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Van Cliburn


Van Cliburn

Harvey Lavan Cliburn, Jr. was born in Shreveport, Louisiana, on July 12, 1934, son of Harvey Lavan and Rildia Bee (O'Bryan) Cliburn. The family moved to Texas when he was six.

Cliburn began studying piano at the age of 3. His only teacher for the first 17 years was his mother, who had studied under Arthur Friedheim, who had studied under Franz Liszt. He gave his first recital at the age of 4, and made his orchestral debut with the Houston Symphony at 13. After graduating from Kilgore High School in 1951, he entered the Juilliard School in New York City, where he studied under Madame Rosina Lhevinne.

In 1954, Cliburn won the Levintritt Competition, which had not awarded a first-place prize since 1949. His "prize" was an appearance with the New York Philharmonic under Dimitri Mitropoulos, which took place in Carnegie Hall on November 14, 1954.

In April 1958, Moscow hosted the first ever International Tchaikovsky Competition, an event that was supposed to spotlight the Soviet Union's cultural superiority over the rest of the world. That spotlight got redirected dramatically, however, as Cliburn won the competition handily with his renditions of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 and Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3. That win made Cliburn a hero in the United States, and he was given a ticker-tape parade by New York City upon his return (he is to date the only musician to be so honored).

Van Cliburn (second from right) meeting Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev after winning the Tchaikovsky Piano Competition
Cliburn meeting Khrushchev

Cliburn being greeted in Moscow following his post-competition concert tour
Cliburn being greeted in Moscow

Soon after returning to the United States, Cliburn appeared in a Carnegie Hall concert with the Symphony of the Air, conducted by Kirill Kondrashin, who had led the Moscow Philharmonic in his prize-winning performances in Moscow. The performance of the Rachmaninoff 3rd Piano Concerto at this concert was subsequently released by RCA Victor, as was his performance of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1, which became the first classical album to go platinum (and eventually triple platinum).

Cliburn's accomplishment in Moscow spurred the National Guild of Piano Teachers to inaugurate the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, the first of which was held in Fort Worth, Texas, from September 24 to October 7, 1962; it has been held every four years since.

Cliburn continued to record and tour extensively until 1972, when he announced his retirement from public performances. During that time, he returned to Russia numerous times and performed for every President of the United States, as well as for royalty and heads of state around the world. He finally returned to the public spotlight in 1987, when he accepted an invitation from President Ronald Reagan to perform a formal recital in the East Room of the White House during the State Visit honoring Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet Union's then general secretary. Two years later, and thirty-one years after his triumph at the Tchaikovsky Competition, Cliburn returned to the Soviet Union to perform at the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory and in the Philharmonic Hall of Leningrad. He received Kennedy Center Honors in 2001 and the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2004. In a 2004 Kremlin ceremony, he received the Order of Friendship from President Vladimir Putin, and in 2003, President George W. Bush bestowed upon him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

In 2012, Cliburn's publicist announced that he had been diagnosed with bone cancer. He succumbed to that disease in his Fort Worth home on February 27, 2013.

Van Cliburn Foundation

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
President Ronald Reagan
Mikhail Gorbachev

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The Robinson Library >> Musicians

This page was last updated on 07/11/2018.