Van Cliburn

Van Cliburn was an acclaimed pianist who played with the New York Philharmonic and founded an international piano competition.


After studying at the Juilliard School in New York City, Van Cliburn made his debut with the New York Philharmonic. In 1958 he became a national sensation as the first American to win the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. In 1962, he established the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition and later limited himself to the Romantic repertoire. Van Cliburn retired from touring in the late 1970s, but he made some appearances in later years. He died in Texas in 2013.

Early Life

Born on July 12, 1934, in Shreveport, Louisiana, famed pianist Van Cliburn was the son of an executive and a musician. He learned to play the piano at the age of three with his mother—herself trained by Arthur Friedheim—as his teacher. The family moved to Kilgore, Texas, when he was around the age of 6. At 12 years old, Van Cliburn made his first appearance with the Houston Symphony Orchestra.

The young pianist then moved to New York City after graduating from Kilgore High School in 1951. There, Van Cliburn continued his musical studies at the famed Juilliard School with Rosina Lhevinne. Three years later, he won the top prize at the Levintritt Competition. This honor opened the doors to performances across the country with such leading orchestras as the New York Philharmonic.

World Famous Pianist

In 1958, Van Cliburn became an American hero with his victory at the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. The United States was still reeling from the Soviet Union's launch of Sputnik, the first human-made satellite to orbit Earth the previous year. An American winning a prestigious Soviet classical music competition served an important morale booster to the country.

Upon his return to the United States, the 23-year-old Van Cliburn was feted with a ticker-tape parade through the streets of New York City. The tall Texan spent the next several years touring extensively. During this time, Van Cliburn enjoyed a level of popularity usually only bestowed on pop singers and rock stars.

By the late 1960s, however, Van Cliburn's appeal had faded considerably. He decided to stop touring all together in the late 1970s. Over the years, Van Cliburn would occasionally return to the stage for special appearances. He performed at the White House in 1987 at an event honoring Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev at the request of President Ronald Reagan.

Final Years

In 2012, it was revealed that Van Cliburn was battling bone cancer. He succumbed to the disease on February 27, 2013, at his home in Fort Worth, Texas. Van Cliburn is survived by his longtime partner Thomas L. Smith. In addition to his work as a performer, he spent much of his life as a patron of the arts. He established the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in 1962. The Van Cliburn Foundation has dedicated the 2013 competition to his memory and expects to continue in its "mission to carry forward his spirit of spreading the universality and abounding love of classical music across the world," according to its website.

During his career, Van Cliburn played for every American president since Harry Truman. He received numerous honors over the years, including the Order of Friendship from Russian president Vladimir Putin in 2004. In 2011, Van Cliburn earned the National Medal of Arts from President Barack Obama.

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