Pianist Van Cliburn was a Cold War musical hero

Anthony Tommasini / New York Times News Service /

Published Feb 28, 2013 at 04:00AM

Van Cliburn, the American pianist whose first-place award at the 1958 Tchaikovsky International Competition in Moscow made him an overnight sensation and propelled him to a phenomenally successful and lucrative career, though a short-lived one, died Wednesday in Fort Worth, Texas. He was 78.

His publicist, Mary Lou Falcone, confirmed the death, saying that Cliburn had been treated for bone cancer and that he died at his home, which he shared with Thomas Smith, who survives him.

Cliburn, a Texan, was a lanky 23-year-old when he clinched the gold medal in the inaugural year of the Tchaikovsky competition, and the feat, in Moscow, was viewed as an American triumph over the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War. He became a cultural celebrity and brought overdue attention to the musical assets of his native land.

When Cliburn returned to New York, he was given a ticker-tape parade in Manhattan with about 100,000 people lining the streets and cheering, never before done for a classical musician.

Cliburn was a naturally gifted pianist whose enormous hands spanned 12 notes each. He developed a commanding technique, cultivated an exceptionally warm tone and manifested solid musical instincts. At its best, his playing had a surging Romantic fervor, but leavened by an unsentimental restraint that seemed peculiarly American. The towering Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter, a juror for the competition, described Cliburn as a genius — a word, he added, “I do not use lightly about performers.”

But if the Tchaikovsky competition represented Cliburn’s breakthrough, it also turned out to be his undoing. Audiences everywhere wanted to hear him in his prizewinning pieces, the Tchaikovsky First Concerto and the Rachmaninoff Third.

“When I won the Tchaikovsky I was only 23, and everyone talked about that,” Cliburn said in 2008. “But I felt like I had been at this thing for 20 years already. It was thrilling to be wanted. But it was pressure, too.”

During the 1960s, he played less and less. By 1978, he had retired from the concert stage; he returned in 1989, but performed only rarely.