Streams

Van Cliburn's Musical Diplomacy Eases Tense U.S.-Soviet Relationship

Wednesday, August 22, 2012 - 01:00 PM

WNYC

Texas, Moscow, and New York meet in this extended coverage of Van Cliburn Day, May 20, 1958, after Cliburn's unexpected victory at the Tchaikovsky Competition.

With tensions running high between the United States and the Soviet Union, there was much talk of "the arts" providing an opportunity for dialogue and understanding between the two superpowers. One has to admire the young Texan's poise (he was 23 at the time) in handling such a potentially dangerous, pressure-packed situation. 

In this recording, the reporter breathlessly describes the young pianist, fresh off his triumph in Russia, "making his confetti-strewn way" through the Canyon of Heroes. With a high school marching band in background, he paints a picture of the scene at City Hall where schoolchildren and dignitaries await the arrival of the motorcade. Finally, after a performance by the U.N. Singers and speeches by several dignitaries including Mayor Robert F. Wagner, Cliburn himself modestly thanks the crowd, then sits down at the piano. 

His speech, with its great appreciation for his Russian friends and hosts, is remarkably humble. He says the success he has experienced "could have easily happened to someone else" and asks the assembled multitude to say an occasional prayer for him, that he will "never fail to live up to what has happened to him."  He then plays Liszt's arrangement of Robert Schumann's "Widmung."

Van Cliburn was born in 1934. He grew up in Texas, where he was quickly recognized as a musical prodigy. Taught by his mother, Rildia, he debuted with the Houston Symphony orchestra at 12 and entered the Julliard School of Music at 17. The young pianist embarked on a solid, if unspectacular, performing career and at the time of the 1958 Tchaikovsky Competition was hardly considered one of the favorites to win the prize. That made his performance in Moscow all the more surprising. WNYC's Sarah Fishko, in her Fishko Files, tells how:

…A group of 50 pianists from 19 countries went to Moscow, including a few Americans. One was Van Cliburn. He had won an American competition, the Leventritt Award, at age 20, only to drift into an unremarkable career. But his prodigious talent had not gone unrecognized by the jury — this being no ordinary jury. Among them: Russian pianists Emil Gilels and Sviatoslav Richter, composers Dmitri Kabalevsky, Sir Arthur Bliss, and Dmitri Shostakovich, chairman of the competition. Cliburn famously tore into Tchaikovsky's first piano concerto, awing the Soviet judges. But they remained unsure whether they could give the prize to an American. As the popularly recounted story goes, the judges sought Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev's approval. "Is he the best?" Khrushchev asked. The judges replied yes. "Then give him the prize," Khrushchev said.

As is heard here, Cliburn returned to a most unlikely hero's welcome. He is still the only musician to be honored with a New York City ticker tape parade. He signed what was then the most lucrative recording deal ever offered to a classical musician and subsequently toured to packed houses for many years. In time, a reaction set in. As Gale Musician Profiles recounts:

Rapid fame and an exhausting schedule of touring, which often had Cliburn playing three days out of four during subsequent years, took their toll on the performer. Partly due to the demands of audiences to hear him play his prize-winning Tchaikovsky piece, he did not broaden his range as critics hoped he would. He was accused of lacking the intellectual curiosity that was necessary to fully develop his talent. Cliburn became inconsistent in his recitals, and his sound became rougher and trivialized by affectations. …Gradually Cliburn reduced his appearances until, after two decades of performing in almost 100 concerts a year, he withdrew completely from the concert circuit in 1978.

This view of Cliburn's musical decline was contested by the New York Times' Michael Kimmelman who, in a 2000 profile, argued:

…he was from the start a phenomenal, natural musician, as every other pianist recognized. And prolific enough in the standard repertory. He played or recorded Beethoven's Third, Fourth, and Fifth Piano Concertos, Rachmaninoff's Second and Third Concertos and Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, both Brahms concertos, both Liszt concertos, Chopin's First, MacDowell's Second, the Schumann, the Grieg, Mozart's C major (K. 503), Prokofiev's Third. … And Mr. Cliburn always was the opposite of a shallow showboat. When other young American pianists of his generation were perfecting a midcentury style of bloodless technique, he was an instinctive, honest, ardent player of absolute control, the model of modern musicianship.

In 1988 Cliburn reprised his role as an artist bridging political differences when he played at the White House after a state dinner for Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. At a time when relations between the two superpowers were once again at low ebb, his playing of the Russian song "Moscow Nights," with Gorbachev and his wife Raisa tearfully joining in, provided a memorable, humanizing glimpse of the Soviet leader.

Cliburn is the founder of the Van Cliburn Foundation, which administers a quadrennial piano competition not unlike the one that launched him to fame over a half century ago. It is held in Fort Worth, Texas, where he has lived for many years.

Van Cliburn died February 27, 2013.

 

Audio courtesy of the NYC Municipal Archives WNYC Collection.

Guests:

Van Cliburn

Tags:

More in:

Comments [3]

Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

Despite the fear in the era of Cliburn's historic winning of the Tshaikavsky Prize the level today of potential major calamities appears greater what with financial, political and "mother nature rebelling" circumstances. With all the turmoil in the world, Oklahoma's city of Moore so devastated it looks like Hiroshima after the nuclear bomb drop, Syria with its own civilians massacred by their own government, the financial ruin of economies in Greece, Spain, Portugal and not so bad but still wretched financial outlooks for Great Britain, Italy and Ireland, we must count our blessings and do what we can to assist those whose need is so desperate. MUSEUMS HAVE A VALUE, named after the Muse of the Arts, it is significant to save what might be a masterpiece, yet leave room FOR THE LIVING CREATORS in music, the fine arts, architecture, dance and literature. The creative artists including the living composers, lyricists, painters, sculptors, dancers, architects and authors depend upon the funding from purchases of their oeuvre as tickets, book sales or actual financial support. Priority to conserve should not rule out support for modern points of view and expression of all aspects of modern life including political and domestic family values. Currently, besides my opera composing I am singing concerts to be recorded and released as LIVE presentations as part of a series of ten DVDs titled "The 300 Greatest Love Songs of the Broadway Musicals, Movies and Grammys." My next solo concerts to be recorded on DVD are scheduled for Saturday, June 22nd at 6 PM at the Yoga, Raw Food Expo at the Hotel Pennsylvania in New York and for Saturday, October 19th at 6 PM at the New Life Expo at the New Yorker Hotel.

May. 21 2013 12:17 PM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Musxic Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

Kudos to DAVID DUBAL whose program illustrated the technical and interpretive talents of VAN CLIBURN. All the selections were performed with a relish, devoid of self serving lacrymosity, but with genuine deep-felt empathetic emotional accord. Thank you DAVID DUBAL for your fitting tribute to a real MENSCH, VAN CLIBURN !!!

May. 21 2013 11:53 AM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from RIhard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

ALL THE WORLD ADMIRED VAN CLIBURN FOR HIS GREAT TALENT AND HIS WARM OUTGOING PERSONA. A JUILLIARD ALUM MYSELF BEFORE HIS LANDMARK TSCHAIKOWSKY TRIUMPH, I, WITH HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS, WATCHED HIS TICKER TAPE PARADE AND MY MOM , BROTHER DR. BEN C. 3ANE AND I ATTENDED HIS CARNEGIE HALL CONCERT AND SPOKE WITH HIM AFTERWARD BACKSTAGE. THAT TALL , LANKY HANDSOME TEXAN DID MORE FOR A FRIENDLIER RELATIONSHIP WITH THE RUSSIANS THAN ANY POLITICIAN. THE COLD WAR THREATENING PEACE WAS MADE LESS MENACING. R.I.P. VAN CLIBURN. THE WORLD CONTINUES TO MOURN YOUR PASSING.

May. 21 2013 11:48 AM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.

The Morning Brief

Enter your email address and we’ll send you our top 5 stories every day, plus breaking news and weather.

Sponsored

About Annotations: The NEH Preservation Project

In September 2010, WNYC's Archives and Preservation Department initiated a two-year archival digitization project funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Its goal is to reformat 660 hours of choice recordings from the NYC Municipal Archives WNYC collection found on lacquer disc and open reel tape.

For more information, please visit the 2010-2013 NEH-Funded Preservation Project page.

Browse the collection

The 2010-2013 NEH-Funded Preservation Project has been made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the Human Endeavor. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this web resource do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Feeds

Supported by