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.