Richard Dyer's commentary on a March 2008 interview with Van
Cliburn, exclusive to the Van Cliburn Foundation:
It was just fifty years ago-on April 14, 1958-that Van Cliburn won
the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow.
That victory made the lanky twenty-three-year-old pianist from
Kilgore, Texas, an international celebrity; his return to America
was marked by a ticker-tape parade through the streets of New York
City. Over the next few years he became one of the defining
musicians of his time-and not just because he had beaten the
Russians'' just a few months after the Russians had beaten us by
launching the first satellite, Sputnik.
There was a political aspect to his victory-and Soviet premier
Nikita Khrushchev himself had to be consulted before the jury could
award the prize to an American. But Cliburn prefers to downplay
this dimension of his story, quoting a piece of advice his
grandfather gave to his mother and first piano teacher, Rildia Bee
Cliburn. Never engage in politics,'' Judge O'Bryan told his
daughter. Politics is a great art, but it is a divisive art.
Classical music is for everyone, all over the world.''
What unified Cliburn's audiences in Moscow and everywhere he
went for years afterward was his communicative artistic
achievement, his depth and generosity of feeling, and the
missionary zeal he feels for the gospel of music. With these human
and artistic qualities, he burst through the iron curtain between
his country and the Soviet Union that had been firmly drawn for
more than a decade. Soviet musicians were amazed that Cliburn was
not the American monster depicted in Soviet propaganda-and
astonished that he played Russian music better than most Russian
pianists did. He became an inspiration to many generations of
younger artists toiling away in practice rooms around the world and
helped make his own country safer for music and musicians.
Today Cliburn lives in Fort Worth, Texas, in a large home filled
with memorabilia-and pianos. He takes a lively interest in the
quadrennial competition founded in his name by his many admirers
and in its winners and competitors. And he still occasionally
ventures out to perform.
Recently the pianist, in a gregarious mood, settled down on the
phone to talk about a subject he usually prefers to avoid, himself,
and specifically his younger self, the conquering hero who became
an American icon.
Cliburn had only a few months to prepare for this competition,
but in a way his whole life had been leading up to it. He had only
two piano teachers. His mother was born in McGregor, Texas, but her
principal teacher was Arthur Friedheim, a pupil of the legendary
Franz Liszt-Friedheim had a German name, but he was born in St.
Petersburg, and before he went to Liszt he had studied with the
greatest of the early Russian pianists, Anton Rubinstein.
Juilliard's Rosina Lhevinne, Cliburn's other teacher, was also
Russian, Russian-trained, and the widow of the great Russian
pianist Josef Lhevinne. Cliburn's pianistic upbringing took place
in Texas and New York, but it was also all-Russian.
I grew up hearing about Mr. Friedheim and all the other great
pianists of that time,'' Cliburn recalls. My mother didn't know
nursery rhymes, so instead she would tell me stories about Liszt
and Chopin. We had a wind-up Victrola and a decent library of
recordings, on breakable 78s in those days, so we would listen to
the great Rachmaninoff and she would talk about the thrilling world
she had lived in. She painted pictures in words and it took my
breath away. I had to learn later what a nursery rhyme was!
The first announcement of the Tchaikovsky Competition reached
the New York offices of Steinway & Sons, the eminent piano
manufacturing firm, early in September 1957.
A friend from Steinway called to tell me about it,'' Cliburn
remembers, and not long after that Mrs. Lhevinne called me too.
Both of them felt it would maybe be a good thing if I were to enter
the competition. It didn't take much persuading-I just wanted to go
to Russia so much. When I was five years old, my parents gave me a
picture book about world history for Christmas, and in it there
were pictures of St. Basil's Cathedral and the Kremlin. I wanted to
go and see them right then and there.''
To get to Moscow, Cliburn took his first flight on a jet. I left
New York on the evening of March 26 and it was a circuitous
trip-Boston, Paris, Prague. The Prague to Moscow leg was a jet; we
didn't have commercial jets. When the plane landed a little
militiaman came on and checked my passport. I smiled at him and he
smiled back. A nice lady from the ministry of culture came up to
meet me-â€˜Mr. Van Kleeburn? Welcome to Moscow.' â€˜Wherever I am
staying,' I asked her, â€˜could we please drive past the Church of
St. Basil first?' I wanted to see it that very night, and it was
For the competition Cliburn had to prepare a substantial
repertory. Some of the works were already cornerstones for him. He
had played the first movement of the Tchaikovsky Concerto with the
Houston Symphony Orchestra when he was twelve, and in 1954 there
was a national broadcast of the work with the New York Philharmonic
under the direction of Dmitri Mitropoulos, part of Cliburn's prize
for winning the prestigious Leventritt Award. At nineteen he played
his first performances of Rachmaninoff's Third Concerto.
The format of the competition meant he could play familiar works
like these, but he also had to learn pieces he had never seen or
heard-like a movement of Tchaikovsky's Grand Sonata in G, a Prelude
and Fugue by Sergei Taneyev, and a new piece written especially for
the competition by the Russian composer Dimitri Kabalevsky.
Dmitri Mitropoulos was very helpful to me and got me the music
for these pieces. And he urged me to choose the Taneyev. He told me
that Taneyev was an icon for composition at the Moscow
Conservatory, of which he was at one time the director. I loved the
Kabalevsky piece, a Rondo, and wanted to record it. But he wanted
to revise it first, and never got around to it, so that project
went by the wayside.''
On April 2, at 9:30 a.m., pre-dawn by Cliburn standards even
then, the pianist opened the first round with the B-flat Minor
Prelude and Fugue from Book I of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier-the
prelude is emotionally charged, and the complex five-voice fugue
asks for whom the bell tolls.
Cliburn must have been nervous. I never had any contact with the
jury until after the competition was over, but it was a frightening
and formidable group, and they sat right in front of the stage, at
a long table covered with green cloth. I could see [the composer]
Dimitri Shostakovich, [and such eminent pianists as] Emil Gilels,
Sviatoslav Richter, and all the others. And the Great Hall is
hallowed ground because of all the people who have performed there,
and the beloved music that was premiered there.''
But Cliburn was also at home with the music he was playing. My
mother gave me the preludes and fugues of Bach when I was a child,
and she always made me sing the fugue theme. The human voice was
the first musical instrument, and our job as pianists is to take
the piano, a percussion instrument, and meld the manual work with
the pedal in order to create a singing quality.''
Next came a Mozart Sonata, and the first indication that Cliburn
was making a strong impact on the public. I was shocked at the
reaction, which was so very enthusiastic and gracious. I had to
stand up twice.
Cliburn spent a lot of his time practicing between rounds, but
he also walked around Moscow with some of his old American friends
who were in the competition and some of his new Russian
I can't explain it,'' he says, but it was a wonderful
experience-I never felt any uncomfortable moment. The people were
so enthusiastic, and for me it was so interesting to play for an
audience for whom the study of music as a language was mandatory.
In this country I think every school should teach the language of
music too. The Russians knew the pieces you were playing, you could
feel their electricity. It was thrilling to know that they knew
what you were trying to do.''
In the second round the response was even wilder, and Cliburn
fever spread far beyond the Great Hall because parts of the
competition were broadcast and televised on the state channels. In
the third round, after Cliburn had played the Rachmaninoff
Concerto, the jury reportedly joined the tumultuous standing
That's true,'' Cliburn admits. I was not supposed to go back
onstage after I had bowed, and the jury was not supposed to come
backstage, but Gilels came and pulled me out in front of the
audience again and kissed me. That was a moment I cannot begin to
There was another night of performances by other contestants and
there was also some drama in the jury room-some members of the jury
were targeting their scores so that the leading Soviet contestant
would win, but they were offset by other members of the jury who
were doing the same thing in reverse. And even when it became clear
that Cliburn had to win, the decision could not be announced until
after it had been cleared with Khrushchev.
I didn't find this out until years later,'' Cliburn says.
Khrushchev's son, Dr. Sergei Khrushchev, teaches at Brown
University, and he told me how they came to see his father.''
The formal announcement that Cliburn had won didn't come until a
ceremony on Monday April 14. Shostakovich gave me the award. I felt
as if I had been rewarded for twenty years of hard labor, given a
passport to explore how many places I could have the pleasure of
going to, how many audiences I could meet. Winning a competition
presents a cycle of opportunities.
Meanwhile, Cliburn's semifinal and final rounds had been
reported in the New York Times-on the front page, although
Cliburn didn't know it yet. When the ceremony was over and he could
finally escape the mob scenes, Cliburn called home.
I was still living in Kilgore in my head. I called my parents
and I asked my mother to please call this lady we knew and tell her
that I had won. All she said was, â€˜Honey, she already knows.' I
had no idea. And when they had the parade for me in New York, I
thought, â€˜Well, now the people in the next town know who I
Cliburn says he was flabbergasted'' by the parade. And his
family helped keep his feet on the ground. As we stood waiting for
the car, my mother said to me, â€˜As you are riding along, be
thinking of what you are going to say.' What I did say was that I
was grateful for all this attention, but I also hoped people would
realize that I was really grateful that they were honoring
classical music. I felt I was only an instrument, a person who was
a messenger. The main thrust, the real thrust, was that people were
realizing the value of great classical music.''
Although he has played often for presidents, monarchs, and
potentates on ceremonial occasions of every kind, Cliburn always
refused to get involved in the political side of things, even when
his admiration of Russia and Russians wasn't universally
If people wanted to use me or classical music for political
purposes,'' he says, that was fine, but I wasn't involved in
politics, so I didn't have to be burdened by all of that. My
interest was the universality of classical music, the capacity of
music to enrich the soul, and that is for everybody.''
Cliburn tried to keep mindful of that during the twenty seasons
of whirlwind activity that followed-100 concerts a year,
recordings, radio, and television appearances. Possibly only Liszt
and Paderewski among previous pianists were as universally famous
as the modern media-made Cliburn.
Today Cliburn says he always felt renewed by audiences. My
family was very community oriented, and I grew up in a town where
almost everybody knew each other-you had to be careful if you
misbehaved because your neighbors would tell your mother and daddy!
I was never anonymous; I grew up in a situation where people knew
me; that was a part of life, and I love people.''
Later he adds, There are some things you can't get from living
in hotels. I have never been that happy with anything I ever did.
As Rachmaninoff said, your horizon is always receding. You know all
your own faults and frailties, yet you always want so much.
Ultimately you need to go and do things to re-inspire and
Cliburn has studied public speaking and his resonant voice was
made for preaching and the art of rolling, old-fashioned oratory
Playing the piano is like talking. A speaker must clearly enunciate
what he is saying. At the piano you try to â€˜speak' just as
clearly, so that the last person in the last balcony will
understand what you want to be clear about. You always hope you
have something to say, and of course the great composers always do.
You are really in the role of a waiter, serving a wonderful
After twenty years in the eye of the storm, the pianist took an
unannounced sabbatical from public performance that lasted nine
seasons. I never dreamed it would go on so long. But it was a very
happy time for me. I adore opera, for example, and I now had the
opportunity to hear so many of the great singers.''
Encouragement to re-enter the fray came from an unexpected
quarter. In 1983 Emil Gilels played what turned out to be his last
performance in New York before his death. We were having dinner,
and I was afraid he was going to scold me. But instead he said,
â€˜Bravo. You took time off. You were so wise to do that, to have
some life for yourself.' But then he added, â€˜I feel that when you
play the next time, it will have something to do with Russia.' And
it did-when I was invited to play for President and Mrs. Reagan and
Soviet general-secretary Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987.
In the two decades since that legendary White House concert,
Cliburn has restricted the number of his appearances, but he has no
intention of taking another sabbatical. Conductors and
instrumentalists keep on going until the end-or until they can't
anymore. Music is always part of your life.''
Occasionally pundits wonder if any musical competition could
create another phenomenon like Cliburn. The answer is that it isn't
going to happen. No one would want to recreate the political
situation within which it developed; no one would want to live
through another Cold War. More to the point, it would require the
emergence of another Van Cliburn.
Richard Dyer wrote about music in the Boston Globe
for thirty-three years and remains active as a writer, teacher,
and speaker. As a twelve-year-old in Oklahoma, he first heard Van
Cliburn play on the New York Philharmonic broadcast in 1954, and he
has never gotten over it.