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When a Texas pianist became ‘the American Sputnik’

Van Cliburn, who died Feb. 27 at age 78, is pictured as a 23-year-old performing at the 1958 Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow.

Van Cliburn Foundation

Van Cliburn, who died Feb. 27 at age 78, is pictured as a 23-year-old performing at the 1958 Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow.

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.

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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?

The pianist received a New York ticker tape parade after his victory.

Neal Boenzi/The New York Times

The pianist received a New York ticker tape parade after his victory.

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.

Van Cliburn performed to a packed audience in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory in Moscow, Russia.

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Van Cliburn performed to a packed audience in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory in Moscow, Russia.

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.”

Cliburn, left, won Soviet's International Tchaikovsky Piano Contest.

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Cliburn, left, won Soviet's International Tchaikovsky Piano Contest.

About Cliburn’s instant musical chemistry with his audience, there is also more to say. American media reports naturally tried to wrap the pianist in red, white, and blue. (“It is generally conceded,” wrote Max Frankel in The New York Times, “that, despite his talent, it is the fact that he is the product of an American education that has propelled Mr. Cliburn to fame here.”) But precisely here lies another fascinating irony behind Cliburn’s victory. The big-hearted Texan so radically foreign to these audiences had actually learned a style of pianism that was impeccably Russian — “more Russian than we were,” recalled Lev Vlasenko, the pianist who tied for second place behind Cliburn. The wars and revolutions of the 20th century had separated national schools of music from the very lands that had grown and sustained them.

Take for instance Rachmaninoff himself, who fled Russia shortly after the October Revolution of 1917, eventually settling in New York. So did a pianist named Rosina Lhevinne, who had been born in Kiev and studied at the Moscow Conservatory with Wassily Safonov, who had in turn led the Moscow premiere of Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique” Symphony. Lhevinne eventually became a legendary pedagogue at the Juilliard School, with, naturally, Cliburn as her most famous student. (Cliburn’s first teacher was his own mother, who had studied piano with Arthur Friedheim, himself a student of Liszt but also Anton Rubinstein, the pinnacle of 19th-century Russian pianism.)

One could even argue that the Russian pianistic tradition remained purest in exile, safe from the grim overlay of Soviet politics. After Rachmaninoff fled the country, his rural estate was looted and torched, and legend has it that the composer’s grand piano was pushed out of a second story window. That horrific story returned to mind again this week when I read a news report of Cliburn, freshly back from his victory, taking a lilac bush gifted to him by Russian students, and planting it at Rachmaninoff’s grave in Valhalla, N.Y. He even used soil he had carried from the grave of Tchaikovsky in St. Petersburg. As if redeeming America’s Cold War honor were not enough, the kid from Texas was also out to suture the soul of the Russian musical past.

Of course the more famous images of Cliburn’s return come from the enormous ticker tape parade he received in New York City, like Lindbergh and other intrepid American heroes before him. Some 100,000 people turned out despite poor weather. Did Cliburn sense already how hard it would be to escape the shadow of his own myth? One news report from the parade caught a scene of Cliburn in his confetti-strewn car being asked how it all feels. He responded: “How does it feel? I wonder who it’s for.”

Cliburn fever was still running high a few months later, when he showed up in Boston for those two performances with Munch and the BSO. That same visit, between his two concerts, all the musicians worked through the night in Symphony Hall to record the Schumann Concerto. We may never know how it came out, as Cliburn never consented to release the recording. On March 17, however, WGBH’s Classical New England (99.5 FM) will rebroadcast a recording of the Schumann and Rachmaninoff’s Third Concerto made at his live performance. Be prepared to hear the pianist in his youthful, all-too-fleeting prime.

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at
jeichler@globe.com.
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