Sadness: The Van Cliburn Piano Grows Silent

I grew up in a town with a legend, and we all thought he was just a tall, lanky piano player. Basketball coaches frothed at the mouth when Van Cliburn walked down the hall. He would the tallest center in district. Put a few pounds on him, and he had a chance to be a big-time power forward. But mama said no. She was adamant about it. She met with teachers, principles, coaches, and janitors and made sure they all understood without a shadow of a doubt that Van would not be allowed close to any ball, big or small, that could be thrown, caught, kicked, passed, or shot.

Van Cliburn with Khrushchev

Big hands, he had. Perfect fingers, he had.

He played the piano, you know.

We knew he was good. We just didn’t know how good he was.

Van Cliburn had always found the soul of his music tucked away deep inside the heart of a grand piano. He was just a big overgrown boy when, in April of 1958, Van Cliburn traveled to Russia and won the grueling Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition in Moscow. No American had ever won it before. And news reports said that Van Cliburn’s playing excited the Soviets even more than their own pianists.

He was twenty-three years old.

The Russian politicos, caught in the midst of a Cold War, were stunned and perhaps even shocked. If there was any way that the competition could have been rigged against the American, they would have rigged it.

They couldn’t. He was too good.

At first, however, Van Cliburn was told he would not be permitted to take the grand prize of twenty-five thousand rubles, roughly worth about $6,250, out of the country. But the gangly, blond, six-foot-four piano player from Kilgore, Texas, did not appear at all concerned.

He simply said, “Money doesn’t mean anything to me. There are so many things you cannot buy with it. Winning just means a great deal to me as an American.”

As he explained, “There are no political barriers to music. The same blood running through Americans also runs through the Soviet people and compels us to create and enjoy the same art … The Russian reaction to my playing has been a wonderful heartfelt one. These people have long felt that America has a fine culture but recently have not had much proof of this. I helped to show them, I hope, that their feelings are right.”

First Deputy Premier Mikoyan told him, “You’ve been a good diplomat between politicians to bring about peaceful relations. I wish America would send more like you.”

Khrushchev later walked up to him, leaned back, looked up, and said, “Oh, you’re very tall.”

Van Cliburn nodded. “My father gave me lots of vitamins,” he said.

“I listened to you on the radio,” Khrushchev told him. “I loved the way you played the F Minor Fantasy by Chopin.”

Van could not believe his ears. “The F Minor Fantasy by Chopin is not something you sing on the street,” Van Cliburn said. He and the Russian leader were speaking a common language. “We both loved classical music,” he said.

As one music critic wrote: Tear out his name, write it somewhere, get to know it: Van Cliburn. This is one to reckon with, one musician whose prodigious talent marks him as the most important young pianist of his generation.  And another wrote:. Not only did the staid audience cheer, but some, apparently corrupted by television, even whistled.

He was quiet. He was genuine. He was soft spoken. He was down to earth.

I will never forget Van Cliburn telling me: “It’s quite strenuous to play one of those long classical pieces with as much power and force as the music demands. So I bring out a Snickers candy bar and place it on the seat beside me. From time to time, when I’m throwing my right arm high in the air, I pick up the candy bar with my left hand and sneak a bite. No one ever knows.”

He smiled. It was as close as he came to a laugh.

Van Cliburn was larger than life.

And now I hear that the legend is ill. He has wasted away to a hundred pounds.

He may be dying.

He has auctioned away more than a hundred and fifty of the personal items he collected while playing concerts around the world: Russian art, English furnishings, jewelry, and the century-old Steinway grand piano where his mother first taught him to play.

The auction brought $4.3 million. He donated the proceeds to the Julliard School in New York and the Moscow Conservatory.

I heard Van Cliburn play so often when he and I were growing up together. Walk past his house most any afternoon, and we could hear him play.  By the age of nine, he was pounding out the Transcendental Etudes of Liszt. We didn’t know what it was, we had never heard it on a jukebox before, but we somehow knew it was beyond anything we would ever understand.

He played so well then. He played so well in Moscow. He played so well around the world.

I wish I could hear him play in person again.

I’m keeping a Snickers on ice in case he ever does.

httpv://youtu.be/zPRNx9GaplY

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  • Wow! Up close and personal! Beautifully written.

    • Van was really a nice guy. But because he played classical music and because he ruled the world of classical piano, a lot of folks, especially the common folks, were afraid to approach him. And that’s a shame. Van was never more than one of the common folks who happened to wear a tuxedo most of the time.

  • Great piece, Caleb. I don’t think I ever met Van, but my mom knew him and his mother well. When my mom was working for the Education Service Center at the elementary school in Kilgore, she heard Van in the school auditorium playing the piano when the other kids were out on the play ground. What a legacy for a kid who grew up in Kilgore, Texas.

    • We lived next door, down the street, and walked the same hallway with a legend. We knew he was special. But he was just Van. Nice, quiet, and polite but always a loner. It was just Van and his piano in isolation while the rest of life passed by.

  • john crawley

    Van used to come over to our house. My dad was his doctor. He would play the piano on my mother’s old upright Hamilton piano. Besides being a great classical player, Van used to get down some real rocking rag time stuff, as well, until his mother cleared her throat and he’d go back to the basics. He was always quite nice to me. Posed for pictures with me in New York City and always asked about my parents. He was and is…one of the good guys.

    • You have it pegged. There was a lot of things Van wanted to do and play on the piano, but his mother would never allow it. He was devoted to her and always cared for her.

  • I had lost track of Van Cliburn. How sad to catch up this way. His talent was one of those reminders that God didn’t waste his time when he created man.

    • Guest

      Very well sad. I’m sure that you, like I, will always remember Van Cliburn as he looked when he was winning the award in Moscow. But time takes its toll on us all.

    • Very well said, Jack. I’m sure that you, like I, will always remember Van Cliburn as he looked when winning the piano competition in Moscow: a long, tall, Texan who looked like a boy. But, alas, time takes its toll on us all.

  • From the Dallas Morning News, Sept 7, 2012:

    Fort Worth – “Quite an emotional appearance opened the 2012-13 Cliburn Concerts series. For a Thursday night program marking the 50th anniversary of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, and featuring four previous gold medalists, it was impressive enough to see four Steinways spread across the Bass Performance Hall stage. But just before the concert started, accompanied by Cliburn Foundation interim president Alann Bedford Sampson and Fort Worth Symphony music director Miguel Harth-Bedoya, out walked Van Cliburn himself.

    Looking a bit gaunt after a recent diagnosis of bone cancer, the famed pianist saluted the many past participants in the competition, the orchestra and the city of Fort Worth. “Never forget,” he finally said to the audience, “I love you all from the bottom of my heart, forever.” With a radiant smile and big waves of those enormous hands, he drew a roaring ovation before leaving the stage.”

    We can only pray for a miracle of healing for this utterly magnificent talent, this uncommonly decent man!

    • Amen. Thanks for providing the wonderful story from the Dallas Morning News. Van Cliburn was a once-in-a-lifetime musician. I’m just glad he came along in time for me to know him.

  • Wonderful piece, and I love hearing everyone’s anecdotes from having known him and his family in Texas.

    • Van was a very private person, and only a few, even in Kilgore, knew him well. Our paths crossed from time to time, and Van was always as congenial as he was gifted with the piano.

  • Very touching,Caleb. I had no idea Van Cliburn was from Kilgore. He was my idol growing up. I have always loved piano and his playing was extraordinary. That’s a tough way to leave. Thank goodness he’s known much wonder in his life.

    • Van had much wonder in his life, and he shared the wonder on he piano with the whole world. Growing up, we knew he was special. We just didn’t know how special.

  • Joe Dean Phipps

    Thank you or sharing this beautiful, and very sad, story and update, Caleb. I was not aware of Van being ill, and that is just so sad.. I took piano for three or four years from Mrs. Cliburn. I remember so vividly those times…their very modest but very nice wood frame home just behind our elementary school, Kilgore Heights, where she gave lessons; the recitals and those little white statuettes that we would all “win”, no matter how mediocre our piano skills; the many times that I saw Van in their home and when the little group of students ‘performed’ at the recitals in her home, and maybe elsewhere. Van was 3-4 years older than me. He was a very nice, with perfect manners; very modest; almost always wore a slight, warm, smile; intelligent; from an interpersonal standpoint, very ‘easy’, never displaying any pretension; and VERY tall (even though I knew him from when he was about age 10-14, he was always very tall and thin). In those childhood days, I don’t think that I ever fully appreciated Van’s piano skills, as amazing as they were. He was “perfect”, of course, but we heard him play often, and just came to ‘know’ that when we watched and heard him play we would hear, again, a beautiful ‘piano piece’. We knew that none of us would ever be able to play ‘that way’, and loved listening…and watching (watching him, physically, WAS a BIG part of enjoying his ‘playing’) but just did not appreciate his greatness. Until Moscow. Now THAT helped us all appreciate his uniqueness…his greatness. The neatest thing about Van was that he never seemed to change…even with all of his lifelong success and recognition. The times that I have seen him since our boyhood days, or seem him interviewed for television, he was exactly the ‘same person’ as he was when he was ‘a kid’. That, I think, is a tribute to his parents and the manner in which he was raised. They ‘invested’ a lot of themselves in Van, and it really ‘showed’ all of his life. He is a treasure, and made immeasurable contributions to our world and lives. (I WILL say that Mrs. Cliburn contributed to a significant personal decision that I made at about age 10 or 11. One day, after a lesson, she said…”Joe Dean, you need to make a decision. Playing football, basketball and baseball is not good for your fingers, and if you expect to improve your piano playing, you need to stop playing those sports”. That got me to thinking. It led to a decision shortly thereafter to…stop taking piano lessons (!). My loss!.

    • Thanks, Joe Dean, for giving us such a warm and personal insight into the life of Van and especially his mother. He had the talent. She drove him to be the best there ever was.

  • Lynn Hallbrooks

    I learned a lot from this post. Thank you for sharing some of the life and times of Van Cliburn. He sounds like a most talented and generous spirit.

    • We may not see the likes of him again. Thanks for your kind comments.

  • Pam

    Wow! What an amazing man! Thanks for sharing his incredible story!

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