Van Cliburn, one of the most prominent American concert pianists of the twentieth century, was born Harvey Lavan Cliburn, Jr., on July 12, 1934, in Shreveport, Louisiana. In 1941 his father, Harvey Lavan Cliburn, Sr., relocated their family to Kilgore, Texas, to work in the exploding East Texas oil industry. His mother, Rildia Bee (O’Bryan) Cliburn, was a gifted pianist—she had studied in Manhattan with Arthur Friedheim, a student of Franz Liszt and Anton Rubinstein—and gave lessons from their home. His mother recognized her son’s prodigious aptitude for the keyboard after the three-year-old “Van” imitated a student’s performance of Caroline Crawford’s Arpeggio Waltz. She immediately began instructing him, and within a short time, he performed at Dodd College in Shreveport.
Cliburn quickly achieved a reputation as a musical wunderkind, and he performed widely during his adolescent years in East Texas. In addition to the lessons he received from his mother, he was also able to hear performances by—and meet—legendary concert pianists José Iturbi and Arthur Rubinstein in Kilgore and Dallas. At the age of thirteen, after winning a contest, he played in Carnegie Hall alongside other talented young pianists. Once he graduated from Kilgore High School in 1951, Cliburn entered the renowned Juilliard School of Music, where he studied with Rosina Lhévinne, a distinguished representative of the Russian school of piano expression and technique. During the 1950s he was a rising piano star; he performed across the United States, won a number of prestigious awards, and his hometown of Kilgore declared April 8, 1953, as “Van Cliburn Day.”
His extraordinary success in piano competitions included first prize in the 1954 Leventritt Competition. Consequently Van Cliburn debuted with the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall and became, at age twenty, a Steinway artist. He graduated from Juilliard in 1955 and around that time signed on with Columbia Artist Management.
Cliburn’s most significant achievement, however, came on April 11, 1958, when he won the inaugural International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. Upon the completion of his final performance (he performed Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto) for the competition, the audience gave him a standing ovation and cheered for more than eight minutes; the judges allowed Cliburn to take a second bow. The Texan pianist’s success at the competition was a landmark in the “Thaw,” a period of considerable reform in the Soviet Union and the relaxation of tension between the Cold War superpowers. Culture—from music to art to film—was an important part of the rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union in the post-World War II era. Allowing an American to win such an important music competition in the Soviet Union demonstrated Nikita Khrushchev’s willingness to break with the extreme censorship and cultural control of Joseph Stalin, his predecessor. For citizens of the United States, it was a major cultural victory, especially after the Soviets’ recent launch of Sputnik into space. Cliburn’s win was an international media sensation, and he was greeted with a ticker tape parade in New York City when he returned.
He was featured on the cover of the May 19, 1958, issue of Time magazine as “The Texan Who Conquered Russia.” Cliburn, however, did not see himself as a “conqueror” and, upon his return to the United States, published a statement, “There are no political barriers to music. The same blood running through Americans also runs through the Soviet people and compels us to create and enjoy the same art….”
From the late 1950s until the mid-1970s, Cliburn was a major force in classical music across the globe. He studied conducting with Bruno Walter, toured across the world and for the U. S. State Department, and his 1958 RCA recording of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 was the first classical recording to sell a million copies and go platinum. It also earned a Grammy for Best Classical Performance—Instrumentalist (With Concerto Scale Accompaniment). Van Cliburn won a second Grammy (Best Classical Performance—Concerto or Instrumental Soloist [With Full Orchestral Accompaniment]) in 1959 for his live recording of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3. In 1962 the National Guild of Piano Teachers and the Van Cliburn Foundation hosted in Fort Worth the first quadrennial Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, a world-recognized event that continues today.
During the years of his dedicated concert work, Cliburn provided considerable force in the tilt towards the United States in the classical music world. He performed for U. S. presidents, royalty, and many heads of state. His global celebrity helped America build a reputation in Western art music, a sphere long dominated by Europe. His prestige as a global concert star—combined with the contemporary transformation of art music by John Cage, the rising appreciation of jazz as a complex musical form, and the influence of Abstract Expressionism over painting—helped raise the intellectual status of the United States in the eyes of the rest of the world. This sort of cultural esteem, as the C.I.A. and American State Department recognized, was an essential component in the competition of the Cold War.
After the deaths of his father and manager, Sol Hurok, in the first months of 1974, Cliburn began to purposefully slow down his career. In 1978 he stopped performing in public altogether. In 1987 Van Cliburn returned to public performances and was invited by President Ronald Reagan to play at a formal recital at the White House for Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev. During the ensuing years, Cliburn returned to Moscow to perform at the Great Hall of Moscow Conservatory, played at Carnegie Hall for its 100th anniversary season, and staged opening performances for a number of new concert halls. Overall, however, he gave concerts only infrequently during these later years. Despite this, Cliburn continued to receive awards during the last decades of his life. His many honors included the Kennedy Center Honors Award in 2001, the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2003, the Order of Friendship (from Russia) in 2004, a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2004, and the National Medal of the Arts in 2011. He was also the recipient of more than twenty honorary doctorate degrees.
Throughout his life, Cliburn remained a committed Baptist, and, after he left New York City and permanently returned to Texas in the mid-1980s, he was a member of the Broadway Baptist Church of Fort Worth. Cliburn passed away at his home in Fort Worth on February 27, 2013. He was buried in Greenwood Memorial Park and Mausoleum in Fort Worth.