Renowned classical piano virtuoso Van Cliburn (born Harvey Lavan Cliburn Jr.) passed away yesterday at 78 from advanced bone cancer. Born in Shreveport, Louisiana, Cliburn began taking piano lessons at age three and entered the Julliard School at the age of 17. He surprised the world by winning the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1958 — an eight-minute standing ovation followed his performance, and the judges petitioned permission from then-Soviet-leader Nikita Khrushchev to award an American the prize. Cliburn’s win at the competition was said to ease tensions in USA-Soviet Cold War relations. Cliburn was given a ticker tape parade when he returned to New York City, and Time magazine named him “The Texan Who Conquered Russia” in a cover story.
Cliburn’s recording of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 was the first classical album to ship platinum and was the best-selling classical album for the following 10 years. Pandemonium followed him — fans tore the door handles off his limousine in Philadelphia.
In 1978, exhausted by the demands of touring and performing, Cliburn walked off stage. He performed only sporadically during the next two decades. He was a long-time supporter of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition and was known for his generousity to many causes in his home town of Fort Worth, Texas. In addition to a Grammy Award and the Kennedy Center Honor, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2003 and the National Medal of Arts in 2011.