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Van Cliburn

Pianist Harvey Lavan “Van” Cliburn, Jr. established the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, which has become one of the best-known classical music contests in the United States.

Van Cliburn


Van Cliburn playing in the Tchaikovsky Competition, 1958.

Pianist Harvey Lavan “Van” Cliburn Jr. was born July 12, 1934, in Shreveport. In 1958 he became famous as America’s classical music champion when he won first prize at the inaugural International Tchaikovsky Competition, which took place in Moscow when it was the capital of the communist Soviet Union. Van Cliburn’s victory took on deeper political and cultural implications in the context of the Cold War, as he defeated his Russian competitors. Four years later he established the quadrennial Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, which has become one of the best-known classical music contests in the United States. 

An only child, Van Cliburn Jr. began piano lessons at age three with his mother, the piano teacher Rilda Bee Cliburn, who had studied in New York with Franz Liszt’s one-time pupil Arthur Friedheim. His father, Van Cliburn Sr., was an oil company executive who moved the family moved to Kilgore, Texas, when Van Jr. was six years old. There his musical gifts were soon recognized. He debuted with the Houston Symphony Orchestra at age twelve and enrolled at New York’s Juilliard School at age seventeen. His famous teacher there was concert pianist Rosina Lhevinne, who supported Cliburn’s love for Russian romantic composers. 

At age twenty Cliburn won the Leventritt Award, a prestigious prize for classical violinists and pianists, and debuted at Carnegie Hall. He drew unusual attention for a classical pianist from the news media and popular audiences, but music critics were always divided about his playing. A devoted Baptist, Cliburn avoided strong drink and language, and appeared dedicated only to family and music as he emerged into the spotlight. 

Upon his arrival for the Tchaikovsky Competition, the Russian public greeted Cliburn with curiosity and enthusiasm. Already a rising star in his homeland, his unexpected victory made him an international sensation as well as a national hero in his own country. Cliburn was given a ticker-tape parade in New York and greeted everywhere by jubilant crowds. President Dwight D. Eisenhower received him at the White House and he performed on Steve Allen’s network television variety show. His recording of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 sold more than one million copies, an unprecedented success for a classical music album, and he became a top draw on the classical music circuit. 

Begun in 1962, the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition was originally held at Texas Christian University but later at Fort Worth’s Bass Performance Hall. Sponsored by the Van Cliburn Foundation, this international competition encouraged a proliferation of classical music contests in the United States. 

In 1978 Cliburn retired from the concert stage, but in 1987 he accepted an offer to perform at the White House for Ronald Reagan and Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev. He appeared sporadically in concert thereafter, including a performance with the Baton Rouge Symphony Orchestra in 2006. Cliburn’s many honors include the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the National Medal of the Arts, the Russian Order of Friendship, and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. 

Van Cliburn died February 27, 2013, at his home in Fort Worth, Texas, after suffering from advanced bone cancer.