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Van Cliburn: the end

The American pianist died today of  bone cancer at his home in Fort Worth. He was 78.

Van Cliburn won the inaugural Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1958, provoking a new Cold War at the keyboard in which the Soviets invested every imaginable resource and threat to produce a winner of their own. (Watch below at 3:05).

Welcomed back in New York with a ticker-tape parade, he became and remained the most famous American classical pianist.

van cliburnvan cliburn time

A shy man, he avoided long-distance travel and was content to be an American idol. The piano competition that he founded in his own name cemented his iconic status. He was a trailblazer for piano playing, a genius at using mass media for the benefit of art, rather than image. He announced the diagnosis of terminal cancer in August 2012 and made one final appearance the following month.

He will be sorely missed. UPDATE: Tribute by a Russian Tchaikovsky winner.

Here is the Associated Press obituary. And, below, the official announcement from the Cliburn Foundation:

Fort Worth, Texas, February 27, 2013-It is with great sadness that Carla Kemp Thompson, chairman of the Van Cliburn Foundation, acknowledges the death of Van Cliburn. Mr. Cliburn died peacefully in his home in Fort Worth, Texas, surrounded by loved ones, on February 27, 2013.

The cause of death was bone cancer. Van Cliburn was 78 years old (born July 12, 1934, in Shreveport, Louisiana – died February 27, 2013, in Fort Worth, Texas). He is survived by his friend of long standing, Thomas L. Smith.

Said Thompson: “Van was a treasured member of the Fort Worth community who belonged to the world. 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 international community in mourning the loss of a true giant.”

The Fourteenth Van Cliburn International Piano, taking place May 24-June 9, 2013, at Fort Worth’s Bass Performance Hall, is dedicated to the memory of Van Cliburn.

For funeral information: Thompson’s Harveson & Cole, 702 8th Avenue, Fort Worth, Texas 76104, 817.336.0345

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  1. Robert Levin says:

    His recording of Brahms No. 2 with Reiner and the CSO remains one of the great performances of this monumental work. The world will miss Van deeply. He was a great pianist and musician, but more importantly, he was a superb human being with a heart of gold.

  2. Although he was performing more and more rarely in his later years, Van Cliburn was truly the last living representative of the “golden age” of Romantic pianism — in a good sense, nota bene. I had the good fortune to hear him live in Houston in the late 1960′s. Perhaps the young Daniil Trifonov will be a worthy successor to his legacy?


  3. Herbert Pauls says:

    I never had the privilege of hearing him live, but through recordings his playing first captured my imagination when I was a child of 10. And the music-making has never lost its magic. Even though almost all of his recordings are on my shelf, I think this is a good time to treat myself to the splendid new complete Jacket Collection.

    And now, how about some more live recordings. There must be many more treasures out there waiting to be heard. A Mozart No. 25, perhaps, or his return to Russia after his retirement.

  4. Such sad news. I met Van when we shared a program in 1976 at the Westchester County Center. He played the Grieg and Beethoven Emperor on a program that also featured the premiere of my A Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776 narrated by Oscar winning actor Jose Ferrer, no less. It was a heady night for this 25 year old composer. Van was remarkably gentle and kind backstage, introducing me to his mother, and showing me his cast-off tuxedo shirt collars.

    “Only $25 each from Brooks Brothers!” he said. “And you can throw them away after each performance!”

    The concert of course was sold out – 4,000 seats – with the Governor of the State of New York and Robert Merrill in attendance among other luminaries. I laughed to Van that my music was a real draw. He giggled and hugged me.

    A cherished memory of a great musician but a greater man. What a sweetheart!

    • Herman Geist says:

      Michael-looking for you. I was chair of the Bi-Centenial Commission when we adopted the concert.
      my email (hsgeist@gmail) where are you now

  5. Petros Linardos says:

    Van Cliburn was a member of a formidable generation of American pianists born in the 1920s, which included Leon Fleisher, Julius Katchen, Byron Janis, William Kappell, Eugene Istomin among others. Can anyone explain the background of this golden age ?

    • Hard to explain in twenty words or less. :)

      Generally speaking, it is like the history of the USA. People who were persecuted in other countries for whatever reason, usually religious and/or political persecution, found their way to this country at various times in hopes of being able to live their lives and their beliefs in relative peace. Although prominent American composers can be found as early as the time of Thomas Jefferson and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, it wasn’t until the latter part of the 19th century that classical music really became “popular” in the sense that audiences of meaningful numbers could be drawn to performances of that music.

      The first performers of note were European (including Russian): Anton Rubinstein, for example, played over 200 concerts in one season on tour in the USA in 1872-73 traveling by train from one venue to the next (he insisted on being paid in gold, and later vowed that he would never do it again). But in the meantime, American pianists and composers were not idle: many travelled to Europe to study with such greats as Franz Liszt (Amy Fay left us a very delightful and colorful report of her journeys). Louis Moreau Gottschalk, Edward MacDowell, Charles Griffes were others. One notable exception in that generation was Amy Beach (Mrs. H.H.A. Beach) who received all of her training in the USA. But as a rule, American musicians went to Europe until 1930 or so to finish their education. Many prominent American composers studied in Paris with Nadia Boulanger, for example, during the decades between the two world wars.

      On the other hand, there were many famous musicians who came to the USA as early as the late 19th century and stayed there to perform and teach. Many were Russians who escaped the Communist revolution in 1918, perhaps after an initial sojourn in France or Germany (Stravinsky, Rachmaninoff, Horowitz, Milstein, Heifetz, as well as Josef and Rosina Lhevinne come to mind). After the onset of WWII there were many others — for example, Artur Schnabel (teacher of Leon Fleisher, among others). The two world wars, together with the Communist revolution in Russia, set multitudes of people in motion. Most of the musicians among them came to the USA to work and live.

      The “golden age” of American pianism can be largely traced to these waves of immigration. Van Cliburn was a student of Rosina Lhevinne at Juilliard. Before that, he studied with his mother, who had studied with Arthur Friedheim (a Russian expat who had studied with Liszt and Anton Rubinstein). As such, he had been steeped in the late Romantic, predominantly Russian and Liszt-influenced aesthetic of piano playing since he was a child.

    • Oleg Sherstiucoff says:

      first of all I am extremely sad with the news of his death
      what does Robert mean by repeating “russian” throughout his comment -The Rubinstein Brothers were Jews immersed in German Tradition [who were being blantly insulted throughout all theirl ives in Russia by "authentic russian" musiciens]and only by their tremendous efforts there in Russia finally was implanted even such a “notion” as formal musical training and…there was nothing special about a fact that some numbers of “their pupils” came BACK to Europe as well as the US

      • Yes, many of the musicians I mentioned were Jewish. Neither Stravinsky nor Rachmaninoff were Jewish, though.

        • Oleg Sherstiucoff says:

          What I meant was that the institutions of formal musical education in Russian Empire were of purely “European” origin in character and even stayed on that “european course” in Soviet Union despite bolshewik pressure with their “socialist realism – whatever it means”

  6. Leonard Slatkin says:

    Van was a tremendous personality. His demeanor, his artistry and his humor will be remembered by each person he touched. Everyone should listen to “Widmung” and remember this towering figure in music.

  7. richardcarlisle says:

    His life a gift for countless fans, recordings a musical treasure … his early recording of Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto radiant with vibrancy of unequaled passion throughout, an unforgettable treat.

    Wonderful example to us all, personally and culturally.

  8. I had thought that Van Cliburn, and others, such as Glen Gould and Yehuda Menuhin, brought about limited but hugely important breakthroughs in the Cold War, transcending, as they did, political barriers to share their art with the people. I think it was no accident that a highly politicized cultural bureaucracy would have awarded it to a deserving Van Cliburn, not only for his marvelous playing and generous spirit, but also because the government was reaching out, albeit tentatively, to the West.

    • As I recall the story, they didn’t want to award the prize to Van before asking Nikita Chrushchev whether it was OK or not. He then asked the members of the jury (both Richter and Gilels were on the jury, I think) if Van was the best contestant. They all said yes — so Chrushchev told them to give the prize to Van.

      In spite of all the banging of shoes on tables, it was Chrushchev — not necessarily the government — who was reaching out. And like other leaders after him (Gorbachev comes to mind), he was later punished for that (by the Russians, not necessarily by international opinion).

  9. This is a great loss for classical music. Less and less of the names are now recognized by the general public. Van Cliburn was one of few that was known outside of the musical world. Attending his concert was an event, and he will be surely missed. Can you imagine today someone getting a ticker-tape parade for winning a classical music competition? How times have changed!!

  10. very sad , sad moment…..

  11. Fine pianist and a gentleman. One can not begin to calculate his effect on the financial health of many institutions. His name on a series was enough to sell out the complete series. In the 60s and 70s Cliburn played the dates from coast to coast where they paid his fee. He was just as committed to the Kalamazoo Symphony as the Boston Symphony. Apart from Rubinstein no other artists could sell a series and thereby promoting on his coat tails many younger and less well known artists. Sol Hurok and RCA took full advantage and promoted him throughout the land.

  12. Peter Francomb says:

    Such sad news, a wonderful man and performer. Back in 1976, at the International Festival of Youth Orchestras, I was very fortunate to be awarded a Van Cliburn Foundation Scholarship, which funded a post graduate year at the Guildhall School of Music. Not on the piano, but the French Horn. I studied with, and met people who were crucial to my career. I shall always be grateful to Van Cliburn for the opportunities given to me by his generosity.

    • Hi Peter. I was there in ’76 when you won the scholarship! Hadn’t realised how pivotal that was for you.
      I played 1st horn in Siegried Idyll for my local amateur orchestra last night and probably wouldn’t have done so well without your influence and inspiration that remains with me all these years later! So Van Cliburn’s support via his scholarship programme trickles on down!
      I gather you were at Dartington last summer – if you come again it would be great to meet up – it’s just down the road from me. Clive Buckland(-Bork).

  13. Oleg Sherstiucoff says:

    Such sad news….
    I too never had the privilege of hearing him live, but through recordings his playing captured my imagination so I just managed to “dig” out my “soviet-made(!!!) “Melodiya” Van Cliburn-Kondrashin 1958 Beethoven-Liszt-Tchaikovsky SUCD 10-00250

  14. Bruce Brubaker says:

    It’s fair to say that Van Cliburn made the world safe for the American male pianists of my generation. As Schumann has Eusebius savor pronouncing the syllables of the name Beethoven — my colleagues and I said “Cli-burn.” Just the idea of him emboldened us.

  15. Some interesting background music in the clip – frustratingly, I think
    I only recognize the piece opening and closing it – Tchaikovsky’s
    “Francesca da Rimini” (in what sounds like a typical way-over-the-top
    Golovanov performance) – or am I wrong?

    What about the music at 0:55?



  16. John Parfrey says:

    The one time I heard him live in concert (in the mid-1970s) he delivered the most awful performance of the Emperor Concerto. I’m not a hyper-critical person, but the poor man sounded like he was playing with mittens on. The Milwaukee Journal reviewer was unsparing in her account. It was embarrassing, and I felt sorry for him. He retired from performing not long after that, and I wondered for years just what was happening. Later accounts of his being unable to adapt to heavy schedules and the kind of travel that was becoming more and more the norm even by then would seem to offer up some of the explanation for this.

    Needless to say, though, his contribution to the popularizing of classical music in this country was enormous, not to mention the major careers of some other major artists who got their first big push through his competition. While his performing days were well behind him, his artistry and imprint on our culture was truly large and will be remembered,

  17. Hugh Middleton says:

    He was such an inspiration to me as a young pianist. When I shook hands with him the first time I MET HIM I WAS CERTAIN I HAD JUST MET GOD

    He was such an inspiration to me as a young pianist. The first time I met him and shook hands with him I was certain I had just met God. I still remember the “return home” concert he gave in Shreveport, LA after the Tchaikowsky.

  18. His generosity of spirit was truly inspiring . Van was a noble poet at the piano . He would give everything of himself. We are so very fortunate to have his videos and recordings. His sonority was unique and golden.

    In his prime he was an ideal artist for any generation. There is so much to be grateful for when I listen to his playing. Thank you Van for the beautiful music !

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