Van Cliburn

1934 2013

Van Cliburn

Piano

Biography

Van Cliburn later recalled his mother’s superb teaching, which emphasized the importance of lyricism, ‘My mother had a gorgeous singing voice. She always told me that the first instrument is the human voice. When you are playing the piano, it is not digital. You must find a singing sound—the “eye of the sound” she called it’.

While Cliburn’s musical talent ensured much success as a teenager, other aspects of his life were, in his own words, ‘a living hell’. By the age of 16, Cliburn was already an extraordinary 193cm (6’4”) tall. He was excused from participating in gym class and sports to prevent injury to his (massive) hands.

After graduating from high school, Cliburn finally accepted a scholarship to study at Julliard with Rosina Lhevinne. As he was completely uninterested in academic subjects outside of music, he enrolled in the diploma programme instead of the degree program. In 1954, the year of his graduation, Cliburn won the Leventritt award, which had not been awarded the previous three years, as the judges of the annual competition did not find any of the candidates to be worthy of the prize. The judges, which included Rudolf Serkin, George Szell and Leonard Bernstein, agreed unanimously that Cliburn should be awarded the prize. A busy concert schedule as the result of his victory prevented him from continuing with graduate studies at Julliard.

A few short years later, in 1957, Cliburn was drafted into the army. His army career lasted just two days though, as he was released due to frequent nosebleeds. By this point, Cliburn was already beginning to struggle, despite his success as a pianist. He was in debt and his managers were pushing him to tour Europe. It was, however, Lhevinne’s advise that led him to enter the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow.

With the help of a grant from the Martha Baird Rockefeller Aid to Music programme, Cliburn was able to travel to Moscow for the competition, where the rest of the costs were covered by the Soviet government. Cliburn was an instant favourite among the Russian people, who were amazed by the transformation of the boyish figure when he sat behind the piano. Observers described his demeanour as he played,‘he bent far back from the keys, staring into space, his head tilted in a kind of pained ecstasy. During rapid-fire passages he would lean in close, almost scowling at his fingers’. 

Harvey Lavan "Van" Cliburn was an American pianist who rose to prominence during the mid-twentieth century after a now-historic performance victory in Moscow, aged 23. Van Cliburn was hailed by Time magazine as “The Texan who conquered Russia” and “Horowitz, Liszt and Presley rolled into one”. He spectacularly won the First International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow in 1958, catapulting him to international acclaim to the universal renown of the critics. In 1958 he recorded Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto which proved to be a resounding success and was the first classical record to sell over a million copies. From 1960 to 1963, Van Cliburn made a number of recordings with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Fritz Reiner for RCA, such as the Schumann Piano Concerto in A Minor, Op. 54. The Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter, who was a member of the Moscow competition jury, regarded Cliburn as a genius (“[a word] ..I do not use lightly about performers”) and in the first round awarded Cliburn 100 points out of a possible 10, while he gave the other competitors zero. Dmitri Shostakovich was alsoon the jury, and he later proclaimed that it had taken success in the Soviet Union for the American public to realise what a great pianist they had produced.

Van Cliburn rose to international fame after winning the prestigious Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Russia at the age of 23, becoming a celebrity of pop-star dimensions overnight. In fact, he was the first musician to ever receive a ticker-tape parade in New York City. His repertoire was quite limited and included primarily Romantic works, more specifically the works of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov. Unfortunately, Van Cliburn’s career was short, as audiences were unappreciative of his efforts to expand his repertoire and he was not able to adapt to the times. Later, he founded what has become one of the leading piano competitions, the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. 

Harvey Lavan ‘Van’ Cliburn Jr. was born on 12 July 1934 in Shreveport, Louisiana. His father worked as a purchasing agent for an oil company and his mother, Rildia Bee O’Bryan, was an excellent pianist. She dreamt of becoming a professional pianist and studied with Liszt’s student Arthur Friedheim in New York. Unfortunately, her mother forbade her to pursue a musical career and instead she settled into family life.

Van Cliburn first began studying the piano with his mother when he was just three years old. He would continue to study with her until the age of 17. After just a year of his piano lessons, Cliburn was performing in student recitals. The family relocated to the town of Kilgore, Texas when Van was just six years old. As his talent for music was obvious, his father built a practice studio for him in their new house. It was also with this gesture that he had conceded that his son would pursue a musical career, despite his own wishes that he would become a medical missionary.

At just 13 years old, Cliburn won a competition in Texas, leading to a performance with the Houston Symphony Orchestra. The following year, he won the National Music Festival Award and performed in Carnegie Hall. Around this time, Cliburn’s mother became concerned that she was holding him back as she was not yet a well-connected pianist. She took her son to New York to attend masterclasses at Julliard. Despite receiving a scholarship offer for the preparatory division of the school, Van refused to study there, as he only wanted to study with his mother.

Throughout the competition, Max Frankel of The New York Times kept the American audiences updated and helped create much anticipation and encouragement for the young pianist. This all occurred at a difficult time, just after the Soviet’s launching of the world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik. According to Frankel, after Cliburn’s win ‘the Soviet public celebrated Cliburn not only for his artistry but for his nationality; affection for him was a safe expression of affection for America’.

During the final round of the competition, after Cliburn’s performance of Tchaikovsky’s Concerto no. 1, the Rachmaninov Concerto no. 3 and the test work by Dmitry Kabalevsky, the audience began chanting enthusiastically, ‘First prize! First Prize!’. Not only did the jury agree, but so did the Soviet premier Nikita S. Khrushchev. 

Winning the Tchaikovsky competition was Cliburn’s breakthrough moment. He was in-demand worldwide in recitals and with major orchestras. After a concert at Carnegie Hall in May 1958 with the Symphony of the Air and Kiril Kondrashin that was broadcast over WQXR, Cliburn signed a contract  with RCA Victor. His recording of Tchaikovsky’s Concerto no. 1 went on to sell more than one million copies in just one year. Concerts followed at the Hollywood Bowl and at Madison Square Garden with the Moscow State Symphony.

According to Cliburn, ‘It was thrilling to be wanted. But it was pressure, too’. While he was not bothered in the beginning by the demands to continue playing the works from the competition, he eventually wanted to expand his repertoire. Audiences were not receptive to his broadening repertoire, leading to much criticism and fewer and fewer performances in the 1960s. 

Already in 1959, Cliburn was met with resistance to his broadening repertoire after his performance with the New York Philharmonic under the direction of Bernstein for a benefit concert. He performed Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 25 and Prokofiev’s Concerto no. 3. The Times’ critic, Howard Taubman, who had previously been very positive about Cliburn, wrote that that the Mozart was ‘almost a total disappointment’. His 1961 performance of Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ Concerto with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Eugene Ormandy was described by critic Harold C. Schonberg as ‘the playing an old-young man, but without the spirit of youth or the mellowness of age’.

Despite the negative press, Cliburn continued to add new works to his repertoire, including the concertos of MacDowell and Prokofiev and the works of Samuel Barber, Chopin, Brahms, Beethoven and Liszt. Unfortunately, he never seemed to be able to satisfy the audiences with these works, and was no longer a product of the times. By 1978, Cliburn had retired from concert life, appearing infrequently again in 1989. While he possessed immense talent, his potential as a pianist went unfulfilled. 

In 1962, Cliburn founded his own piano competition, which remains one of the most prestigious competitions to this day.

Cliburn was also involved in a very public lawsuit in 1996. He had been quite open about his sexuality since 1966 (age 32) when he became involved with the 19 year old Thomas E. Zaremba, but it became public news when Zaremba filed a palimony suit against Cliburn. Zaremba was seeking millions of dollars for his 17-year relationship with Cliburn, during which time he claimed to have served as his ‘business associate and promoter’ in addition to caring for Cliburn’s mother, who died in 1994. The ridiculous suit was eventually dismissed.

After a battle with bone cancer, Cliburn died in 2013 at the age of 78 in his home in Fort Worth, Texas.

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