Classical Music’s First Rock Star, Van Cliburn, Dies Aged 78

When Van Cliburn won the International Tchaikovsky Competition in 1958, in Moscow, he was treated as a hero – a rock star, even – upon his return to America. At the height of the Cold War, the lanky Texan, with his distinctive quiff, aged just 23, achieved what seemed to be a culturally impossible feat and a ticker tape parade on lower Broadway to celebrate his return to America shortly afterwards was attended by around 100,000 enthusiastic well-wishers, according to Philly.com.

Van Cliburn was aged just 23 when he achieved that peak of notoriety. Yesterday, reports emerged that the virtuoso pianist has died, at the age of 78, of bone cancer. Mr. Cliburn could well be considered the first ‘rock star’ personality of the classical world. He induced a ‘Beatlemania’ style of fervour amongst young women, before The Beatles were even heard of. Weeks after winning the Moscow contest, his arrival in Philadelphia reportedly resulted in young women ripping the handle from his limousine and tearing at his clothes.

The pianist’s career would take dips and dives and he once took a break from the stage for 11 years before returning in 1989. The Inquirer’s Daniel Webster noted that he had lost none of his talent in that time, remarking “The resounding octaves, the big confident passagework and the Augustan view of the shape of the music, all hallmarks of his youthful performances, were back in place.” At his peak, Van Cliburn could fill an arena of 30,000 (the reported attendance of his 1971 appearance at the Robin Hood Dell), though it will forever be the brief Texan conquest of the Soviet Union for which he is best remembered.


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