Pianist Van Cliburn, cold war "musical envoy," dies of cancer at 78

NYTimes: "Van Cliburn, the American pianist whose first-place award at the 1958 Tchaikovsky International Competition in Moscow made him an overnight sensation and propelled him to a phenomenally successful and lucrative career, though a short-lived one, died Wednesday morning in Fort Worth." Bone cancer. He was 78. (HT: Joe Sabia)


  1. A Texas comedian called Bob Murphey used to do a bit about Van Cliburn.  From http://weatherforddemocrat.com/community/x1155997038/Classics-in-Cowtown/stripped?device=mobile

    Bob Murphey, a speaker friend whose stories warmed even the coldest cockles, loved to tell a story about being from the country.

    “Folks from New York City think Chicago folks are from the country,” he’d droll. “And people from Chicago think the same thing about folks from Dallas, and Dallas citizens feel like Kilgore folks are rural.” …

    One day, his story goes, a Kilgore native bristled when a visitor suggested (albeit in error) that Kilgore had never produced any truly famous person.

    The local sputtered and fumed, but failed to challenge the visitor. Later, he kicked himself that he hadn’t thought to mention Van Cliburn, the musical prodigy who attended elementary school there.

    His mental wheels spinning, he figured that maybe the community hadn’t really done enough to “show off” their star on the local stage. ….

    He sprang into action. He rented the high school auditorium, had multi-colored signs printed for barbershop windows, and wrote a “come one, come all” piece for the newspaper.

    Alas, winter took a strangle hold on Kilgore on the very day Van Cliburn was to perform. Highways were iced over, and the event organizer claimed to be able to keep his old pick-up on the road only because he had the forethought to throw 300 pounds of chicken feed into the truck for better traction.

    Still, a couple of dozen citizens showed up, adults “paying a dollar, and children 12 and under, 50 cents,” Murphey emphasized. …

    The organizer thanked the meager crowd for showing up, then turned to the youthful Van Cliburn, who already held international renown.

    “I’m just so sorry about the unforeseen circumstances, Mr. Cliburn,” he apologized. “Given such bad weather and with such a sparse crowd, we certainly don’t expect a full program.”

    A tear rolled down his face as he made a mournful plea: “But, since a few of us did brave the elements to come out, could you sang us just one song?”…

    1. Maybe the Gould you’re looking for is Glenn Gould? They had very different styles, but were both remarkable for bringing new life to old composers’ works — Tchaikovsky with Cliburn, Bach with Gould — and for being amazing performers. (And so, something else they had in common was that many peers looked down on them for being rock stars…and for the unspoken sin of simply being better.)

  2. Did you catch the retrospec on NPR this afternoon? I’ve listened to most of his recordings, and I remember hearing him interviewed during the mid-’60s, but I’d not heard his fully matured speaking voice until this afternoon — dead ringer for W.S. Burroughs. (At the link above, start listening at 0:50; this gives you about 5 seconds to prepare to pick your jaw up off the floor….)

  3. if you grew up in the north East Texas area  (as I did)  you knew who he was, what he played, and how internationally traveled he was.  RIP to a brilliant artist.

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