Van Cliburn, 1934-2013

NPR’s article on last month’s passing of the great Van Cliburn retells the story of how the pianist gained his initial fame at 23 by winning the inaugural International Tchaikovsky Competition in 1958.

This was huge.

The Cold War was in full swing. The Soviet Union had taken the upper hand in the space race with the launch of Sputnik the previous year, and the music competition was intended to display to the world that Soviet superiority extended beyond science to the cultural arts.

Cliburn took the stage in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, practically in the shadow of Red Square, and played pieces by two Russian greats–Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3.

The standing ovation lasted for eight minutes. Cliburn was the clear winner. The audience knew it, and the judges knew it. But what could they do about it? Cliburn was, after all, an American.

Alexander Goldenweiser, one of the judges of the competition and a renowned pianist/composer in his own right, decided to take the situation straight to the top. He approached Nikita Khrushchev to ask permission to award Cliburn first prize.

“Is he the best?” the leader of the Communist Party asked.

“Yes,” replied Goldenweiser.

“Then give him the prize!”

I love that story. Not only because it shows you how good Cliburn was, but because it demonstrates how music, despite having the ability to be profoundly political, also has the potential to transcend politics.

Thank you, Van Cliburn, for reminding us of that.