Van Cliburn shot to fame when he won the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1958. His face even graced the cover of Time magazine under the headline ‘The Texan Who Conquered Russia’.
The pianist was born in Shreveport, Louisiana in 1934 and began piano lessons at the age of three with his mother, Rildia Bee O’Bryan Cliburn. Rildia was herself an accomplished musician, having studied under Arthur Friedheim, who had been a pupil of Liszt.
At the age of 12 he won a state piano competition and five years later enrolled at the Juilliard School in New York.
Between the years 1952 and 1958 – when he won the Tchaikovsky competiton – Van Cliburn won all but one of the competitions that he entered.
Returning to the US, Cliburn was greeted by a ticker-tape parade in New York – the first musician to be awarded the honour – and became a superstar. His recording of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1, conducted by Kirill Kondrashin, was the first classical recording to go platinum, selling a million copies.
‘Van looked and played like some kind of angel,’ said pianist Andrei Gavrilov, who also wrote a biography of Cliburn. ‘He didn’t fit the evil image of capitalists that had been painted for us by the Soviet government.’
In 1978 he stopped giving concerts, saying in an interview later that he was ‘tired of living out of a suitcase, lying nearly every day, never having a home. I could never go the opera, which I adore, or a friend’s concert, or a movie. By 1978 I was ready to be bored for a while, to have a regular life. I wanted a house with all my things around me.’
Many critics suggested that Cliburn’s early success and intensive performance schedule had meant that he ‘burned out’.
In 1962 he set up the Van Cliburn International Music Competition, which is held every four years. Past winners have included Radu Lupu and Nobuyuki Tsujii. The competition is to be held for the 14th time this year between 24 May – 9 June.
A former executive director of the competition, Richard Rodzinski said: ‘He brought music to millions of people who heretofore had not been exposed to classical music. The extraordinary popularity that he enjoyed, becoming virtually a household name. I don’t think any other performer in America achieved that status. I don’t think even Leonard Bernstein had that kind of popularity.’
Cliburn has played for every American president since Harry Truman and in 2003 George W Bush presented him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The following year he was awarded the Order of Friendship of the Russian Federation.
He is survived by his long-time companion Thomas L Smith.