Van Cliburn was 23 years old when, on April 13, 1958, he won First Prize at the inaugural Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition in Moscow. This was not just a musical triumph but also a political one. This was the time of the Cold War, Khrushchev, Sputniks, spy-planes and heightened military tension between the US and USSR. The Tchaikovsky Competition had been designed by the Soviets to show the world the supremacy of their young artists. But this gangling, six-foot-four Texan played his way to victory, charming his hosts into submission (to millions of Russians he was known as ‘Vanyushka’). Previously unknown in America, Van Cliburn returned home a national hero and was rewarded with a ticker-tape parade as a welcome. No musician in history has ever inspired that. Indeed, very few pianists have ever made the front page for any reason, let alone for winning a piano competition. The cover of Time magazine proclaimed him as ‘The Texan Who Conquered Russia’.
Immediately after his success, Van Cliburn recorded his signature piece, Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No 1, with Kirill Kondrashin. It became the first classical album to sell a million (it sold 500,000 in the first year of its release). By the end of 1970 it had been in the US best-seller charts for 200 weeks. For a decade and more after his Moscow triumph, Van Cliburn toured and recorded relentlessly, America’s greatest good-will ambassador and a national icon.
He was born Harvey Lavan Cliburn Jr in Shreveport, Louisiana, the son of an oilman, Harvey Cliburn Sr. His ambitious mother, Rildia Bee O’Bryan Cliburn, had been a pupil of Arthur Friedheim who had studied with Liszt. She was her son’s first teacher. He gave his first recital at the age of four. After winning several local competitions, he graduated to the Juilliard School in 1951 where he was taught by the legendary Rosina Lhévinne, widow and duo-partner of the great Russian pianist Josef Lhévinne. Van Cliburn graduated in 1954 and the following year won the prestigious Leventritt Award. This kick-started his career but by 1957 it was fading. Mme Lhévinne encouraged him to enter the Tchaikovsky Competition with his classmate Daniel Pollack.
Van Cliburn’s playing was especially suited to the Romantic repertoire with a golden, burnished sound and a spacious grandeur – just the kind of attributes likely to rouse the Russians to fever pitch – and he was at his best in works like the Tchaikovsky No 1, Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto (the live recording with Kondrashin, despite imperfections, is among the most thrilling on disc) and MacDowell’s D minor Concerto. There were also excellent accounts of Prokofiev’s Sixth Sonata, Rachmaninov’s Second Sonata and much Chopin.
But as the years went by, Van Cliburn’s playing deteriorated. He added little to his repertoire and performances became emotionally tepid and earthbound. By the time he withdrew from active concert life in 1978, he was a mere shadow of his early promise, devoting his time to the International Piano Competition that bears his name, founded in 1962 in Fort Worth. He played at the White House in 1987 at a reception for Mikhail Gorbachev, and returned to Russia a few weeks later to give concerts in Moscow and Leningrad. In 1994 he made his first concert tour in 18 years. President George W Bush presented Cliburn with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honour in 2003. The following year, he received the Order of Friendship of the Russian Federation from Russian president Vladimir Putin.
He made his final public appearance last September at a ceremony marking the 50th anniversary of his Piano Competition, still adored by legions of his faithful fans. He died from bone cancer and is survived by his long time partner Thomas L Smith.