Last week, as fans and fellow musicians around the world mourned the death of Van Cliburn, politicians also made their voices heard. At a memorial ceremony, words came from presidents Obama and George W. Bush as well as Russian president Vladimir Putin. In the flurry of press coverage, someone even tracked down Sergei Khrushchev, son of the Soviet premier.
Their presence was a reminder of the combustible mix of politics and culture that, during one heady week in April 1958, ignited Cliburn’s career in the way that no pianist’s career had ever been launched before. Or since.
On purely musical terms, Cliburn unquestionably deserved his astonishing first prize victory at the Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow. But it was the shifting tectonic plates of Cold War geopolitics that lifted that victory far beyond musical domain and crowned him as an international hero at the tender age of 23. The weight of expectations placed on his narrow shoulders would have crushed a musician twice his age. That his artistic development would soon be stymied, that he would withdraw from the stage some 20 years later, returning only intermittently and with mixed critical success after that, seems in retrospect all but inevitable.
By now the obituaries have summarized his journey, the Texas roots, the career peaks and valleys, the competition founded in his honor, the intensely private man behind the icon. Local concertgoers may also have personal recollections of his appearances in Boston and at Tanglewood late in his career. Those with longer memories may recall a pair of sensational performances of concertos by Schumann and Rachmaninoff he delivered with the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Charles Munch, only months after his return from Russia.
Even knowing the arc of Cliburn’s story, I’ve found it is nonetheless remarkable in recent days to click back into the archives and sift through the press reports from that fateful week in Moscow. One watches astonishment coalescing in real time. And it is in fact hard to know which is more striking — the events themselves, or how perfectly primed they were for recruitment into the domains of politics and myth. Or is it even possible to separate anymore?
Timing, of course, was everything. The Russians had just beaten the United States into space, launching Sputnik just seven months earlier, in October 1957. More international humiliation followed for America two months later, in December, with the spectacularly failed launch of a Vanguard satellite. And then, enter one lanky, baby-faced pianist from Texas waltzing into darkest Moscow to beat those Ruskies at their own game: classical music. And on their home turf: Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff. Indeed, if there had been no Van Cliburn, we might have invented him as some perfectly distilled fantasy of the Cold War imagination.
Naturally, there is no fantasy required to grasp the stunningly fresh pianism Cliburn brought to Russia that week. The recordings he made shortly after his victory capture the twinned delicacy and strength in his playing that made it so irresistible, the virtuosity paired with a deep yet unforced songfullness. “He was miles better than any of the others,” recalled the Russian piano titan Sviatoslav Richter, a member of the jury who was reportedly seen in tears after one of Cliburn’s performances.
So the pianism needed no special pleading, but something more happened that week: The Russians seemed to fall in love with this kid from Texas. They rained flowers on the stage, passed pies and balalaikas across the footlights, offered tea sets and religious icons. After his performance in the finals, the crowd stood cheering for eight minutes — consider that for a moment, eight minutes — some of them chanting “first prize.” It was against the competition rules to send a player out for a second bow, but they broke them on the spot for Cliburn. One Russian woman remarked after hearing him play, “This is the real American Sputnik.”
The comment offers a glimpse of the symbolism that must have been apparent to even those participating in the moment; this was about something much bigger than the playing of a single pianist. Could it have been that cheering for this foreign musician was also a tacit and safe way to protest against the insidious Soviet system that had produced the homegrown talents the crowd was supposed to be rooting for? At the same time, Cliburn seemed to refute propagandistic images of Americans through the simple Texas-size fact of his existence. “Van looked and played like some kind of angel,” Russian pianist Andrei Gavrilov told Cliburn biographer Howard Reich. “[He] was really the first person who changed for us this frightening image of the ‘capitalist enemies.’ It was a kind of beginning of the melting the ice, of a new life for us.” Continued...