So long to a legend, farewell to a friend. Van Cliburn’s music will never leave us.

Van Cliburn in Russia
Van Cliburn in Russia











The world lost a legend.

Kilgore lost a son.

I lost a friend.

But the music didn’t die. His music will never fade away or leave us.

On Wednesday, in the quiet newness of another day, not quite like any day we’ve ever had before, the notes on Van Cliburn’s baby grand piano were silenced forever.

Others might play it.

But no one would ever be able to play it the way Van did.

Van Cliburn was the musical genius.

Van Cliburn had the gift.

In Kilgore, he would always be the tall, gangly kid who was banned from sports by his mother. She always feared that some bouncing ball might break one of those talented fingers, and God forbid if a coach let him touch a ball, bouncing or otherwise. After all, she could see the future, and it lay within the hands of a tall gangly kid, and it had been lying there since the day he discovered the difference between the black and the white keys on a piano. Van was already playing better than his music teacher by the time he was three years old.

His mother, Rildia Bee, just happened to be his music teacher.

Van Cliburn never had a life beyond his piano. Nor did he particularly want one. Other children played jacks and marbles, chase and red rover and hop scotch beneath a blistering Texas sun. Van remained inside and merely played the piano. But a neighbor, Ben Cato, always said: “He’s a good boy. He’s a fine musician. But the boy disturbs my naps.”

The children could hear the music coming from the window in the Cliburn home, but it wasn’t any song they recognized, so they ignored it and quietly thanked the Good Lord that they weren’t chained to a pile of sheet music stacked beside his piano stool.

His mother would tell him: ‘Musial inspiration is a gift from God. Use it with the purist motives. Aim high and consider yourself capable of great things. Lend your talents to the world to make it better.”

Van Cliburn competing in Russia: Photo provided by the Van Cliburn Foundation,
Van Cliburn competing in Russia: Photo provided by the Van Cliburn Foundation,

She was a perfectionist who demanded that her son attain the higher levels of perfection.

Nothing less was acceptable.

To India Ann Rader and Ann Wyatt, Van Cliburn was never a prodigy. He was simply a friend. And, of course, he was a boy, which meant that little girls went out of their way to harass him whenever possible.

India Ann told me: “We always went to hear him at the music clubs. He would be concentrating on his music, probably something from Tchaikovsky, and we crawled under the piano. We held the pedals down so he couldn’t reach them.

“He grinned and kicked at us.

“We laughed an giggled.

“And as Van grew older, we crawled under the piano and pulled the hair on his legs. His mother saw us, and I’m sure that inside she was probably simmering. But there was absolutely nothing she could do about it.

“She did not dare interrupt the music.”

Once the Cliburns arrived in Kilgore, it did not take them long to become a part of the community. When the funeral home needed an organist on the spur of the moment, Leroy Rader knew he could always depend on Rildia Bee Cliburn. He kept her phone number handy, and he called it often.

She always came to the back door and quietly sat behind a curtain. The music was important to a grieving family, she said. The identify of the organist wasn’t. She remained hidden from view with Van sitting at her feet and watching her play.

One afternoon Rader called her. A funeral had been scheduled at the last moment. Could she possibly be there? He was growing frantic.

“I’m sorry,” Mrs. Cliburn said, “but I have a lesson to give. Is it all right if I send one of my students to play?”

“Is he good?”

“He’s better than I am.”

Leroy Rader smiled. In spite of her talent, Rildia Bee had still managed to remain humble.

Thirty minutes later, he heard a knock at the back door.

He opened it.

He stared down into the face of seven-year-old Van Cliburn. “Can I help you?” he asked.

“I’m here to play the organ for the funeral,” the boy said.

He was too young to read the program, but he knew the order of the service. He knew when it was time for him to play, and he knew the music from memory. He had watched his mother so many times.

And on that summer afternoon of sadness, someone – maybe rich, maybe a pauper – was sent to his final resting place with one of the world’s greatest musicians playing the final hymns.

The family would never know.

New York's ticker tape parade after a stunning victory in Russia
New York’s ticker tape parade after a stunning victory in Russia

By the time he was eighteen, Van Cliburn was on his way to New York to play in Carnegie Hall. In his national broadcast Patrick Hayes said: “To be sure, the hall was packed and a definite tension noticeable – more than a bit unusual for the regular Sunday afternoon Philharmonic when ‘another young pianist’ was making his debut.

“The audience has seen many a new pianist come and go. Then when the first chords of the familiar Tchaikovsky B-Flat Minor Piano Concerto cascaded through the hall, the effect was electric.

“Cheers broke out at the end of the first movement and continued so long it seemed the coast-to-coast CBS broadcast might be cut off the air before the performance was finished. And at the close of the work, there was a seven-curtain-call ovation.”

One tarnished, tainted, hard-boiled New York critic, Louis Biancolli, wrote: “This is one of the most genuine and refreshing keyboard talents to come out of the West – or anywhere else – in a long time. Van Cliburn is obviously going places, except that he plays like he has already been there.”

He did go places.

He went to Russia.

Van Cliburn was still a kid, only twenty-three years old, when he stunned the world and shocked the Russians by winning the grueling Tchaikovsky International Piano competition in Moscow.

In the midst of the Cold War, First Deputy Premier Mikoyan told him, “You have been a good diplomat between politicians to bring about peaceful relations. I wish America would send more like you.”

Van Cliburn always found the soul of his music locked away deep inside the heart of a grand piano.

His artistry captivated the world.

But the last time I saw him, Van Cliburn was no different from the first time I saw him. Everyone bowed and scraped when he walked in, elegant in his black tie, and filled with smiles. He was still the same little boy who played for funerals at the age of seven.

The music was as important to him on that day as it had been in Russia on the grandest day of them all.

So now we say goodbye.

The world lost a legend.

Kilgore lost a son.

I lost a friend.

And I have only one regret. Van Cliburn deserved to have the world’s greatest pianist playing the final hymns at his funeral.

But it wasn’t possible.

The seven-year-old boy wasn’t with us anymore.


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