A performance of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, as played by a young American in Moscow in 1958, has never been forgotten in the former Soviet Union.
The pianist, Van Cliburn, who died at the age of 78 on February 27 in Texas, was competing at the time in the first-ever International Tchaikovsky Competition.
Just 23 years old, he was a long-shot entry. But right from the start, it became clear that despite the great divide between Soviet citizens and Americans, something special was happening.
In the competition events, the audiences quickly warmed to Cliburn’s youth, his modesty, and his extraordinarily warm, even romantic, rendition of Tchaikovsky’s works.
WATCH: Van Cliburn plays Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in Moscow in 1962, accompanied by Kirill Kondrashin.
As for Cliburn, he was clearly awed and delighted to be appearing before a jury composed of the very greatest names in Soviet classical music.
“It was very exciting, particularly for me, to see the jury, it was an unbelievable jury, [Dmitry] Shostakovich, Emil Gilels, Svyatoslav Richter,” Cliburn told the U.S. Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) in 2008, on the 50th anniversary of the event.
“I mean, it was just unbelievable. That was frightening. The jury was more frightening than the audience,” he recalled. “But after time passed and I got to have the privilege of being with them, they were so real and such nice people.”
By the time the competition was drawing to a close, Cliburn was the audience favorite, not just in Moscow but across the Soviet Union, as the event was broadcast on state radio. When the judges announced Cliburn had won, music lovers celebrated openly, despite the official chill in Soviet-U.S. relations.
Cold War Victory
By any measure, the event was an extraordinary moment in the Cold War, when several unlikely factors came together to make the impossible turn possible.
The competition took place just six months after the Soviet launch of Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite, and at a time when an increasingly confident Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, was exploring the idea of a “peaceful coexistence” with the United States.
Music legend has it that the jury had to approach Khrushchev to personally approve the American’s victory and only then was it able to award him first prize.
WATCH: Van Cliburn plays Rachmaninoff’s 3d Concerto in Moscow in 1958.
In the United States, too, Cliburn’s victory was welcomed as an astonishing victory against Cold War odds. On his return to the United States, the young pianist received a ticker-tape parade in New York — the only classical musician to ever be so honored.
Then-New York Mayor Robert Wagner told the crowd, “With his two hands, Van Cliburn struck a chord which has resounded around the world, raising our prestige with artists and music lovers everywhere.”
Lasting Soviet Fame
The euphoria was short-lived, inevitably overcome again by the U.S.-Soviet arms race and proxy wars. But the friendships built at the first International Tchaikovsky Competition continued to echo within the classical music world.
Later in 1958, Cliburn recorded Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with Russian conductor Kirill Kondrashin. Their joint performance became the first classical album in the West to sell over 1 million copies.
Cliburn continued to return for concerts in the Soviet Union from 1960 to 1972. He also went on to give his name to what has become the renowned Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in his hometown of Fort Worth, Texas.
But perhaps the most enduring legacy of Cliburn’s astonishing connection with the Soviet public is the fact that he still remains a household name in many homes across the region.
He is not, however, remembered as Van Cliburn, as his name is pronounced in his home country. Instead, he has another name, as he told PBS in that 2008 interview, which he received the moment he landed in Moscow 55 years ago.
“I got off of the plane and there was this very lovely, gracious, nice lady, Genriyetta Belyayeva, and I still know her to this day, and she said, ‘Mr. Van Cleeburn?’ And I [replied], ‘Yes.’ And she said, ‘Welcome to Moscow,'” Cliburn said.
“So, all the time I was there, I never told them that in this country we pronounce it ‘Van Cliburn.’ So, I have two names, ‘Van Cleeburn’ and ‘Van Cliburn.'”