Harvey Lavan Cliburn Jr., an American pianist of extraordinary gifts who set off seismic waves in the political landscape by winning the 1958 Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow at the height of the Cold War, has passed away at the age of 78. The cause was bone cancer. Cliburn, known among friends and admirers as "Van," died in his home in Fort Worth, Texas, where an international piano competition in his name celebrated its 50th anniversary last fall.
That competition, one of the most important in the world, is perhaps the most visible part of his legacy for today's generation of music lovers. However, few alive in 1958 could forget the dramatic impact of that Moscow event.
America was in the throes of a national state of anxiety over the Soviet Union's launch of its Sputnik space satellites. The Tchaikovsky Competition, designed to elevate the Communist nation even higher by proving Russian superiority in art as well as in science, featured a jury heavily weighted with Soviet musical greats, including pianists Sviatoslav Richter and Emil Gilels, and composers Dmitri Kabalevsky and Aram Khachaturian. A Russian was supposed to win.
But when the 23-year-old American from Texas played Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff with soul-rending mastery, the audience—already charmed by Mr. Cliburn's warmth and homespun manner in his public appearances—went wild. It became impossible to award first place to anyone else; the jury, equally spellbound by his artistry, requested permission to give him the prize, and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev granted official consent.
In that moment, political normality was shattered....
This would make a great movie. Sort of like Amadeus meets The Right Stuff meets Rocky IV.