Van Cliburn posing for portrait at Steinway & Sons showroom in New York in March 1994. —Photo (File) AP
Van Cliburn posing for portrait at Steinway & Sons showroom in New York in March 1994. —Photo (File) AP

American pianist Van Cliburn, who awed Russian audiences with his exquisite Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff concertos and won fame and fortune back home, died on Wednesday at the age of 78.

Cliburn passed away at his home in Fort Worth, Texas, after suffering from advanced bone cancer, his publicist Mary Lou Falcone told Reuters. Cliburn announced in August 2012 that he had been diagnosed with the disease.

The lanky, blue-eyed Texan, who began taking piano lessons at the age of 3 and later trained at New York's prestigious Juilliard School, burst onto the world stage at the height of the Cold War and was the surprise winner of the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1958.

His performance at the finale led to an eight-minute standing ovation, and the Russian judges asked Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev for permission to give the top prize to the 23-year-old American.

Cliburn's triumph helped spur a brief thaw in US-Soviet relations and made him an overnight sensation in the United States, where his name was known even among those who did not follow classical music.

“It was he that was the symbol of peace for the Cold War,” Falcone said. “He was embraced by both Eisenhower and Khrushchev in the 1950s and the only musician to have a ticker-tape parade in Manhattan.”

Time magazine dubbed him “The Texan Who Conquered Russia” in a cover story following his victory, and New York City gave the pianist a hero's welcome upon his return from Russia.

Taken on by the powerful impresario Sol Hurok, Cliburn was able to command high fees and practically had carte blanche in the recording studio.

His recording of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1, which he had played in Moscow, became the first classical album to go platinum and was the best-selling classical album for more than a decade.

Fans adored him for his innocence and charm more than for his music-making. In Philadelphia, a shrieking crowd tore the door handles off his limousine. In Chicago, the Elvis Presley fan club changed its name to the Van Cliburn fan club.

“He was an international legend,” Falcone said. “Personally, he was a giant and publicly he was a giant.”

But in 1978, Cliburn walked off the stage, professionally exhausted. He played occasionally in the late 1980s and early 1990s, including a performance in the White House for President Ronald Reagan and visiting Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev.

At age 23, he won the first quadrennial International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow, at the height of the Cold War. —Photo (File) AP
At age 23, he won the first quadrennial International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow, at the height of the Cold War. —Photo (File) AP

TAUGHT PIANO BY HIS MOTHER

Critics said the publicity-fueled demand and the public's taste had kept him from growing beyond a relatively narrow collection of romantic pieces, such as his signature Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff concertos.

“Despite his fame, the Texas-sized pianist has been widely regarded among serious musicians as an immensely gifted but rather unreflective artist of unfulfilled and probably unfulfillable potential,” a New York Times critic wrote after Cliburn's retirement.

Born on July 12, 1934, in Shreveport, Louisiana, Harvey Lavan Cliburn Jr. was taught piano by his mother. He gave his first public recital at 4. By age 5, even through he could not read or write, he was completely literate in music.

He won several local and regional awards and in 1951 began studies at Juilliard under Rosina Lhevinne. She schooled him in the traditions of the great Russian romantic composers, setting the stage for Cliburn's victory in Moscow seven years later.

“My relationship with the Russians was personal, not political,” he said in a 1989 interview. He played in Moscow and St. Petersburg when he briefly returned to the concert stage years later.

Cliburn, a lifelong Baptist who did not smoke or drink, became a prominent and popular figure in the Fort Worth, Texas, area and was well known for his generosity, contributing vast sums to the Broadway Baptist Church and other causes.

He lived on what friends called “Van Cliburn time”. He rose in the early evening, would dine at midnight and preside over after-dinner conversations at 4 am. Usually heading the dinner table was his mother, Rildia Bee, who lived with him until her death at 97.

In 1996, Cliburn was named in a palimony lawsuit by Thomas Zaremba, who claimed a portion of Cliburn's income and assets and accused Cliburn of possibly exposing him to the Aids virus during a 17-year relationship. The lawsuit eventually was dismissed.

Cliburn also supported the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, a private and nonprofit-based enterprise that offers winners cash prizes, a Carnegie Hall debut and two years of touring arranged and promoted by the competition.

President Barack Obama shakes hands with pianist Van Cliburn after presenting him with the 2010 National Medal of Arts. —Photo (File) Reuters
President Barack Obama shakes hands with pianist Van Cliburn after presenting him with the 2010 National Medal of Arts. —Photo (File) Reuters

He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush in 2003 and was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Barack Obama in 2011.

Cliburn is survived by his long-standing friend, Thomas L.Smith.

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