The Other I

March 9, 2013

Van Cliburn’s sing-along

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 3:31 pm

Van Cliburn’s funeral was held in Fort Worth, Texas five days ago.  Reading his obituary, I have just become aware of his story.  I’ve listened with deep appreciation to his renditions of Russian music for years, but I had no idea of the trajectory of his life.  My ignorance astonishes me.   I didn’t even realize Van Cliburn was his first and last name.  I thought he was Dutch, and never would have guessed he was a Texan.

I guess most people know that in 1958, after he had failed the medical exam to enter the military, Cliburn entered the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow.  It created quite a stir because here was an American, a citizen of Russia’s arch-rival, brilliantly playing Russian music.  And he wasn’t even a foreigner from somewhere on the East Coast of America – he was from Texas!  Some of the Russian judges were so upset by his genius that they fiddled their scores so he wouldn’t come in first.  But the head judge gave 25 points to Cliburn on every criteria, and zero to all the other contestants so that Cliburn came in with the top score.  The result was so contentious that before it was announced, the judges went to Nikita Khrushchev.  “Is he the best?” he asked. Yes, they said. “Then give him first prize.”

Van Cliburn came home to find himself on the cover of Time magazine, described as “the Texan who conquered Russia.”  More than that, at the height of the Cold War, the win helped thaw the icy rivalry between the United States and Soviet Union.  When Mikhail Gorbachev made his first visit to Washington in 1987, the Reagans invited Van Cliburn to perform.  It ended up as an unscheduled sing-along for the whole room as Cliburn struck up “Moscow Nights.”

Nothing could have been better.





  1. Lovely! Thank you.

    My own Cliburn memory, maybe my most precious musical one:

    “Van Cliburn, newly minted first American winner of the Soviet Union’s Tchaikovsky competition, playing Rachmaninoff’s third piano concerto. That night I sat on the concrete bleachers [in Lewisohn Stadium behind CCNY in Manhattan, overlooking Harlem; built for track and field; the sound system abysmal]. I had already all but worn out my LP of the Carnegie Hall performance with Kyril Kondrashin. He played seven encores. How long and lanky he looked at that piano. How he enjoyed himself, and how that joy communicated itself!”


    Comment by pianomusicman — March 9, 2013 @ 6:32 pm | Reply

  2. I found this on YouTube. Just a few seconds of Moscow Nights toward the end, but some wonderful moments between him and Gorbachev and the other Russians at Reagen’s White House.

    Thank you again. I never would have known this clip existed otherwise.


    Comment by pianomusicman — March 9, 2013 @ 6:39 pm | Reply

    • Thank you so much for your comment, and for the youtube. I know from your own comment that you can guess just how much it means. And I too had no idea that the clip existed. It is the kind of music and the kind of communication that defies words (and it takes a lot to stop a blabbermouth like me who is rarely without words…[?])


      Comment by Terry Sissons — March 9, 2013 @ 8:18 pm | Reply

  3. think he was in his early 20’s when he won – i remember the time cover – just shortly before i left for maryknoll. can you imagine if he had been accepted by the army – this brilliant artist – oh my – he lead his life with such dignity – i also remember the judges at the Tchaikovsky competition fudged their scores not wanting to give him the prize but the head judge gave all the points to him and none to the others – they took it to Khrushchev (???) or whomever was at the helm at that time and asked what they should do and the response was – give it to him. thanks for sharing – i had not heard he died, news here is on such negative events – 20 year old on trial for killing her boyfriend – lurid details of their private life – young rock stars beating up reporters, cops killing black men who were unarmed – i rarely turn on the tube anymore and only glance at the headlines of the times as i go by the newsstands burying ones head in the sand is not a solution but at times soothing. .


    Comment by kateritek — March 10, 2013 @ 4:08 am | Reply

    • Yes, I read Cliburn was 23 when he first played in Moscow.
      Ah, the news! Global communication is wonderful, but we do need to be able to turn it off too, or it will turn us into helpless despairing blubbering idiots who can’t make any contribution at all. I think of it as a lesson in humility – realizing that I was not, after all, put on this earth to remake it into my version of what God wants. God will have to take responsibility for that.


      Comment by theotheri — March 10, 2013 @ 3:59 pm | Reply

  4. I heard or read somewhere that Emil Gilels was that head judge.


    Comment by pianomusicman — March 12, 2013 @ 2:13 am | Reply

    • According to Wikipedia, the judges included Emil Giles & Sviatoslave Richter, who the Economist obituary says is the one who awarded 0 on every count to everyone but Van Cliburn, to whom he gave straight 25’s. The chairman of the competition was Dmitri Shostakovich.

      On the other hand, Wikipedia is known to be wrong… Guess we can’t ask Cliburn.


      Comment by Terry Sissons — March 12, 2013 @ 3:31 pm | Reply

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