "They were sweet and friendly, so passionate about music."

Cliburn's mother was his first piano teacher, and she made him hum and sing a piece of music before he played it.

"You'll know how to breathe into a line," he told us, "because onstage, we are the human voice. It may be a piano, but it's still a human voice."

Cliburn's fame rivaled Elvis Presley's for a time. His recording of Tchaikovsky's First Concerto went platinum. He played Madison Square Garden and the Hollywood Bowl.

Over the years, Cliburn was sometimes chided by music critics for playing the same popular pieces, over and over, all over the world. But his friend Michael Hawley, the MIT digital media educator and entrepreneur, and winner of the 2002 Cliburn International Piano Competition, told us, "Some will say he should have had a bigger career, while others wonder how it could possibly have been any bigger than it was. ... He found what he loved and poured his life into it with disarming sincerity... He single-handedly melted a hole in the Iron Curtain."

He told us once that he loved to play music late into the night at his wooded home in Fort Worth.

"You play alone," he said, "while the world's asleep ... like Rachmaninoff said, 'Music is enough for a lifetime, but a lifetime is not enough for music.' "

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