With his long, slender fingers, an affectionate smile and the keys of a grand piano, Van Cliburn helped thaw the Cold War, transcended partisan politics and captured the hearts of people around the world.
Cliburn used a stage in Moscow in 1958 to launch a musical career that would rival the Soviets’ Sputnik, launched just a few months earlier.
His confidence, his presence and his incredible virtuosity enraptured his audiences. Whether playing in ageless intimate European symphony halls or in giant venues like Cowboys Stadium and Texas Motor Speedway, Cliburn used those fingers and his piano to touch people — commoners and royalty alike. Whether playing Liszt, Schubert, Beethoven, Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky or Francis Scott Key, he added heartfelt passion to great music.
Cliburn didn’t just play the right notes with those dexterous fingers. He commanded those notes, sometimes with gentle strokes and other times with a boldness that put his inimitable stamp on a timeless, often-performed musical score.
He performed for every president since Harry Truman, and when a Russian head of state would come to the United States, Cliburn at times was the first person invited to a White House social gathering because he was so loved by the Russian people. This Texas pianist in many ways was as much an American ambassador as anyone in the nation’s diplomatic corps.
In 1987, at the invitation of President Ronald Reagan, Cliburn emerged from a nine-year performing hiatus to play for visiting Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev. He charmed Gorbachev just as he had Nikita Khrushchev almost three decades earlier.
Cliburn was a classical musician whose fame vaulted him to the status of national hero.
He was given a ticker-tape parade in New York City after winning the first International Tchaikovsky Competition.
His recordings sold at a rate that made American pop stars envious.
President Obama awarded Cliburn the 2010 National Medal of Arts “for his contributions as one of the greatest pianists in the history of music and as a persuasive ambassador for American culture.”
Those dazzling long fingers were stilled Wednesday morning when Cliburn died at age 78. His admirers learned in August that he suffered from advanced bone cancer.
As long as an international piano competition bearing his name lives on, and as long as Cliburn recordings are played around the world, this giant among pianists will live in the hearts of people who love great music.
From an editorial in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram