SHREVEPORT, La. (KTAL/KMSS) – When Soviet Prime Minister Nikita Khrushchev was asked what to do about the 23-year-old man from Kilgore, Texas, his reply shocked entire nations.
“Is he the best?”
“Yes,” the judges answered.
“Then give him the prize!”
The year was 1958, six months after the Soviets launched Sputnik, and the bitterly Cold War was giving citizens of countless countries nightmares when out of nowhere, Shreveport, Louisiana-born Harvey Lavan “Van” Cliburn, Jr. received an 8-minute standing ovation at the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, Russia.
The entire world stopped what they were doing to stare at their black-and-white television screens in disbelief. There was a bright-eyed young American, with hands that could span 12 whole notes, playing Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto and Rachmaninov’s Third Concerto as if he had been born to bring peace between Cold-Warring nations. And he wasn’t just any American—he was a Louisiana-born, smooth-talkin’ Texan who stood six feet, four inches tall, not counting the extra height gained by his mop of wavy hair.
TIME Magazine described Van Cliburn, after he won The International Tchaikovsky Competition in 1958, as “as Texan as pecan pie.” The magazine even hailed him as, “The Texan Who Conquered Russia,” though he insisted that it was the people of Russia who conquered his heart.
Van Cliburn’s love for music began a dialogue between two nations that could not be spoken by mere words. In a time when threats of bombs were being used to set diplomatic tones, the young American born in Louisiana used eighth notes, slurred measures, decrescendos and fermatas released with a sense of poetic perfection that can only be expressed by the naturally gifted.
Van Cliburn’s musicality did not express an egotistical hunger for a win. He seemed to want something more from the Soviets. He wanted to show them that he cared—cared about Tchaikovsky, about Rachmaninov, about the plight of the Russian people. And the Russian people very much cared about him in return. Flowers covered the stage as he performed and he quickly became a crowd favorite in the competition.
Van Cliburn was lanky, handsome and humble in a down-home way that made people across the world feel like he could have easily been their next-door neighbor, their nephew or even their son.
But he wasn’t their neighbor, their nephew, their son–Van Cliburn was a child of the Ark-La-Tex.
And when won gold in Moscow in 1958, he made many people in our region very proud.
Van Cliburn’s upbringing
Van Cliburn’s father, Harvey Lavan Cliburn, was an oil executive and his mother, Rildia Bee O’Bryan Cliburn, was a piano teacher. His mother was a former pupil of Arthur Friedheim, who studied under Franz Liszt. She was also her son’s first piano teacher, with his lessons beginning at age three.
Van Cliburn wrote, in Guideposts magazine in 1959, that his parents taught him from his early years that, “Everyone has to work. No one can sit on the tracks and pray. That won’t stop the train.”
Van Cliburn graduated from The Julliard school of music in New York City in 1954, where he won the Leventritt foundation award and secured his debuts with the New York Philharmonic and four other major orchestras. When his mother broke her back, he returned to Texas before entering the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in 1958.
Van Cliburn’s success
As soon as Van Cliburn returned to the United States, he was honored in a ticker tape parade on Broadway in New York—an honor not bestowed on another classical musician to this very day. He performed at Carnegie Hall with the Symphony of the Air, which was conducted by Kirill Kondrashin, who had led the Moscow Philharmonic when Cliburn won the prize in Moscow.
American fans were so eager to see him after his return from Russia that the door of his limousine was ripped off while he was visiting Philadelphia.
Van Cliburn said of his newfound fame, “I’m not a success, I’m a sensation.”
His performances were released on television and even on vinyl, where he had the best-selling classical album in the world for more than a decade.
Cliburn was a hero to fans around the world for decades and is still a hero to many who love classical piano.
Piano competitions with connections to Van Cliburn
One of the most prestigious piano competitions in music circles today is the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, which takes place once every four years in Fort Worth, Texas. The competition reaches millions internationally. Attendance is estimated to be around 150,000 people.
Fred Wideman, the step-grandson of Nena Wideman, said that she and Van Cliburn were very close.
“He claimed her as one of his teachers,” Fred said.
The 71st Wideman International Piano Competition takes place in Nena Wideman’s honor at Centenary College in Shreveport every December. The gold medal winner will receive money and the opportunity to perform with the Shreveport Symphony Orchestra and have solo recitals and engagements in other cities as well.
Nena Wideman’s grandson Fred says that when his grandmother died, her dear friend Van Cliburn sent 100 flowers to her funeral.
“It’s always there,” Van Cliburn once said of classical music. “It will be there after you, and I and everyone we know today are dead. That music will still be alive.”
Now Van Cliburn is gone and so is Nena Wideman; Van Cliburn died of bone cancer in 2013 at the age of 78.
But the music does go on.
Only three Americans have won the Van Cliburn International Competition in Ft. Worth, Texas since it began in 1962.
The International Tchaikovsky Competition is held every four years in Moscow and Saint Petersburg, Russia for pianists, violinists and cellists between the ages of 16 and 32 years of age and singers between 19 and 32. Van Cliburn is still the only American pianist to take home gold in the prestigious competition.
The International Tchaikovsky Competition was excluded from the World Federation of International Music Competitions in April of 2022 due to “Russia´s brutal war and humanitarian atrocities in Ukraine.”