Van Cliburn: Classical Pianist as Folk Hero

bradley bambarger
18 min readNov 21, 2020


America has never produced a more broadly popular classical instrumentalist than Van Cliburn. Not told as often as it once was, the pianist’s story is both heroic and cautionary.

By Bradley Bambarger <2017>

America has never produced a more broadly popular classical instrumentalist than Van Cliburn. The pianist wasn’t just an exceptionally communicative, beloved performing artist; he became a kind of folk hero edging into Texas-sized myth, a goodwill ambassador for the USA, a symbol of freedom, generosity and vast talent that reflected the country’s best image — in its own eyes and those of others around the world. In 1994, at an autograph-signing event Cliburn gave at the uptown Manhattan branch of Tower Records, hundreds of fans stretched in a line out the door and around the block in the falling snow just for a chance to meet the musician who had become an overnight sensation nearly four decades before — but hadn’t made a commercial recording for 20 years and rarely played public concerts anymore. Like the Romantic concertos that made his name, Cliburn’s career had enduring sweep, even if aspects of it had the poignancy of a minor key. The occasion of the 15th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition — May 25 to June 10, 2017 — makes for an apt time to recollect its late namesake, for tales both heroic and cautionary.

From Russia with Love

“Van Cliburn would half-close his eyes when he played — he was obviously feeling the music,” recalls Alla Gurvich, who was an 18-year-old high-school student in Leningrad when the American pianist won Russia’s inaugural Tchaikovsky Competition in April 1958, against all odds at the height of the Cold War. She witnessed his appearances on television from Moscow, as well as heard the competition performances via radio. “Van Cliburn was a warm presence — such charisma he had, this tall, skinny, very nice young man,” she adds, pronouncing his last name Kleeburn in the accent she retains as a New Yorker who immigrated to the United States with her family in 1975. “And you could hear his persona in his playing — it was also warm, and so emotional. When he played the Tchaikovsky concerto, he played this beautiful Russian music to the Russian people, for us. You could feel this, and it endeared him to everyone, even Khrushchev, the Russian premier. People would call Van Cliburn Vanyechka, our term of endearment for Ivan.”

The ideological-technological competition between the U.S. and the USSR was at its fiercest around that time, with the Soviets taking a major leap ahead less than a year before with the launch of Sputnik, the first manmade satellite to orbit the Earth. The Russian piano school was already acknowledged as the world’s greatest, having yielded generations of performers who combined rare power and poetry. For an American to win a competition in Russia that included pianists from across the Soviet Union hardly seemed likely. Even today, with the Russian system caught cheating extensively in athletics among much else, a rigged contest might seem foregone. But Cliburn beguiled the Tchaikovsky Competition jury, especially the star Russian pianists of jury chairman Emil Gilels and the headstrong Sviatoslav Richter (who considered the American pianist something of a naïve genius, famously disregarding most of the other competitors). Richter said later about Cliburn: “He was miles better than any of the others. He was talented; he played with sincerity. Even if he did swamp Prokofiev’s Sixth Sonata with too much pedal… In any case, the Russian people had fallen madly in love with Van Cliburn.” Audiences in the illustrious Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, fearing that Cliburn would be denied first prize, gave him a standing ovation for some 10 minutes, sending a message to the jury.

In the visual documents of that initial Tchaikovsky Competition, one can see throngs of young women standing upfront against the stage, rapt as they watch Cliburn play, ready with bouquets of flowers for him. Such swooning — older women wanting to mother him, younger ones wanting to marry him — looks like a quieter, classical version of the Beatlemania to come. Cliburn, a 23-year-old, 6-foot, 4-inch Texan with a honeyed accent and courtly manners, cut a figure as iconically American as that of a cowboy in a Hollywood movie. As newsman Dan Rather said in Peter Rosen’s 1994 documentary Van Cliburn — Concert Pianist, the performer must have seemed “as handsome, polite and modest as Gary Cooper.” Since the end of World War II, few Americans had been seen so publicly in the USSR. Rather added, “To Russians brought up in Stalinist repression and secrecy, Van Cliburn’s openness and affability made him as exotic as a creature from another planet.” It was this personable quality, along with his big tone and the rich sentiment in his playing of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto №1 and Rachmaninoff’s Third Concerto, that disarmed Russians — fellow performers, a wide public, even some politicians.

“Anti-American propaganda was everywhere,” Gurvich says of Soviet Russia. “But with Van Cliburn, everyone could finally see a real person, not propaganda. People did have a sense at that time that the government was trying to brainwash them. There was an inner skepticism, even if people had to keep quiet and careful. Now, even though Russian society is so much more open, I think people there actually believe the propaganda more — it’s ‘Make Russia Great Again’ with Putin… Anyway, we recognized a humanity in this American artist that we shared. I think this was very important.”

Author Stuart Isacoff — whose deeply researched book When the World Stopped to Listen: Van Cliburn’s Cold War Triumph and Its Aftermath was just published by Knopf — points out that while more sophisticated students at New York’s Juilliard School would poke fun at him for his earnestness and sentimentality, Russians were charmed by these traits. Pianist Dmitri Alexeev, another impressionable young Soviet citizen at the time, was moved by “the fresh air” in Cliburn’s playing, hearing the American’s pianism as the sound of “freedom.” In Rosen’s film, Russian pianist Alexander Toradze insists that the opening of the USSR didn’t start in the 1980s with the official “openness” policy of glasnost but “actually in 1958,” with the phenomenon of Cliburn’s Tchaikovsky Competition win. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev — likely counseled by Gilels that the competition would never be taken seriously internationally if the results were manipulated on behalf of a Russian pianist — reportedly said to nervous, bickering Central Committee officials: “Was he the best? Then give him the prize.” Russia’s greatest living composer, Dmitri Shostakovich, handed the pianist his gold medal. With the sweep of his huge hands on the keyboard, Cliburn had managed at least a small tear in the Iron Curtain.

Max Frankel, the Moscow correspondent for The New York Times, had reported on Cliburn’s progress in the competition, the suspense building for newspaper readers as if the pianist were an athlete in the Olympics. When Cliburn finally won, Frankel wrote: “In the small, crowded auditorium where the results were made known, in the streets and in the Moscow Conservatory, Russians were taking delight in cheering an American… ‘The real spirit of America’ is what at least one confirmed Communist called Mr. Cliburn’s artistry and generous response to Moscow’s adulation. A Western diplomat leaving the concert hall turned to an American to say: ‘Now you really have a sputnik’.” Cliburn’s win made him a front-page celebrity the world over, and the pianist returned to a ticker-tape parade down Broadway in New York City — the first musician so honored. It’s hard to imagine a classical musician having that sort of impact here now.

Cliburn reunited with Kiril Kondrashin, the Russian conductor he bonded with in Moscow, for his homecoming concert at Carnegie Hall (which had been opened by Tchaikovsky himself, in 1891). The pianist signed an unprecedented 25-year recording contract with RCA Victor, the top American record company for classical music at the time; his debut album featured the crowd-pleasing Tchaikovsky concerto, recorded at Carnegie. It won a Grammy Award and became the first classical LP to sell a million copies, eventually tripling that number. Comedian Victor Borge made the joke that “Tchaikovsky was born in 1840 and was a rather obscure musician until 1958, when he was discovered by a Texan.”

Beyond Moscow

The contest in Russia wasn’t Cliburn’s first big competitive win. He had won the prestigious Leventritt Competition at age 20 in 1954, with the judges including the likes of Rudolf Serkin, George Szell and Leonard Bernstein. That prize earned him concerts with orchestras around the country, including a Carnegie Hall debut with the New York Philharmonic under Dimitri Mitropoulos that was broadcast across the country. The young pianist’s profile was high enough that he performed on national television, playing Chopin and Ravel on The Tonight Show. With his sweeping piano style, boyish looks and ingratiating manner, he was a natural for TV — something that he would take full advantage of in the years to come.

When Cliburn spent a subsequent summer at Serkin’s Marlboro Festival, the elder pianist-pedagogue was dismayed by the younger musician’s preference for the Russian Romantics over Austro-German Classicism, particularly Beethoven. Cliburn would go on to record some Beethoven concertos and sonatas for RCA Red Seal, often successfully; but Serkin’s misgivings about Cliburn’s relatively narrow aesthetic preferences would reappear in the judgments of critics after the Texan’s huge popular success, more as the decades went on. But Cliburn was literally bred into the Romantic tradition, as his only piano teacher until age 17 was, famously, his mother, Rildia Bee O’Bryan Cliburn, a redoubtable figure in Texas who had studied in New York with the St. Petersburg-born Arthur Friedheim, a favorite pupil of Liszt (whose blazing virtuosity and Romantic-era spirit were a key influence on the Russian school of pianism). As a youth, Cliburn had to practice every day, his sessions overseen by his mother, who would remain his closest, most influential companion throughout her very long life, managing him day to day at the height of his career — even living with the adult star.

Once he got to New York City and the Juilliard School, Cliburn studied with the renowned Rosina Lhévinne, the Kiev-born, Moscow-trained pedagogue whose husband had been Josef Lhévinne, another famed pianist of the Russian school. In Van Cliburn — Concert Pianist, Juilliard professor David Dubal talked about the result of that training: “The glow of the golden tone of Russian piano playing is so inherent in Van’s own playing, where everything is beautiful and lyrical, and the grand manner still sings.” Pianist Lev Vlassenko from Soviet Georgia, who tied for second behind Cliburn in 1958 and would become a longtime teacher at the Moscow Conservatory, said that he was struck by the sense that Cliburn sounded even more Russian than the Russians in the competition.

Critic-pianist Jed Distler — who wrote the booklet essay for 2013’s Legendary Van Cliburn: The Complete Album Collection, an impressive 28-CD boxed set — put Cliburn’s virtues in the context of the time: “In an era when emerging American pianists either emulated the intellectual rigor of Schnabel or Serkin or adopted Horowitz’s lean, febrile, feverish aesthetic, Cliburn’s expansive tempi, beautifully modulated sonorities and generous spirit may have seemed like a throwback to another era, yet were genuine enough to earn the admiration and respect of his peers.” None other than Vladimir Horowitz praised Cliburn’s tone, echoing Richter and Gilels when he said: “This young man has double the sound that anyone else has.” Perhaps the most insightful evocation of Cliburn’s playing came via a friend from his early days at Juilliard, the Mississippi-born soprano Leontyne Price, who would also become a label mate of his at RCA. He was a keen fan of opera, and she heard his sound as mirroring her art form, being “bigger than life.”

Not long after his epochal win in Moscow, Cliburn garnered representation by impresario Sol Hurok — and duly became one of the world’s most highly paid musicians. The pianist played thousands of concerts in dozens of countries over the next two decades, and he collaborated closely with the likes of esteemed conductor Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, recording concertos by Rachmaninoff, Schumann, Beethoven and Brahms to general acclaim (including from Chicago Tribune critic Claudia Cassidy, who could be tough). The pianist also worked extensively with the august team of Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, recording with them concertos by Grieg, Liszt and Chopin, as well as more Rachmaninoff and Beethoven. Cliburn recorded chart-topping solo recitals of Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, Brahms, Rachmaninoff and Debussy, as well as multiple audience-friendly collections of Romantic pieces ranging from Schumann to Szymanowski. Sales of Cliburn LPs put him in the league of RCA’s pop hit-makers Elvis Presley, Harry Belafonte and Perry Como.

In his essay on Cliburn’s recorded legacy, Distler pointed out some of the felicities that dot the Texan’s discography: “Notice the Mozart K. 330 Sonata’s synthesis of operatic sensibility, incisive wit and surface elegance or, by contrast, the Liszt Sonata’s patiently spun lyrical sections and the majestic bravura Cliburn brings to the notorious octave outbursts. For all of the Chopin ‘Winter Wind’ Etude’s glittering panache, Cliburn takes the trouble to give often glossed-over left-hand melodies shape and cogency. Similarly, the right-hand tune in the Trio of the same composer’s A-flat Polonaise is voiced with care and fullness, as if Cliburn knew that his effortless handling of the relentlessly repeating left-hand octaves would take care of itself.” Recalling a meeting with Cliburn, Distler said: “When he stretched out his large hands to compare against my own, I quickly understood why Cliburn was one of the few pianists to navigate the more difficult double-octave option in the Brahms D Minor Concerto’s first-movement development section.” Finally, Distler singled out a favorite: “Cliburn’s live Rachmaninoff Second Sonata taped during his triumphant 1960 return to Moscow and released a decade later arguably represents the pianist on his most ardent, spontaneous, colorful and supple form.”

Cliburn didn’t champion much rare repertoire, except for American composer’s Edward McDowell’s 19th-century Piano Concerto №2, a piece derivative of the European Romanticists that Cliburn loved. Beyond a pair of Prokofiev works, the most modern he ventured on LP was Samuel Barber’s Piano Sonata of 1949, a recording from ’67 that was well-received (and encroached on the territory of Juilliard rival John Browning, who had premiered the composer’s Piano Concerto). For all the records he turned out, the process often tortured Cliburn, and he bedeviled his producers with his insecurities in turn, despite his unfailing good manners. Howard Reich’s 1993 biography of the pianist details several recordings that such longtime RCA producers as John Pfeiffer and Max Wilcox thought were good-to-go only for the pianist to refuse approving them, vexed by one detail or another. Aiming for his ideal, Cliburn the inveterate night owl often required midnight re-take sessions after live recordings, keeping conductor, orchestra and crew on the job far into the wee hours. Reich quotes Pfeiffer surmising that Cliburn was haunted by his bygone years at Juilliard, where hearing fellow students mercilessly criticize less-than-perfect performances was a formative experience.

In an article for Stereo Review magazine, RCA producer Jack Somer recalled his experience in the control room for Cliburn’s hit My Favorite Chopin album. Days were lost and nerves frayed as Cliburn couldn’t seem to find his place in the music, repeatedly breaking off, frustrated. Finally, after one session went remarkably well, making up time, the pianist lost the thread again while trying to capture the album’s final piece. After a breather, Cliburn eased into an impromptu performance of the popular song “You and the Night and the Music,” singing along in “a husky, torchy voice,” tape rolling. He continued playing and singing another few pop standards before suddenly flowing into the Chopin E Major Etude that he had failed to capture before, performing “with the introspection that had eluded him all week,” Somer wrote. “He plays with several levels of Chopin’s deceptively simple piece exquisitely balanced… At four o’clock in the morning, the E Major Etude is completed and, with it, the album. And somewhere in the vault at RCA, there is a tape of Van Cliburn singing Schwartz & Dietz and Gershwin. Unless someone has erased it…”

This image fits with Isacoff’s overall vision of Cliburn as “a crooner at the piano, someone for whom virtuosity for virtuosity’s sake wasn’t the goal,” he told this writer in an interview. “Rildia Bee taught him to vocalize everything from Mozart to Rachmaninoff, even to ‘sight-sing’ Bach before he played it. And one of his most formative musical experiences as a little boy was seeing several performances of Carmen in a row. So, in a way, what was most important to him was the idea of singing through his instrument, singing to the audience — from the heart to the heart.”

Beyond stage and studio, Cliburn was of course associated with the contest that took his name: the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, inaugurated in 1962 in Fort Worth, Texas. Held every four years, it remains one of the world’s most prestigious classical music competitions, with such pianists as the great Radu Lupu, Cristina Ortiz, Vladimir Viardo and Jon Nakamatsu among the top prizewinners over the decades. Never one to invest himself in judging or administration, Cliburn was still a regular at competition performances, hugging nervous contestants and generally lending his starry aura to the event. Ralph Votapek, the very first Van Cliburn Competition winner, told Reich that “throughout the competition, Van always had a big smile and a big handshake for everyone, and he made us feel important.”

In his book, Isacoff quotes Alann Bedford Sampson, a long-serving executive with the Van Cliburn Competition, on Cliburn’s influence on the contest: “He cared about two things. He felt the prize should be more than just a photo opportunity, a check and a medal. It was to incorporate opportunities to perform, with four years of management — a first in the competition world. The goal was to launch a career.” And despite the fact that Cliburn never played much chamber music himself, “he felt strongly that one of the best measures of artistic ability was in making music with others. So a quartet was brought in for chamber music. That was also a first.”

Cautionary Tales

Born on July 12, 1934, in Shreveport, Louisiana, Harvey Lavan “Van” Cliburn Jr. was raised in the small town of Kilgore, Texas, where his father worked in the oil industry. From an early age, his routine was school, church and the piano, with no sports allowed, so that he wouldn’t endanger his hands. He was raised to be always gracious and polite, a gentleman. To instill a sense of humility and service to others when he was a small child, his parents even made him serve dinner to them at gatherings with their friends, so the talented boy wouldn’t feel overly special. He took elocution lessons as a youngster and found his extracurricular self in high-school dramatics, the fruit of which one can hear in the almost theatrical quality of his onstage comments and media interviews.

Early on, Cliburn had worried over being “not a success but a sensation,” yet the tremendous success he achieved entailed tremendous pressures and, with them, creeping burnout. The pianist had told an interviewer during his heyday: “I should have been ecstatic, for the fragrance of fame is sweet. But I wasn’t. All I saw ahead then was the desperate need to pray for the strength to continue whatever was meant for me.” He turned almost religiously to astrologers and psychics for guidance, as well as a Dr. Feelgood who would give him “vitamin shots” that Isacoff supposes contained amphetamines (a drug that performers from the Beatles to Johnny Cash also used to deal with the demands of superstardom). Cliburn’s career had been the textbook definition of meteoric, and like a shooting star, he seemed to be coming down.

Even after all his stage experience, Cliburn still suffered from performance anxiety. “No matter how many times you go onstage, you experience the same emotion: the desire to do your best,” he said. “Nerves — that never goes away. You have that all your life, every time you go onstage, because you’re anxious to do something well for someone.” Cliburn would come to realize that his upbringing — being raised to serve others — contributed to feeling responsible for serving his listeners above all. This was another kind of pressure. In his book, Isacoff writes of Cliburn: “Serving graciously became a life refrain, an 11th commandment… But achieving a kind of spiritual communion with listeners is not the same as becoming their emotional prisoner. Fulfilling the task set out by the composer is challenge enough. Van’s job became doubly difficult: wrestling with the demands of the music while also worrying about gratifying his fans.” Lamenting Cliburn’s immense gifts but seemingly unfilled potential, a critic for The New York Times put it this way: “He tended to rely on an instinctive feel for the technical glitter and heartfelt lyricism that most audiences regard as the be-all of musical artistry.”

When both Cliburn’s father and his manager Sol Hurok died in 1974, it seemed to take the air out of the pianist’s sails. Wealthy and keen to experience normal life in the way a young celebrity was never able to do, Cliburn took an extended sabbatical, or what he called an “intermission,” from his concert career in 1978. “The magic of being a performing artist in worldwide demand dissipated for him,” Isacoff says. “He was a sensitive, even fragile guy who ran smack into a life he didn’t necessarily ask for — people demanding the same pieces night after night. He was losing his drive, his focus. Kondrashin had already urged him to get off the treadmill, to study and deepen his musicianship. And Gilels thought a sabbatical was a good idea, to take the time stop and smell the flowers — don’t let life get away from you.”

As a gay man in a less understanding era, Cliburn was never able to be fully himself in the public gaze, yet another pressure. Isacoff says: “Van had always loved to smoke — even calling his pack of cigarettes his ‘best friend,’ which was kind of sad — but his mother worried over his image and his influence on younger musicians and tried to keep him from smoking too much in public. So imagine how he felt being gay as a famous man in that day and age.” Yet Cliburn had a couple of very close relationships well-known to friends and family, and by the time mainstream attitudes toward homosexual celebrities had changed, he felt secure enough to have a long-term companion by his side when he received an award in 2001 at the Kennedy Center Honors in Washington, D.C.

Many other famous pianists had retreated from the spotlight — Glenn Gould, Vladimir Horowitz — but Cliburn’s absence from the recording studio and concert stage still gave him a Garbo-like mystery that elicited critical speculation. Harold C. Schonberg, in his book The Great Pianists, wrote about Cliburn’s retreat from the limelight: “Perhaps he was torn two ways. On the one hand, he had such natural gifts that he could’ve played any repertoire, could have developed into a supreme artist. On the other, he was constantly asked to repeat his competition concertos — the Tchaikovsky B-flat and Rachmaninoff Third — and he acceded. He played up to his role as America’s favorite son to the point of starting every concert with the national anthem. His playing got limper and limper, and toward the end of his performances, sounded perfunctory, bored and even sloppy. Could he have felt a certain unhappiness, even disgust with himself? Whatever the reason, one of the most brilliant talents in American pianism called it quits.”

More generously, pianist Gary Graffman, who had won the Levintritt Competition a few years before Cliburn, told Reich: “Some people say Van should have done this or should have done that. He should have taken a shorter leave; he should have played this piece or that piece, whatever. But there is something much more important here: He has lived his life his way, the way he wanted to. As far as I’m concerned, everything else is beside the point.”

Cliburn mounted concert comebacks in 1989 and 1994, but he never returned to anything like the schedule he once had, or the same level of artistic achievement. Although he still commanded sold-out crowds, Cliburn’s tour of 1994 was troubled throughout, as the pianist suffered extreme jitters and memory lapses — and less-than-stellar reviews. Then, in the middle of the tour, his beloved mother had a stroke. He went to her side in Texas, but knowing that she wouldn’t want him to cancel such a major concert, Cliburn kept to his engagement of performing at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. The critic for Newsday wrote of the event: “One had the extraordinary (if not entirely comfortable) sense that 4,000 people were eavesdropping on an intensely private moment, as Cliburn — oblivious to the world, child and man, conquering hero and bereft son — sat alone on the stage, playing his heart out, triumphant and inconsolable.” He flew home immediately afterward and was with Rildia Bee when she died the next day at age 97.

Warming Hearts

Cliburn was invited to the White House by every president from Eisenhower to Obama. In Nigel Cliff’s Moscow Nights: The Van Cliburn Story — How One Man and His Piano Transformed the Cold War, a creatively written historical tapestry published in 2016, the author relates vividly the tale of Cliburn performing in 1987 at the White House for President Ronald Reagan and visiting Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev, who had initiated momentously liberalizing policies for his country (glasnost and perestroika). The two leaders were together for an arms-control summit to cut back on nuclear weapons, so it was a fraught occasion.

Gorbachev and especially his wife, Raisa, seemed taken by Cliburn, surely the memory of his visits to Russia in their minds. After the pianist’s performance of short pieces by Brahms, Rachmaninoff, Schumann-Liszt and Debussy, and some words from Reagan and the pianist himself, Raisa gaily requested that Cliburn play the Tchaikovsky concerto as an encore. Although that was impossible, he made a lovely spontaneous gesture, playing and singing the Russian folk song “Moscow Nights.” Raisa mouthed the words, and then her husband started singing sotto voce and, eventually, “at the top of his voice,” whereby the whole Russian delegation chimed in. Afterward, there were hugs and kisses between Cliburn and the Gorbachevs, warming the air. Shades of 1958, it was another historic occasion when Cliburn was able to “draw out the humanity of a Soviet leader,” once again earning the pianist headlines around the world.

Before he died of cancer on February 27, 2013, at age 78, Cliburn was renowned for his financial generosity, giving to friends, young performers and various charities. That sort of spirit also animated some advice he gave to young musicians late in his career. “Love music more than anything in the world — feel that it is a part of your life, and without it, your life would be incomplete,” he said. “Want to play for people, because if you are a performer, you’re performing for all people, not just other musicians. For everyone.”

(Originally published in May 2017 via to accompany its coverage of the 15th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.)



bradley bambarger

Longtime music journalist, from Billboard to Gramophone to DownBeat to, etc. Founder/curator of the Sound It Out jazz concert series in New York City.