Arts & Culture News

Van Cliburn: An Appreciation

Editor's note: Observer contributor and local piano instructor Katie Womack was especially moved by the death yesterday of pianist Van Cliburn, whose namesake competition she was gushing about just last week. We asked for her take on Cliburn's death.

Wednesday morning one of America's most storied classical music performers, pianist Van Cliburn, died of bone cancer in his home in Fort Worth. While his life's achievements are the stuff of history books, yesterday he was remembered by friends and loved ones not only for his musical talent, but also for his humility, kindness and class.

Born in Shreveport and raised in Kilgore, Texas, Van Cliburn grew up learning to play piano from his mother, a classically trained pianist whose teacher was a pupil of Franz Liszt. By the age of 5, little Van knew he wanted a career as a star pianist. What he couldn't have imagined as a boy is how his ability and passion at the piano would influence world politics.

In 1958, Van Cliburn traveled to Moscow and won the first International Tchaikovsky Competition at age 23. Winning this competition can still launch careers, but Van Cliburn's success caused bigger waves. Be it nuclear weapons or space travel, Russia and the United States were locked in a race to prove superiority during the cold war. In a competition designed to showcase Russian artistic excellence, Van Cliburn stunned the world by playing Russian music better than the Russians themselves and winning over the coldest of audiences. The victory was as much patriotic as artistic.

A ticker tape parade in Times Square and the cover of Time magazine pronouncing him "The Texan Who Conquered Russia" greeted Van Cliburn upon his return to the States. He became one of the century's most famous and recognizable classical musicians, accumulating an impressive awards roster including the Presidential Medal of Freedom and National Medal of the Arts, the Grammys' Lifetime Achievement Award, Kennedy Honors and Russia's highest citizen honor, the Russian Order of Friendship. Perhaps more importantly, his generation saw him as a symbol that beauty and art can trump war, hatred and fear.

A half-century old victory is only part of this man's story. Tall, handsome and shy, his performance career was uneven later in life, but his dedication to the piano and to the support of young pianists' careers was tireless. He was a gay man and also a devoutly religious Baptist congregate who, since the 1980s, has made his home in Fort Worth, where he established a foundation and quadrennial international piano competition.

On its website, the Van Cliburn foundation announced today that the upcoming 14th International Van Cliburn Piano Festival (May 24-June 9) will be dedicated to its namesake. The website's statement speaks to the gravity of loss his community will feel in his absence:

"His legacy is one of being a great humanitarian, a great musician, a great colleague, and a great friend to all who knew and loved him. Van is iconic, and we at the Van Cliburn Foundation join the world in mourning the loss of a true giant."

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Katie Womack
Contact: Katie Womack