Remembering Van Cliburn, A Larger-Than-Life Pianist And Cold War Icon

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Pop music has changed so much over the years that it can be tough to even define what "pop music" actually is. But for a time, in the late 1950s and through the '60s, one classical pianist was a larger-than-life, rock-star figure on at least two continents. He was a pop-music phenomenon, with a debut album that went triple platinum. Everyone knew who he was. 

Van Cliburn, who died today at 78, rocketed to fame by winning the International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow at the height of the Cold War in 1958. He wasn’t just a musician, he was a crack in the wall between East and West. Americans loved the elegant Texan who went to Russia and beat the Russians at their own game. And the Russians simply loved his playing. 

His debut recording -- appropriately, of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto #1 -- was released in late 1958, and featured the distinguished Russian conductor Kiril Kondrashin, a rare Russian-American collaboration.


Like Glenn Gould -- another great classical pianist who became a kind of pop figure -- Van Cliburn eventually retired from touring. I never saw him perform live, although he seemed to play for our various Presidents in the White House over the years. But his name never went away: The Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, in his beloved Fort Worth, Texas, remains one of the most important music competitions anywhere in the world. 

For my generation, born after his Moscow triumph, Cliburn's name was a little bit of history, a holdover from the early days of the Space Age, when the Soviets launched their satellites first and it took a classical pianist to restore our national pride.