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Harvey Lavan "Van" Cliburn Jr. (born July 12, 1934), is an American pianist who achieved worldwide recognition in 1958, when at age 23, he won the first quadrennial International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow, at the height of the Cold War.



Van Cliburn was born in Shreveport, Louisiana, and began taking piano lessons at the age of three from his mother, Rildia Bee O'Bryan Cliburn. O'Bryan was taught by Arthur Friedheim,[1] a pupil of Franz Liszt. At six years old, Cliburn moved with his family to Kilgore, Texas, and at twelve he won a statewide piano competition which enabled him to debut with the Houston Symphony Orchestra. He entered The Juilliard School at age 17, and studied under Rosina Lhévinne, who trained him in the tradition of the great Russian romantics. At age 20, Cliburn won the Leventritt Award, and made his Carnegie Hall debut.

It was his recognition in Moscow that propelled Cliburn to international fame. The first International Tchaikovsky Competition in 1958 was an event designed to demonstrate Soviet cultural superiority during the Cold War, on the heels of their technological victory with the Sputnik launch in October 1957. Cliburn's performance at the competition finale of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 and Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3 earned him a standing ovation lasting eight minutes. When it was time to announce a winner, the judges were obliged to ask permission of the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to give first prize to an American. "Is he the best?" Khrushchev asked. "Then give him the prize!" Cliburn returned home to a ticker-tape parade in New York City, the only time the honor has been accorded a classical musician. His cover story in Time proclaimed him "The Texan Who Conquered Russia."

Upon returning to the U.S., Cliburn appeared in a Carnegie Hall concert with the Symphony of the Air, conducted by Kiril Kondrashin, who had led the Moscow Philharmonic in the prize-winning performances in Moscow. The performance of the Rachmaninoff third piano concerto at this concert was subsequently released by RCA Victor on both LP and CD. Cliburn was also invited by Steve Allen to play a solo during Allen's prime time NBC television program.

RCA Victor signed him to an exclusive contract, and his subsequent recording of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 became the first classical album to go platinum. It was the best-selling classical album in the world for more than a decade, eventually going triple-platinum. Cliburn won the 1958 Grammy Award for Best Classical Performance for this recording. In 2004, this recording was re-mastered from the original studio analogue tapes, and released in the highest quality ever on high-resolution Super Audio CD.

Other famous concerti Cliburn has recorded include the Schumann Piano Concerto, Grieg Piano Concerto, Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2, Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 4 and No. 5 (Emperor), and the Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 3.

In 1962, Cliburn became the artistic advisor for the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. The competition was founded by the Van Cliburn Foundation, of Fort Worth, Texas made up of music teachers and volunteers, and its prestige now rivals that of the Tchaikovsky Competition.[citation needed]

Cliburn performed and recorded through the 1970s, but in 1978, after the deaths of his father and manager, began a hiatus from public life. In 1987, he was invited to perform at the White House for President Ronald Reagan and Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev, and afterward was invited to open the 100th anniversary season of Carnegie Hall. In 1994, Cliburn made a guest appearance in the cartoon Iron Man, playing himself in the episode "Silence My Companion, Death My Destination". Now over 70, he still gives a limited number of performances every year, to critical and popular acclaim. He has played for royalty and heads of state from dozens of countries, and for every President of the United States (other than President Obama), since Harry Truman.

He begins every concert with The Star Spangled Banner.


Van Cliburn Way in the Fort Worth Cultural District

Cliburn received the Kennedy Center Honors in 2001. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2003 by President George W. Bush, and, in October 2004, the Russian Order of Friendship, the highest civilian awards of the two countries. He was also awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award the same year and played at a surprise 50th birthday party for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Personal life

In 1998, Cliburn was named in a lawsuit by his domestic partner of seventeen years, mortician Thomas Zaremba.[2] In the suit, Zaremba claimed entitlement to a portion of Cliburn's income and assets and went on to charge that he might have been exposed to HIV and claimed emotional distress. Each claim was subsequently dismissed by an Appellate Court, holding that palimony suits are not permitted in the state of Texas unless the relationship is based on a written agreement.

Cliburn is known as a night owl. He often practices until 4:30 or 5 am, waking around 1:30 pm.[3] "You feel like you're alone and the world's asleep, and it's very inspiring."[4]

Cliburn has been a lifelong Baptist and attends church every week. He does not drink or smoke.[5]


  1. ^ Arthur FRIEDHEIM
  2. ^ Rapp, Linda. "Cliburn, Van". Retrieved 2008-03-01. 
  3. ^ Rogers, Mary (May 18, 1997). "A Midnight Conversation with Van Cliburn". Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Retrieved 2009-08-18. 
  4. ^ Van Cliburn. Interview with Scott Simon. Weekend Edition Saturday. National Public Radio Ft Worth / New York. 1 March 2008. (Interview [Audio]). Retrieved on 2008-03-01.
  5. ^,2.html

External links



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