A True American Idol: Van Cliburn (1934-2013)


This posting is dedicated to the memory of my sister-in-law, Carol Klose. She was a noted pianist, music educator and composer who greatly admired Van Cliburn and passed away just a few days before he did.

Van Cliburn and his teacher Rosa Lhevine

Van Cliburn and his teacher Rosa Lhevine

With the recent death of pianist Van Cliburn, the piano world lost one of its brightest stars of the post-WWII generation. Van Cliburn was a rarity among modern concert pianist in that he was a huge international celebrity as well as a remarkable pianist.

The Cold War between the West and the Communists is quickly fading from our collective memory. The Berlin Wall (1961-1989) symbolized the decades of mutual hostility and threatened nuclear destruction. Since its fall in 1989 the world is a better place and most of us have moved on.

The death of Van Cliburn is a reminder for those of us who lived through the Cold War of what a big deal he was in the late fifties at the height of the Cold War. For those of you who weren’t around during the Cold War, this will, perhaps, explain to you some of countries attitudes about the rest of the world.

The Red Scare was a real part of American life for decades.

The Red Scare was a real part of American life for decades.

The Cold War is considered to have begun in 1947 with the Russian blockade of Berlin. Toward the end of World War II the Allied Powers, particularly the US, Britain, France and the Soviet Union, began their plans for dividing Germany into East and West. Berlin was in the East and behind the Iron Curtain that now divided Europe. Berlin was divided between French, British, American and Soviet sectors but, because of its isolation from West Germany and the rest of free Europe, it was very vulnerable to attack or interference by the Soviet forces that flooded in at the end of the War.

The Western Allies airlifted supplies into Berlin to break the blockade but the division of Berlin remained a tense issue among the world powers for the next four decades. The Berlin Wall was erected in 1961 to solidify Soviet control of East Berlin and make it more difficult for the citizens of East Berlin to escape to the West.

Adding to the tension in Europe, the Communist Chinese involvement in the Korean War (1950-1953) had the post-World War II world on edge for decades.

It was into this dangerous world that Van Cliburn came to notice with a Carnegie Hall performance of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 in 1954.

So this brilliant, 20-year old piano player from Texas was already making a name for himself as an up-and-coming concert pianist. At the time two towering figures dominated the concert stage Arthur Rubinstein (1887-1982) and Vladimir Horowitz (1903-1989). A number of very talented young American pianist were, like Van Cliburn, hoping to unseat these Kings of the piano, among them Leon Fleisher (b. 1928), Byron Janis (B. 1928) and Gary Graffman (b. 1928).

In the end only death unseated Rubinstein and Horowitz but their young challengers all went on to have successful careers as concert pianist. But only Van Cliburn became a true American Idol and household name.

In 1958, Van Cliburn traveled to the heart of Communist Beast in Moscow to participate in the first annual Tchaikovsky Piano Competition:

Unfortunately, most Americans both today and in 1958 could care less about a classical piano competition being held in Europe. But when Van Cliburn actually won the competition defeating a couple of “atheist Ruskies” and a “heathen Chinese”, it electrified America as much as Jessie Owens’ victories under Adolf Hitler’s nose in the 1936 Berlin Summer Olympics.

Van Cliburn's Ticker Tape Welcome to New York in April 1958. The only musician to be so honored.

Van Cliburn’s Ticker Tape Welcome to New York in April 1958. The only musician to be so honored.

Van Cliburn was suddenly everywhere: television, radio, magazines. He even got a ticker tape parade in New York City. To his credit, Van Cliburn used his vast fame and immense musical talent to try to bridge the enormous gap that then existed between the West and East and especially between the people of America and Russia.

Not long ago, Van Cliburn was interviewed on the PBS News Hour and discussed his sudden rise to international fame and his amazing role in American and musical history.

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