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Sadness: The Van Cliburn Piano Grows Silent

I grew up in a town with a legend, and we all thought he was just a tall, lanky piano player. Basketball coaches frothed at the mouth when Van Cliburn walked down the hall. He would the tallest center in district. Put a few pounds on him, and he had a chance to be a big-time power forward. But mama said no. She was adamant about it. She met with teachers, principles, coaches, and janitors and made sure they all understood without a shadow of a doubt that Van would not be allowed close to any ball, big or small, that could be thrown, caught, kicked, passed, or shot.

Van Cliburn with Khrushchev

Big hands, he had. Perfect fingers, he had.

He played the piano, you know.

We knew he was good. We just didn’t know how good he was.

Van Cliburn had always found the soul of his music tucked away deep inside the heart of a grand piano. He was just a big overgrown boy when, in April of 1958, Van Cliburn traveled to Russia and won the grueling Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition in Moscow. No American had ever won it before. And news reports said that Van Cliburn’s playing excited the Soviets even more than their own pianists.

He was twenty-three years old.

The Russian politicos, caught in the midst of a Cold War, were stunned and perhaps even shocked. If there was any way that the competition could have been rigged against the American, they would have rigged it.

They couldn’t. He was too good.

At first, however, Van Cliburn was told he would not be permitted to take the grand prize of twenty-five thousand rubles, roughly worth about $6,250, out of the country. But the gangly, blond, six-foot-four piano player from Kilgore, Texas, did not appear at all concerned.

He simply said, “Money doesn’t mean anything to me. There are so many things you cannot buy with it. Winning just means a great deal to me as an American.”

As he explained, “There are no political barriers to music. The same blood running through Americans also runs through the Soviet people and compels us to create and enjoy the same art … The Russian reaction to my playing has been a wonderful heartfelt one. These people have long felt that America has a fine culture but recently have not had much proof of this. I helped to show them, I hope, that their feelings are right.”

First Deputy Premier Mikoyan told him, “You’ve been a good diplomat between politicians to bring about peaceful relations. I wish America would send more like you.”

Khrushchev later walked up to him, leaned back, looked up, and said, “Oh, you’re very tall.”

Van Cliburn nodded. “My father gave me lots of vitamins,” he said.

“I listened to you on the radio,” Khrushchev told him. “I loved the way you played the F Minor Fantasy by Chopin.”

Van could not believe his ears. “The F Minor Fantasy by Chopin is not something you sing on the street,” Van Cliburn said. He and the Russian leader were speaking a common language. “We both loved classical music,” he said.

As one music critic wrote: Tear out his name, write it somewhere, get to know it: Van Cliburn. This is one to reckon with, one musician whose prodigious talent marks him as the most important young pianist of his generation.  And another wrote:. Not only did the staid audience cheer, but some, apparently corrupted by television, even whistled.

He was quiet. He was genuine. He was soft spoken. He was down to earth.

I will never forget Van Cliburn telling me: “It’s quite strenuous to play one of those long classical pieces with as much power and force as the music demands. So I bring out a Snickers candy bar and place it on the seat beside me. From time to time, when I’m throwing my right arm high in the air, I pick up the candy bar with my left hand and sneak a bite. No one ever knows.”

He smiled. It was as close as he came to a laugh.

Van Cliburn was larger than life.

And now I hear that the legend is ill. He has wasted away to a hundred pounds.

He may be dying.

He has auctioned away more than a hundred and fifty of the personal items he collected while playing concerts around the world: Russian art, English furnishings, jewelry, and the century-old Steinway grand piano where his mother first taught him to play.

The auction brought $4.3 million. He donated the proceeds to the Julliard School in New York and the Moscow Conservatory.

I heard Van Cliburn play so often when he and I were growing up together. Walk past his house most any afternoon, and we could hear him play.  By the age of nine, he was pounding out the Transcendental Etudes of Liszt. We didn’t know what it was, we had never heard it on a jukebox before, but we somehow knew it was beyond anything we would ever understand.

He played so well then. He played so well in Moscow. He played so well around the world.

I wish I could hear him play in person again.

I’m keeping a Snickers on ice in case he ever does.


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