WASHINGTON, February 27 (RIA Novosti) The internationally acclaimed American classical pianist Van Cliburn, who won the first Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow in 1958 during the height of the Cold War propelling him to worldwide fame, died Wednesday from bone cancer at the age of 78.
Cliburn passed away at his home in Fort Worth, Texas surrounded by loved ones, said his publicist and longtime friend Mary Lou Falcone, according to the Associated Press (AP).
Cliburn was 23 when he won the Moscow Tchaikovsky competition, six months after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first satellite to go into orbit, igniting the space race and heating up the Cold War.
At a Kremlin reception after Cliburn won, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev hugged the pianist, asking “Why are you so tall?” Cliburn answered, “Because I am from Texas,” The New York Times reported.
At first, Cliburn wasn’t aware of the political ramifications of his victory at the Tchaikovsky competition.
“Oh, I never thought about all that,” Cliburn recalled in a 2008 interview with The Times. “I was just so involved with the sweet and friendly people who were so passionate about music.”
The Russians, he said, “reminded me of Texans.”
Cliburn returned home to New York City a hero and was greeted by thousands of people lining the streets during a ticker-tape parade, the first ever for a classical musician.
He graced the cover of Time magazine which proclaimed him “The Texan Who Conquered Russia.”
Cliburn’s 1958 album of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, recorded with Russian conductor Kirill Kondrashin, became the first classical album to sell more than 1 million copies and reach platinum status.
He helped young musicians throughout the world with the Van Cliburn International Music Competition, which was started in 1962.
Cliburn played at a White House state dinner in 1987 during Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s visit to Washington and Gorbachev was so moved, he leapt to his feet to give Cliburn a bear-hug and kisses on the cheeks.
US President George W. Bush awarded Cliburn the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, in 2003.
The following year he received the Order of Friendship of the Russian Federation from President Vladimir Putin. “I still have lots of friends in Russia,” Cliburn said at the time.
Cliburn was born on July 12, 1934, in Shreveport, Louisiana. At age 3, he began studying piano with his mother, who was herself an accomplished pianist. And he won his first Texas piano competition when he was 12.
Two years later he was playing in New York’s Carnegie Hall. When he was 17, Cliburn attended the world famous Julliard School in New York where he studied under Russian-born pianist Rosina Lhevinne.
He went on to perform around the world for royalty, heads of state and for every US president since Harry Truman.
“Van Cliburn was an international legend for over five decades, a great humanitarian and a brilliant musician whose light will continue to shine through his extraordinary legacy,” Falcone said in a statement Wednesday, according to the AP.
“He will be missed by all who knew and admired him, and by countless people he never met.”