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

Pianist Van Cliburn, Warmed Russian Hearts During Cold War

Play associated audio

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.' "

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

NPR

Comedian George Carlin Is National Portrait Gallery's Newest Face

NPR's Audie Cornish talks to Kelly Carlin, the daughter of the late comedian George Carlin, about the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery's unveiling of her father's portrait Friday.
NPR

Guess What Makes The Cut As A 'Smart Snack' In Schools? Hot Cheetos

Frito-Lay has reformulated Flamin' Hot Cheetos to meet new federal nutrition standards for school snacks. That's been a big hit with school kids, but the rules' creators say the snack is still junk.
NPR

Nigerian President Faces Tough Reelection Campaign

Nigerians head to the polls Saturday to vote for their new president. The incumbent Goodluck Jonathan faces former military leader, Muhammadu Buhari, who says he's tough on security and corruption.
NPR

App That Aims To Make Books 'Squeaky Clean' Draws Ire From Edited Writers

Clean Reader — an app designed to find, block and replace profanity in books — has drawn considerable criticism from authors. This week, makers of the app announced they would no longer sell e-books.

Leave a Comment

Help keep the conversation civil. Please refer to our Terms of Use and Code of Conduct before posting your comments.