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Van Cliburn and Barack Obama, 2010
Van Cliburn and President Obama in 2010
(Alex Wong / Getty Images)

News reports today (27 February 2013) say that pianist Van Cliburn has died at his Fort Worth home. He had been suffering from bone cancer.

In 1958, at the height of the Cold War, Harvey Lavan Cliburn Jr won the International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow, his performance of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto #1 and the Rachmaninoff Third prompting an eight-minute standing ovation. The judges, fearful of reprisal, had to ask Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev for clearance to award First Prize to an American. Khrushchev reportedly responded, "Is he the best? Then give him the prize." On Cliburn’s return, New York greeted him with a ticker tape parade – an honor never since accorded any other classical musician.

Cliburn recorded the Tchaikovsky concerto for RCA that same year. The disc won the 1958 Grammy Award for Best Classical Performance and became the first classical recording to sell more than one million copies. As far as I can tell, the recording has never been out of print.

In 1978, after the deaths of his father and his manager, Cliburn largely stopped performing in public and on recordings. His few appearances from that year included a White House performance in 1987 – in fact, Van Cliburn played for every US president from Dwight Eisenhower to Barack Obama. Cliburn returned to the concert stage in 1994 with a 16-stop tour. In August of last year, his publicist announced that he had been diagnosed with advanced bone cancer and was undergoing treatment.

Cliburn’s legacy will survive not only in his many recordings, but in the Van Cliburn Foundation and the competition which bears his name, the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.

Further reading:

Van Cliburn at Wikipedia

Van Cliburn Discography at AllMusic

Van Cliburn Foundation

The Texan Who Conquered RussiaTime cover, 19 May 1958

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