Pianist Van Cliburn, who was born on July 12, 1934 and who was catapulted to international stardom by his victory at the inaugural International Tchaikovsky Competition in 1958, died yesterday at the age of 78 at his home in Fort Worth, Texas.
Upon his return from his landmark victory in Moscow, Cliburn was given a hero’s welcome and a ticker-tape parade through the streets of New York City, after which he addressed the crowd as follows: “I appreciate more than you will ever know that you are honoring me, but the thing that thrills me the most is that you are honoring classical music. Because I’m only one of many. I’m only a witness and a messenger. Because I believe so much in the beauty, the construction, the architecture invisible, the importance for all generations, for young people to come, that it will help their minds, develop their attitudes, and give them values. That is why I’m so grateful that you have honored me in that spirit.”
Throughout his life, Cliburn remained true to that ideal. Neither in his stage presence nor in his playing did he seek to draw attention to himself, but always to the music. He was quiet and composed at the keyboard; there were never any histrionics or facial contortions. More important, his interpretations were free from eccentricity; he viewed himself always as a servant of the composer. In a 2008 PBS interview, he expressed his view of that responsibility very succinctly: “You want to be faithful to what they wrote; you want to be able to convey that to someone else.”
The tall, handsome, soft-spoken Texan with his all-encompassing command of the Romantic repertoire was an ideal ambassador for classical music, and it is impossible to overstate the impact he had here in the United States. I described his influence on me in my post of September 17, 2009, but briefly, Cliburn was one of my first heroes of the piano. I saw him in recital three times during the ‘60s, and among my many classical albums, I count no fewer than four of his. Between his recitals and his records, he introduced me to many staples of the piano literature, including the 5th concerto by Beethoven, the 2nd of Rachmaninoff, the 3rd sonata by Chopin, the 6th by Prokofiev, and the sonata by Samuel Barber, all of which have become lasting favorites of mine.
The following article by Tim Madigan of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram captures not only the impact of Cliburn’s victory, but also something of the spirit of the man.
There are many examples of Cliburn’s artistry on YouTube, as well as a number of revealing interviews. To honor his memory, I have chosen his performance of the magnificent sonata by Franz Liszt, one of the most daunting works in the piano repertoire. This performance dates from a 1960 recital in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory.
It would be easy to end this tribute with a comment like, “He will be missed,” but for Cliburn’s vast legion of fans and admirers – of which I am one – there is no need to miss him at all. His recorded legacy is simply enormous, and extends from Mozart to Barber. For those of us who didn’t know him personally but loved his playing, he is with us still as much as ever.