When 23 -year -old Van Cliburn won the 1958 Tchaikovsky Piano Competition it created shock waves around the world .Even I , a teenager in faraway India , read about it though I didn’t fully understand its significance .
In 1958 , American confidence was at a low ebb . Russia had just sent aloft the Sputnik to become the first nation in space . For post-WWII Americans who had been accustomed to being Number 1, this was a tremendous blow. In this atmosphere of self-doubt and fear , an unheralded 23-year-old went to Moscow and wowed the audience and the judges to capture the Tchaikovsky first prize . He was not expected to win . Until then , Russians had swept previous competitions and they were expected to win this one too. As the Wall Street Journal put it ” A Russian was supposed to win “.
Right from the early rounds , Van Cliburn became a darling of Russian audiences . They fell in love with this tall, boyish looking , intense American who played Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff with such soul piercing mastery. When he completed his final performance , the entire audience leapt to its feet and gave him an eight minute standing ovation . How wonderful it would have been to be in the audience that day !
Even in the face of Van Cliburn’s virtuosity , the judges had to get Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s permission to award the prize to Van Cliburn. Khrushchev , who was in the audience and had enthusiastically applauded Van Cliburn’s performance , did the right thing . “ Is he the best ?” , Khrushchev is reported to have asked , “ Then give him the prize!’ Van Cliburn was duly awarded the gold medal and 25,000 rubles ( approx . $ 2,500) .
To put Van Cliburn’s win in perspective : It has to be the greatest win ever by an American underdog. Even the U.S ice hockey team’s gold medal win in Lake Placid in the 1980 Olympics , magnificent though it was , comes a distant second . Our hockey heroes were playing at home and their victory was based on indisputable goal differential , not on the whims of judges. Van Cliburn won the Tchaikovsky competition in Moscow , at the height of the Cold War and, no matter how well he played, his gold medal hopes could have been scuttled by the judges . That he was able to win them over as well as the audience is an indication of how magnificent his playing was that day .
Van Cliburn returned home to a hero’s welcome and a ticker tape parade down Broadway. He signed a lucrative contract with RCA Victor , and his recording of this signature piece , Tchaikovsky’s Concerto Number 1 , went triple platinum and was the best-selling classical album for over a decade. He gave concert performances all over the United States and abroad and , in the course of his career , performed for every U.S President from Eisenhower to Obama . He was awarded many honors including the Congressional Medal of Freedom ( U.S) and the Order of Friendship ( Russia) , the two highest civilian honors in the respective countries. Unfortunately , he was not able to completely fulfill his early promise . Music critics feel that his meteoric early success and heavy concert schedule meant that he did not put in the necessary hard work to develop his unquestioned talent .
Though critics might have their caveats about his musical standing , no one has anything but the highest praise for Van Cliburn , the man . I’ve read his obituaries in half a dozen papers and I’ve never seen anyone praised so lavishly . Everyone agrees that he was gracious , kindhearted , generous , and humble. The Wall Street Jornal recounts how , when Igor Stravinsky joined to perform with him at the 1962 World’s Fair in Seattle , Van Cliburn insisted on carrying the famous composer’s heavy bags to their backstage dressing rooms . Another delicious story : A N.Y times reader , Kar from Lincoln , Neb, wrote in to say “My uncle was a taxi and limousine driver in Washington, D.C. in the 1960s. He took Van Cliburn from the airport to the hotel, but some of his luggage had been lost, including the white tie and tails for his concert that evening. Van Cliburn told my uncle to wait while he made some calls to a fellow Texan tall enough to have clothes to fit, who told him to come on over to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. My uncle got to meet Lyndon Johnson, and Van Cliburn, properly outfitted, invited him to watch the concert from backstage. It was one of the highlights of my uncle’s long life.”
Reader after reader writes to the New York Times to say how listening to Van Cliburn’s recordings instilled a deep love for classical music in their lives . Those who were lucky to attend one of his concerts remember them with a mixture of fondness and awe . Joe from Pennsylvania , concludes his tribute to Van Cliburn thus ” May we all leave a small fraction of such joy behind when we depart from this life. Thank you Mr. Cliburn. You will be missed but then in some ways you will always be with us.”