sitting on the edge of the sandbox, biting my tongue

February 28, 2013

Van Cliburn, RIP

Filed under: music, Soviet Union — Tags: , — edge of the sandbox @ 10:15 pm

Americans might have given him a ticker-tape parade, and he was a rock star the world over, but I suspect Van Cliburn was best loved in Russia.  High-minded Russians love classical music, and they all (absolutely every single one of them!) fell in love with Cliburn in 1958 when the musician won the Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow.  The iron curtain lifted a bit, and a refined Texan with a wild head of hair wowed the country with his masterful execution of Russian Romantic composers.  The way his fingertips touched the piano, one would believe that he spent his formative years committing to memory Pushkin’s and Yesenin’s verses and playing in the snow besides birch trees.  Vanya Cliburn!

And please note, Cliburn was not a creation of any kind of centralized system designed to nurture virtuoso musicians.  He was just a guy who loved music and who came from a family that loved music.  The Soviets, on the other hand, scouted out talented children.  Turns out, classical music can strive in the culture of individualism.

If Cliburn’s performance showed the nation that America had a soul, American Exhibition in Sokolniki Park, Moscow the following year offered something different.  Two million Russians attended the installation that featured the wonders of the day-to-day capitalist existence.  Had Americans with their Coca-Cola and dishwashers lost track of what’s important in life?  After Van Cliburn there was no way to convincingly argue that the United States were too materialistic.

Van Cliburn’s entry in the Tchaikovsky competition was one of the iconic moments of Khrushchev’s Thaw of the 1950-60’s, a period of relative freedom following the death of Stalin.  My parents’ generation that came of age during the Thaw absolutely idolized the pianist.

Van Cliburn passed away yesterday at the age of 78.  Please enjoy the recording of his extraordinary performance in Moscow, one of the few hopeful moments in Soviet history:



  1. Van Cliburn was one of the best pianists who ever lived — at his peak. Later years were not kind to him. No matter! He was a “Cold War Warrior” — at the ivories, of course.

    I had the privilege of studying piano under the tutelage of one of Van Cliburn’s students — or maybe my teacher was one of Van Cliburn’s proteges. Looking back, I now realize that my piano teacher was a homosexual. He was a “close friend” of Van Cliburn’s, and when Van Cliburn came to D.C. to give a concert, my teacher had free prime-seats tickets.

    Comment by Always On Watch — March 1, 2013 @ 10:56 am

    • You were very lucky to study piano with his student.
      There is probably a disproportionally high number of homosexuals in music, for whatever reason…

      Comment by edge of the sandbox — March 2, 2013 @ 2:11 pm

      • The teacher I mentioned was excellent! I had been studying piano for several years under the tutelage of others. But this fellow who had been Van Cliburn’s student taught me that music isn’t about mere notes and perfect technique but rather about interpretation (precise phrasing, dynamics, and the like).

        I’d have studied piano with this man for several more years had he not broken his leg and had to move back to Texas, where his family lived.

        Comment by Always On Watch — March 3, 2013 @ 3:51 am

  2. I got to see Van Cliburn give a recital at Wheaton College when I was a student there back in the early seventies. I was very ignorant musically at the time, not having had the good luck to have been raised in a home where classical music was valued, or even listened to. Both my parents had appallingly bad taste in music, and I was taught next to nothing about good music in school or anywhere else. But I knew Van Cliburn was a celebrity, so of course I jumped at the chance to see him perform. What an amazing performer! Too bad I can’t see that same performance now, when I know something about music and would be able to understand and appreciate it more.

    Comment by Bob — March 1, 2013 @ 2:56 pm

    • I grew up in family that loved classical, but I just didn’t have the ear for it. As a child I hated music, but I got into it in my teen years for the status value. I understood that I don’t understand much about music, however. I eventually learned to appreciate classical by listening to more challenging pop and rock. I doubt I would ever get into classical if my family wouldn’t had forced it on me against my will.

      Comment by edge of the sandbox — March 2, 2013 @ 2:16 pm

  3. […] Van Cliburn, RIP […]

    Pingback by Saturday Links: Facebook Friend Pics Edition, Volume 57 - Conservative Hideout 2.0 — March 2, 2013 @ 7:22 am

  4. I read somewhere that he liked Russians because they reminded him of Texans.

    Comment by Infidel de Manahatta — March 3, 2013 @ 2:39 pm

    • With a major caveat—Russians tend to stubborn pessimism while Texans tend to stubborn optimism—he’s not wrong.

      “After Van Clive came to Russia, no one could doubt that the Americans had a soul.” Two opposite reactions on this side came to mind.

      Years ago, Yasha and I were driving somewhere at Christmastime. I had installed a bunch of Christmas CD’s in the changer in the trunk. (Remember those?) We were listening to a version of Joy to the World, but it was conducted like a dirge. It was technically right, but completely wrong. Turns out it was a CD of the Soviet state orchestra that he had collected in his pre-revolution days in Moscow. Joy and hope was a foreign concept to the Soviet state, we mused. He made up lyrics, but I can’t recall them. For fun, we made a mix tape (another relic) with the Soviet version followed by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir version. The difference was…apparent.

      A few nights ago, I finally watched Mao’s Last Dancer. It had been on my To Watch list ever since I found the review at Libertas a few years ago probably. When the Houston Ballet went to Bejing to watch the dancers, the prima ballerina notes on watching them dance that they looked like a bunch of athletes. Their moves were perfect, precise, but had no soul.

      Comment by ahlondon — March 7, 2013 @ 10:24 am

      • Yep. There was a lot of cheesiness in the Soviet Union, and it wasn’t limited to popular music.
        And about ballet. Oh. My sister went to a prep ballet school (ended up going a totally different rout) and she sneers at Chinese “ballet”. It’s acrobatics. I see it myself. It’s a bit ironic that so many Euros think that China will save their civilization from the evil American mass culture. Americans get the idea of Romantic genius, and Chinese do not — at least not as far as I know.

        Comment by edge of the sandbox — March 7, 2013 @ 9:55 pm

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