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: