In 1958, at the height of the “Cold War”, the Soviet Union gained an incredible coup by successfully launching Sputnik 1, the first orbiting satellite. At that time, almost all of the world’s premier pianists came from the Soviet Union, so they sponsored the first quadrennial International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow to show off their musical dominance.
The previous year Van Cliburn had been drafted into the United States army, but was released two days later because his nose would not stop bleeding. His teacher recommended that he enter the Tchaikovsky competition, but he owed more than $7000 and he could not afford to go to Moscow. His teacher got him a $1,000 grant and the rest is history.
The lone American, 6′ 4″ tall with enormous hands, dominated the competition with his performance of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3.
On the final night, after he played the Tchaikovsky concerto, the Russian audience stood up and cheered for more than eight minutes, yelled “First prize! First prize” and showered him with flowers. He was hugged by Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet premier, who asked him “Why are you so tall?” He answered, “Because I am from Texas.”
The jury for the competition included two of the most famous pianists in the world: Sviatoslav Richter who said that Cliburn was a genius, and Emil Gilels, who went backstage and embraced Cliburn. They all knew that the previously-unknown 23-year-old American had clearly given the best performance of the competition, but they were afraid that this would disturb Khrushchev and make big trouble for them. So they had to go to Krushchev and ask him if they could give the award to a pianist from adversarial America. Khrushchev said that if the American is the best, give him the award.
Cliburn became an instant hero of the Cold War in the United States. He became the only classical musician ever to be given a ticker-tape parade in New York, with more than 100,000 cheering people attending. The cover of Time magazine called him “The Texan Who Conquered Russia”. He went from a pauper to earning more than $150,000 for concerts in the next year. He sold a million copies of his recording of the Tchaikovsky concerto that he had played at the competition.
He returned many times to the Soviet Union to give sold-out performances. Four years after the competition, in 1962, Khrushchev and Andrei Gromyko, the Soviet Foreign Minister, attended and applauded his performance. In 1987, almost 30 years later, he was invited to perform at the White House for President Ronald Reagan and Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev. In October 2004, he received the Russian Order of Friendship, a prize for the calming of animosity during the Cold War. He played for royalty, heads of state and every U.S. president from Harry Truman to Barrack Obama.
Early Years and Career
Harvey Lavan “Van” Cliburn, Jr., was born in 1934. His mother was a professional pianist and piano teacher who was trained by Arthur Friedheim, a student of Franz Liszt. His father was a purchasing agent for an oil company who had a meager income. At age three, without any prompting from his mother, he sat at the piano and imitated one of her students. She responded by starting him on piano lessons. At age 13, he played Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto with the Houston Symphony Orchestra. his mother took him to Juilliard School of Music in New York, where he was offered a scholarship. He refused to study with anyone but his mother, so they returned to their small town of Kilgore, Texas, which had a population of about 10,000 people. At age 17, he returned to Juilliard to study under the tutelage of Russian-born Rosina Lhévinne. At age twenty, he was given the Leventritt award by judges Rudolf Serkin, George Szell and Leonard Bernstein, and he gave his first Carnegie Hall concert. At age 23, he won his famous Russian competition and went on to a brilliant concert and recording career.
In 1978, at age 44, he retired from public life when his father died and he was sued by his 17-year domestic partner, mortician Thomas Zaremba, for emotional stress caused by possible exposure to HIV. He had met Zaremba in 1966 when he was 32 and Zaremba was 19. He won his case because the state of Texas did not allow palimony suits without a written agreement.
Later Years and Death
In 1986 he and his mother moved to an 18-acre Westover Hills estate that had belonged to Kay Kimbell, who had endowed the Kimbell Art Museum. In 1987, at age 53, he resumed giving concerts sporadically and in his late seventies, gave a few outstanding concert performances. On May 21, 1998, near the end of a Fort Worth concert, he forgot his piece and collapsed. He was immediately given oxygen and taken to a hospital. Friends called it a massive panic attack caused by sheer exhaustion and nervousness. In 2012, he announced that he had advanced bone cancer and he died on February 27, 2013, at age 77. He was survived by his partner Thomas L. Smith.
His many obituaries all reported that he died from bone cancer. I have searched long and hard and am unable to find any records of his health history. Bone cancers that start in bones are rare. Bone cancers that result from a cancer spreading from almost any other part of the body are far more common. Doctors know almost nothing about causes of cancers that start in bones. A small percentage are hereditary, but most are not. Some cancers are caused by exposure to radiation, but the vast majority of bone cancers have no known cause. Non-ionizing radiation, such as from microwaves, electromagnetic fields from power lines, cellular phones, and household appliances, have not been shown to increase bone cancer risk. Van Cliburn was reported to have had long-term monogamous relationships, rather than the high rate of promiscuity found in male homosexuals. I do not know whether his bone cancer was caused by another cancer that started elsewhere in his body and could have come from a sexually-transmitted disease, or whether he had a rare primary bone cancer.
Harvey Lavan “Van” Cliburn, Jr.
July 12, 1934 – February 27, 2013