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In 1958 a young American pianist entered the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. The competition was designed to showcase Soviet cultural superiority during the Cold War. It followed just one year after the successful space launch of Sputnik in 1957. His performance of Rachmoninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3 earned him an eight minute standing ovation by the musically sophisticated audience. The judging committee was thrown into disarray and sought the permission of the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to give first prize to Van Cliburn. "Is he the best?" Khrushchev asked. They had to admit that we was indeed the best. "Then give him the prize!" replied Khrushchev.


Cliburn skyrocketed to fame when he won the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow at age 23 in 1958, six months after the Soviets' launch of Sputnik embarrassed the U.S. and propelled the world into the space age. He triumphantly returned to a New York City ticker tape parade — the first ever for a classical musician — and a Time magazine cover proclaimed him "The Texan Who Conquered Russia."

But the win also proved the power of the arts, bringing unity in the midst of strong rivalry. Despite the tension between the nations, Cliburn became a hero to music-loving Soviets who clamored to see him perform and Premier Nikita Khrushchev reportedly gave the go-ahead for the judges to honor a foreigner: "Is Cliburn the best? Then give him first prize."

In the years that followed, Cliburn's popularity soared, and the young man from the small east Texas town of Kilgore sold out concerts, caused riots when spotted in public and even prompted an Elvis Presley fan club to change its name to his. His recording of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 with Russian conductor Kirill Kondrashin became the first classical album to reach platinum status.

Van Cliburn went on to form the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. From their website.
Van Cliburn's sensational victory at the first Tchaikovsky International Competition in Moscow in 1958 heralded a new confidence in the quality of American music-making, as well as a new era in cultural relations between East and West. The quadrennial Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, widely recognized as one of the world's most important, was organized by a group of music teachers and citizens from Fort Worth, Texas in 1962 to commemorate his historic achievement and is dedicated to the discovery of the world's finest pianists. Van Cliburn will present the fourteenth edition May 24 -June 9, 2013, at Fort Worth's Bass Performance Hall.
Sadly, this year's competition will have to go on without him.

Van Cliburn was and remains an inspiration for young musicians everywhere. The impact he had on bringing the joy of classical music to American audiences can never be underestimated. He lost his fight with bone cancer at his home in Fort Worth, Texas surrounded by people who loved him. He was 78.

Originally posted to Steven Payne on Wed Feb 27, 2013 at 11:03 AM PST.

Also republished by An Ear for Music.

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