An Elusive Cold War Star

Anatoliy Garanin/Sputnik/AP ImagesVan Cliburn performing in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory during the first Tchaikovsky International Competition, which he won, April 1958

When Van Cliburn died in 2013, he was by far the most famous concert pianist in American history, although he had effectively retired from performance decades before. His had been a strange and complicated life. He was a brilliant student at Juilliard, from which he graduated in 1954, won a couple of prestigious prizes, and made his debut with the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall. But his career stalled, and he went home to Kilgore, Texas, to live with his parents.

Then, in April 1958, Cliburn, at the age of twenty-three, traveled to Moscow and won the gold medal in the first Tchaikovsky International Competition. The competition had been set up specifically to laud the superiority of Soviet culture, and was meant as a follow-up to the scientific triumph of the first Sputnik launch. It was the height of the cold war, a time when the United States and USSR, both armed to the hilt, mostly denounced and threatened one another. William Faulkner had summed up the mood in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1950:

Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up?

Yet this young American’s victory was hailed as a bit of genuine good news by both East and West. His playing won over Soviet audiences, the jury—which included such renowned pianists as Emil Gilels and Sviatoslav Richter—and even the first secretary of the Communist Party of the USSR, Nikita Khrushchev. The competition culminated in Cliburn’s dazzling performances of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3, which Heinrich Neuhaus, one of the jury members, later described as “the most phenomenal events since the October Revolution.” Stuart Isacoff, in When the World Stopped to Listen: Van Cliburn’s Cold War Triumph and Its Aftermath, calls them “perhaps the best concert of his life…an instant of artistic grace.”

The spontaneous beauty of Cliburn’s playing, the mixture of immaculate technique and urgent lyricism he brought to the music, earned him an eight-minute standing ovation. “Van looked and played like some kind of angel,” the Russian pianist Andrei Gavrilov said. “He didn’t fit the evil image of capitalists that had been painted for us by the Soviet government.”

Joseph Horowitz wrote in The Ivory Trade (1990):

His lanky six feet four inches, his blue eyes and mop of frizzy blond hair, were recognized everywhere. People hugged and kissed him on the street, calling him “Vanya” and “Vanyushka.” He was showered with flowers and personal mementos. Women wept when he played, and students shouted “First prize!” Outside the conservatory, militiamen were used to maintain order. His pandemonious victory, announced April 14, confirmed the popular verdict of days before. The Cliburn furor was of unprecedented, unrepeatable, incomprehensible proportions.

Cliburn, too, was thrilled with his visit to Russia and would return many times throughout his life. “I was just so involved with the sweet and friendly people who were so passionate about music,” he later recalled. “They reminded me of Texans.”

He returned home a hero. New York City gave him a ticker-tape parade, the first (and probably the last) such celebration for a classical musician. He was on the cover of Time, with the headline “The Texan Who Conquered Russia.” In a prefiguration of Beatlemania, fans tore off the door of his limousine in Philadelphia. RCA Victor, then the most powerful record company in the United States, signed him to an exclusive contract, and he recorded the Tchaikovsky concerto (in fact, only the first of three that the composer wrote), which became the best-selling classical album in history up to that time.

In some ways, Cliburn’s life was similar to that of Charles A. Lindbergh. Both men were gangly young loners from small middle-American towns who followed their own stars and became spectacularly and enduringly famous before they knew what had happened. They both carried heavy geopolitical baggage: Lindbergh’s flight across the Atlantic was hailed as uniting the Old World with the New, while Cliburn was credited with helping calm near-apocalyptic global tensions. Both men earned their eventual front-page obituaries with a few extraordinary days in their mid-twenties: for all of Lindbergh’s activities after the Spirit of St. Louis bobbed and shook its way from New York to Paris in 1927, everything pales when set beside the thirty-three hours of that solo flight. Cliburn at his death was eulogized as though he were still a beautiful young pianist who had somehow come out of time to die at the age of seventy-eight.

The contradictions within Cliburn’s personality, combined with his enormous fame, must have been difficult to reconcile.1 His public image was not an act: he really did live with his mother until her death in 1994 at the age of ninety-seven; he was a devoted Baptist who attended services at least once a week; he voted Republican, played for all the presidents from Eisenhower to Obama, and usually began his concerts with “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

But he was also a gay man at a time when public knowledge of his homosexuality might have ruined not only his image, but also his career. Under such pressures, his playing suffered: “From the mid-1960s it seemed that he could not cope with the loss of freshness,” Michael Steinberg wrote in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. “His repertory was restricted; his playing, always guided primarily by intuition, took on affectations; and the sound itself became harsher.”

As he approached middle age, Cliburn became increasingly reclusive and played fewer and fewer concerts, canceling some engagements at the last minute and showing up hours late for others. In 1978, he stopped giving concerts altogether and moved from New York to Fort Worth, where he lived in an opulent mansion filled with pianos and antiques. There he spent much of his energy guiding and promoting the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, which had first been held in 1962, while surrounding himself with devoted women who guarded him fiercely. (At least two men lived with him over the years, but it wasn’t until his mother was dead that he openly acknowledged his long and happy relationship with Tommy Smith.)

He made a limited return to performance in 1989, playing the Tchaikovsky concerto in Philadelphia to commemorate the recent deaths of conductor Eugene Ormandy and Frederic Mann, one of Cliburn’s longtime patrons. At that time, he gave a number of interviews, speaking with a courtly mixture of warmth and vagueness that made him easy to like but impossible to pin down. (“You don’t interview Van, you experience him,” a mutual friend told me at the time.)

He said next to nothing but said it very prettily. He couldn’t think of any composers or repertory that he wanted to explore. Future recordings? “Well, yes, I plan to make some records, but I haven’t really gotten into the planning stage yet.” A solo recital? “I have some lovely offers, and I may well just take one of them up.” And so on. Even an innocent social question about whether he missed New York was handily depersonalized—“Well, New York is one of the great cities of the world!” Well, of course it is—but did he miss that great city?

It became clear that Cliburn, a former prodigy who was driven hard from the beginning of his childhood by his mother, herself an accomplished pianist, now found it liberating not to play. For the rest of his life, he appeared in public only rarely, and almost invariably on occasions when the principal interest was extramusical, such as benefit concerts and visits to the White House. Nobody could book him for the last three decades of his life. It was obvious that he remained a deeply musical pianist, but one who hadn’t done much practicing in many years. During his last appearance in Washington, in 2004, he lost his place repeatedly in a Brahms rhapsody and sounded stiff and clangorous most of the evening.

AP ImagesVan Cliburn being congratulated by Nikita Khrushchev at the Kremlin, April 1958. Between them is the interpreter Viktor Sukhodrev; at right is Jane Thompson, wife of the American ambassador.

In the beginning, though, all was different. Isacoff sums up the young pianist precisely:

His tone, like his character, was warm and entrancing, a “magnolia blossom” sound, as one Texas patron described it. His hands could swallow large portions of the keyboard in a single swoop, and through them the music flowed as naturally as a spring breeze, its surges and taperings artfully measured, gently gusting with a pulse that was both sure-footed and elastic.

And somehow, it all sounded confessional. Whether he was performing Bach or Rachmaninoff, the piano seemed to be sharing intimate secrets.

Not only is Isacoff’s prose evocative, he is both a pianist and a historian of the piano. His descriptions are often music lessons in themselves, as when he writes of Cliburn’s early studies with his mother:

Her lessons always went beyond physical drills. Playing an instrument is more art than science, demanding not merely accuracy but the ability to create a sense of enchantment. [The pianist] Arthur Friedheim reportedly could play some passages with a sound that was not merely soft, but “eerie and fantastic: like a thing disembodied, afloat in the air between daylight and darkness.” There are physical tricks to such an effect, which is accomplished partly through subtle control of the piano’s pedals, the devices that can sustain the instrument’s tones in midair once they are struck, or soften their volume to a muted whisper.

Yet technical mastery is merely a starting point. Friedheim told the story of how he was preparing to play Liszt’s Harmonies du soir for the composer when Liszt called him to a window. “The slanting rays of the declining sun…were mellowing the landscape with the delicate glamour of approaching twilight,” he remembered. “‘Play that,’ [Liszt] said. ‘There are your evening harmonies.’” No amount of uninspired, repetitive practice could make it happen. Van understood much of this instinctually. He had a natural ability to grasp and convey the meaning of the music, to animate the virtual world that arises through the art’s subtle symbolic gestures. It set him apart.

Nigel Cliff’s Moscow Nights: The Van Cliburn Story—How One Man and His Piano Transformed the Cold War is an enthusiastic popular history shot through with errors and simplifications. The following purports to be a word-for-word quotation from a soliloquy Cliburn delivered in Riverside Park sixty years ago, immediately after pulling off his shirt:

I seem to want everything. I want to travel, I want to help my parents, I want to be a really great artist, I want to go everywhere, see everything, know everybody! And here I am—look at me. Going nowhere, fast!

Does anybody really speak like this, outside of first-semester classes in writing for the stage?

There are many more such howlers. Cliff refers to the “crashing opening octets” of the Tchaikovsky concerto (he surely meant “octaves”). Later, we are told that “as the melodies weaved together, the mood was bittersweet, like Anna Karenina.” (But not like War and Peace or Resurrection, or anything by Chekhov or Turgenev, of course.) Writing about Cliburn’s preparation for the three-movement Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3, Cliff indulges in some curious telepathy: “To his mind, the liquid work was a one-act opera in which the soloist took all the roles.” At other times, the author slips into lame Mr. Dooley-isms, as when he quotes an exasperated New York cabbie: “What’s goin’ on here?… A parade? Fer the piano player?”

Both books examine the intricate power politics behind Cliburn’s 1958 triumph, from discussions in New York conservatories and booking offices through the rankings of the Moscow judges, who found it necessary to obtain Khrushchev’s approval of Cliburn’s victory before it could be made official. It has been said that music is both a glorious art and a difficult business. Juilliard’s president, the composer William Schuman (referred to with weird informality as “Bill Schuman” throughout Cliff’s biography), had distinctly mixed feelings about Cliburn’s triumph in Moscow: “Like many music professionals, he found all the sensationalism—the frantic scrambling for the limelight, as well as the political posturing—odious,” Isacoff observes. Cliburn’s sudden “movie star” fame also irritated many older musicians. Arthur Rubinstein was one of the grumblers: when Cliburn’s fees for a performance reached $5,000, the older pianist raised his own to $6,000.2

Schuyler Chapin, whose career in arts administration led all the way to the directorship of the Metropolitan Opera, knew and worked with Cliburn early on. He called the pianist’s life “a tragedy in the grand sense”:

This is a man of basically terrific instincts, caring about people, a belief in spiritual values, a God-given talent to communicate, not a bone in his body of nastiness. He was an innocent—a kind of artistic Billy Budd. What happened?

It seems that what happened was that Cliburn simply stopped growing, as though he was trapped in a creative stasis like a bug in amber. One thinks of James O’Neill, a distinguished actor who was the father of Eugene O’Neill. In later life, he only took on one role—Dumas’s Edmond Dantès in The Count of Monte Cristo—and eventually played it more than six thousand times around the world. He made a great deal of money, but reproached himself for what he considered the squandering of his gifts. Likewise, Cliburn returned again and again to the Tchaikovsky concerto, long after he had ceased to have fresh insights into it.

In 1987, Cliburn gave a lengthy interview to John Davidson, a writer for Texas Monthly, in which he discussed his inability to part with any mementos of the past, no matter how trivial. (At that point, he had devoted two rooms in his Fort Worth house solely to luggage from his early tours.) The subject turned to flowers, and Cliburn spoke of the days when he would buy himself flowers with the money he had been given for lunch, confessing that he had kept most of them.

“The odd thing about me is that I enjoy flowers as much when they get old and dried out as when they were fresh,” he continued. “I don’t know—I just look at those flowers, and in my mind, I still see the beauty they once had. I never threw any of them away.”

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