Van Cliburn, Cold War Music Hero, Dies at 78

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imgresVan Cliburn has died.  He made history when America was scared to death of the Russians, specifically because they had the long-range missile technology to send a satellite into space — 1957’s Sputnik–which also meant they could lob an ICBM on us too, launching a nuclear armageddon.   Van Cliburn won the 1st Tchaikovsky Piano Competition just a few months later, and it was a huge coup for American morale.  Also a diplomatic coup, as Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev secretly approved his win over all the others, including of course top Soviet piano virtuosos.

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Van Cliburn had won over the Russian public even before winning.  The tall, lanky, modest and laid-back Texan with the carrot-top hair was an instant hit with the Russian populace, who’d never received many visits from U.S. musicians during the turbulent 1950s.   Whether it’s ping pong, the U.S. State Department’s Jazz Ambassadors, or Van Cliburn, music often provides a better connection between us human beings than politics and politicians.

Here is a 1962 clip of Van Cliburn (with Russian conductor Kiril Kondrashin) playing the Tchaikovsky Concerto #1 in Bb, now the standard repertoire piece for all of the Tchaikovsky Moscow competitions (Van  Cliburn was the winner in the very first competition)

and a newreel of him returning from Moscow after winning the 1958 contest:

a newsreel from 1958:

another one when Van Cliburn returned:

The lp you see above on the left –with the great Tchaikovsky warhorse and the Rach 3 was the first classical record to sell over one million copies.  In fact, it went on to sell an unprecedented 3 million copies.  Unbelievable for a classical record!

p.s. I just listened to this cd again, you should buy it.  Besides Cliburn’s riveting performance, it’s on the audiophile RCA Living Stereo series and the cd is SACD, so the sound is as good as it gets, better than most recorded sound today.

More importantly It’s a piece of history, both musical and political, and the music has everlasting grandeur and the power to amaze.