Van Cliburn, Cold War Pianist, Dies Aged 78
Van Cliburn had performed for every US President since Harry Truman
The classical world has been saddened by the death of American pianist Van Cliburn. The musician was a prodigious young talent who blossomed to become one of the most famous pianists of his day in the late 1950’s after winning the first quadrennial Tchaikovsky Piano Competition when aged just 23 years old.
Van Cliburn’s win came during the height of Cold War tensions between the USA and Russia, and his victory on USSR soil made him a huge star upon returning home from the competition, given the climate. A recording of Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 was subsequently released by RCA Victor and made platinum in the US, the first classical album ever to achieve such sales. Van Cliburn was already in the ascendancy before that however, having performed for US President from 1948-1953 Harry Truman at the White House. It began a remarkable run of the musician performing for every US president since, culminating in President Barack Obama awarding him the National Medal of Arts in 2010. Van Cliburn received the prestigious honor for his contribution as “one of the greatest pianists in the history of music.” At the time Obama added that "Mr Cliburn has reached across political frontiers with the universal message of beautiful music.”
Reflecting on the late star on BBC Radio 3, presenter Michael Berkely commented "That Van Cliburn won the first ever Tchaikovsky Prize in Moscow in 1958, the middle of the Cold War, is testimony to his prodigious gifts. Trained in the great Romantic repertoire he brought to Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky great emotional power."