Van Cliburn is dead. He won the great International Tchaikovsky Competition the year I was born, and I do remember that my parents had a copy of his RCA Victor album playing Tchaikovsky's Concerto No. 1--"Living Stereo" on their cabinet record player. This album was mixed in with soundtracks--Ben Hur, The Sound of Music, South Pacific, Camelot, etc.; jazz--Stan Kenton, Dave Brubeck; various pop instrumentalists and bands--Percy Faith, Mantovani, Herb Albert, Ferrante and Teicher, and others. There were some other classicial albums, like collections of Strauss waltzes, and lots of Christmas albums with big classical orchestras and conductors, Eugene Ormandy and Leonard Bernstein.
That our household had a copy of this Van Cliburn album is not surprising. This was the first classical album to go platinum. Cliburn was one of the first American classical artists to have a real popular following. His obits commonly cite Time magazine’s 1958 cover story, which 'quoted a friend as saying Cliburn could become “the first man in history to be a Horowitz, Liberace and Presley all rolled into one.”' A ticker-tape parade for a pianist!
As the AP obit begins:
FORT WORTH, Texas — For a time in Cold War America, Van Cliburn had all the trappings of a rock star: sold-out concerts, adoring, out-of-control fans and a name recognized worldwide. He even got a ticker-tape parade in New York City.
And he did it all with only a piano and some Tchaikovsky concertos.
The celebrated pianist played for every American president since Harry Truman, plus royalty and heads of state around the world. But he is best remembered for winning a 1958 piano competition in Moscow that helped thaw the icy rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union.
Cliburn, who died Wednesday at 78 after fighting bone cancer, was “a great humanitarian and a brilliant musician whose light will continue to shine through his extraordinary legacy,” said his publicist and longtime friend Mary Lou Falcone. “He will be missed by all who knew and admired him, and by countless people he never met.”
The young man from the small east Texas town of Kilgore was a baby-faced 23-year-old when he won the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow just six months after the Soviets’ launch of Sputnik embarrassed the U.S. and inaugurated the space race.
The interesting thing about his career is that, although he went from triumph to triumph for a time, he also took time away from touring to take care of his mother. The world of classical music and performance has always fascinated me, as it combines showmanship and tremendous knowledge. Anyone who dedicates his life to studying the great repertoire of Western classical music, understanding the people and the culture that created it -- that's a special person. May he rest in peace.