In the 1950s, more than one big-haired kid from the South shook up the world with the way he played music. Van Cliburn was a lanky and laconic 23-year-old from Texas when he won the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow on Apr. 14, 1958.
It was at the height of the Cold War, with the U.S. and the Soviet Union posturing over Berlin, nuclear tests and the space race. The competition's judges reportedly asked Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev if they could really give first place to an American. Khrushchev replied, "Is he the best piano player? Then give it to him."
Cliburn returned home to a ticker-tape parade in New York, as well as international celebrity. His recording of Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 was the first classical recording to sell more than a million copies.
With his Moscow victory, Cliburn became something of a diplomat, striking a chord that connected common people from two countries that were bitter enemies. He'd never been outside the U.S. before his Moscow trip.
"The memories are so vivid," Cliburn told NPR's Scott Simon. "I remember the evening I arrived [in Moscow, on] March 26, 1958 — people were so friendly. One of the landmarks of the world that I had treasured the memory of seeing, when I was 5 years old, was the gorgeous photograph of the church of St. Basil. And so I asked this very nice lady from the ministry of culture if it was possible to pass by and see the church. She said, 'Of course,' and so we drove past it, and I felt like a dream had come true."
The Early Years
Cliburn's life at the piano began at age 3, when his mother found him at the keyboard, mimicking the piece of music that her piano student had just played.
She asked young Van if he wanted to play the piano. When he said, "Yes, mother," she said, "I'll teach you. You're not going to play by ear. You're going to know what you are doing."
Cliburn's mother, Rildia Bee O'Bryan Cliburn, a pianist who studied with one of Franz Liszt's pupils, was his principal teacher until he entered Juilliard at age 17. He recalls that she always made him sing the music before he played it. During one of his return visits to Moscow, Cliburn invited her on stage to perform.
Cliburn's first public performance was a Bach Prelude and Fugue at age 4. He made his debut with the Houston Symphony at age 12. He also played clarinet in the Kilgore, Texas, high-school marching band. He recalls that because of his height and large hands, the school tried to recruit him for the basketball team.
In 1954, Cliburn won the Levintritt Competition, which opened doors to playing with orchestras in Cleveland, Denver and Pittsburgh, as well as with the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Dmitri Mitropoulos.
After the Tchaikovsky Competition, Cliburn's schedule was hectic with tours and recordings. In 1962, a group of friends sponsored the first Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, in Fort Worth, Texas.
An Early Sabbatical
Cliburn went into semi-retirement in 1978, but returned to the White House to give a formal recital during a 1987 summit meeting between President Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev. It was the first time the famed pianist had taken the stage in nine years.
These days, Cliburn rarely plays in public, but still practices every day — often, he says, in the middle of the night.
"You feel like you're alone and the world's asleep, and it's very inspiring. I was never really the type that needed the stage. I love music. I love listening to it. But when you just listen, you can be 100 percent; when you have to serve music, you must be thinking of others, not yourself."