(In 2004 GRAMMY winner Van Cliburn was honored with The Recording Academy's Lifetime Achievement Award. The following tribute penned by Joshua Cheek ran in the GRAMMY Awards program book that year. Cliburn died today at the age of 78.)
The year was 1958. Tail fins were growing, rock and roll was winning the hearts and minds of youth around the world, and the Cold War was at its frostiest. That a lanky piano-playing Texan (who would not have looked out of place in a group photo with Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens) would become a national hero was the last thing that anyone expected.
The drama and political intrigue surrounding the First International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow had the makings of a Hollywood feel-good film on the scale of Seabiscuit. With contestants from around the globe coming to the Soviet Union to compete before a jury comprised of some of the finest musicians ever assembled, there was but one certainty — whomever the winner was, he better be a Russian.
The judges quickly realized that the young pianist from Texas was outplaying their "favorite," Lev Vlasenko, a Russian. The possibility of an American being the winner compelled some judges to boycott Cliburn's performances; others deliberately gave him low scores and some, despite the pressures, gave him the scores he deserved or even perfect scores to counterbalance the other judges' biased results.
During Cliburn's final performance, he played Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto. When he finished, the concert hall audience gave him a standing ovation that went on for more than eight minutes. The judges knew that they could no longer deny what the audience knew — this young man from Texas should leave Moscow with the gold. It was the pianist Emil Gilels who broke the news to Khrushchev. Reportedly, Khrushchev's only question was, "Is Cliburn the best?" When told that he was, the premier told them, "Then give him the prize."
Cliburn returned from Moscow a national hero, receiving a ticker-tape parade in New York, and he was later featured on the cover of Time magazine, hailed as "The Texan Who Conquered Russia." Later that year, Cliburn committed to vinyl his triumphant performance of Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto — the first classical album to sell more than a million copies.
Cliburn was constantly on tour until 1978, when he shocked the musical world by announcing his withdrawal from performing. This hiatus lasted until 1987 when he made a comeback, starting with a White House performance and an appearance at Carnegie Hall's 100th Anniversary Concert. Choosing not to return to an intense concert schedule, Cliburn dedicated his time to the piano competition that bears his name, the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition — originally organized in 1962.
On Dec. 2, 2003, Van Cliburn received the Presidential Medal of Freedom — awarded to those individuals who have made outstanding contributions to society and culture — a fitting tribute to a musician who was able to transcend the politics of his age through the power of his art.
(Recording Academy member Joshua Cheek has written numerous liner notes for the Naxos, Koch and Hänssler Classic labels.)