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16 minutes reading time (3154 words)

Remembering Van Cliburn

Remembering Van Cliburn


Earlier this year, the musical world lost one of the most iconic figures of the twentieth century.

Van Cliburn was the first (and only) classical musician to receive a ticker-tape parade, the first classical musician to sell more than one million copies of a record. He played for royalty, heads of state, and every U.S. President from Harry Truman to Barack Obama. As loved abroad as he was in the U.S., Van Cliburn was a true ambassador for music. Much has been written and said about his achievements and his influence; here are some personal remembrances of this legendary pianist.


Van Cliburn always will be remembered as one of the greatest pianists of our time. His triumph in Moscow changed the complexion of the relations between the United States and the Soviet Union at a time when there was considerable tension between the two superpowers. This extraordinary event, one that never can be repeated, emphasized the significance of classical music in our society and confirmed that it transcends political, geographic, and ethnic boundaries. Van became the hero of the free world overnight, and, through his music making, made us believe in the sanctity of the human spirit.

Van and I met in September 1973, when my tenure as Jury Chairman of the Competition began. That meeting will always remain indelible in my mind. Van, an international icon, was warm, self-effacing, humble, and dignified. These qualities were reflected in his concerts and contributed significantly to his artistic uniqueness. He believed that performers were not creators, but re-creators who are obligated to pursue the accomplishment of that goal to their utmost capability. He constantly emphasized: "We have the sacred responsibility to reproduce the works of the great masters to the highest level of our ability...It must be as if we had plucked the most beautiful flower in full bloom from our garden and are handing it across the footlights to our precious audience. It is a serious and considerably important responsibility." 

Van was a champion of classical music. He always strove to perform on the loftiest level and never considered his performances to be adequate enough. He often stated: "The more I study and practice, the more I learn something new, and the more I realize how little I know." 

Every concert I conducted with Van as soloist was a special occasion for the orchestra as well as the audience. He inspired the musicians to emulate his insightful musical concepts and always respected theirs. 

Van appreciated and admired artists in every musical discipline. All classical music, especially opera, touched him deeply, and he was effusive in his compliments to the performers. He continually supported and sympathized with young artists and helped to promote their developing careers. 

Van was a great storyteller; his prodigious memory enabled him to recount fascinating events in great detail. His infectious laugh always will resonate in my memory. 

Van, through his extraordinary music making, his definitive recordings, his charm, his charisma, and his caring spirit has enriched the world with a legacy that will last forever."

- John Giordano

Jury Chairman, Van Cliburn International Piano Competition 

Music Director Emeritus, Ft. Worth Symphony Orchestra 

Associate Professor of Music, Texas Christian University

"I am still coming to terms with Cliburn's death. It's hard for me to talk about it because it brings back so many memories, and it's a great loss for us in the world of music. Van had an enormous career. He had a very engaging personality. He was the kind of person who took over the room when he was around with his entourage. I remember one time in Hartford, we made plans to have dinner together and there were twenty people there. That was typical. He invited everyone into his world. He had a warm personality, and his performances reflected that."

​-Daniel Pollack

Prize Winner, First International Tchaikovsky Competition

Professor of Piano, Thornton School of Music, The University of Southern California


"Van Cliburn was the greatest inspiration for me and he will always be a great inspiration. He was the greatest musician and the greatest person- a genius!! Every word he said and every note he played was dedicated to the most incredible magic in this world: MUSIC. I will always follow his advice and his way in the life of heavenly beautiful music." 

-​Olga Kern

Gold Medalist, Eleventh Van Cliburn International Piano Competition 


"There were no musicians in my family. My mother, however, was a fan of classical music and had many LPs, mostly of piano works, which she played almost every day. I didn't realize until much later that the music I heard from the cradle would be my first introduction to Van Cliburn. In the early 1990s, I went through that collection of old LP recordings in Rio, and was startled to find that the recordings of the Tchaikovsky Concerto No. 1, Rachmaninoff Concerto No. 3, and Brahms Concerto No. 2, as well as several other recordings of solo works I had grown up listening to before I left Brazil at the age of fifteen, were all Van's. My mother, it turns out, had followed his huge success in Moscow and bought all the recordings she could after that.

In 1985, I finally met the man who—unknowingly to either of us at that time—had helped inspire a young child in Rio to delve into the world of music making. It was always hard to imagine that this self-effacing, generous, and warm person was the same one that had taken the world by storm at so many levels! Listening to those recordings today makes me realize how very lucky I was, as Van's performances are full of beauty and spiritual depth. It is no wonder that several of them are still considered "definitive" recordings to this day —a feat that very few can claim.

In person, Van was one of the warmest and larger-than-life people I have ever met. I was lucky enough to hear him perform some extraordinary concerts, and his musical approach was in every way tied to his own personality. His tone, color, and voicing were among the most beautiful and well-crafted I ever heard from any pianist, and they seemed to carve a direct path to one's soul.

Van was an avid raconteur who possessed an extraordinary memory verging on "total recall." I will miss those great evenings at his home, where he would tell colorful, entertaining, and moving stories from his life, as well as his ideas and feelings about music and art. Thankfully, his legacy and spirit will live on through his recordings and the treasured memories of all who knew him. I will be forever grateful for the inspirational impact his music and friendship had in my life." 

-​José Feghali

Gold Medalist, Seventh Van Cliburn International Piano Competition 

Artist-in-Residence, Texas Christian University

"My first experience with Van Cliburn was through a black-and-white film in Ukraine, when I was seven years old. My piano teacher and my grandmother fell in love with Van, and we watched this film many times together. Each time, my piano teacher was inspired and improvised at my house after watching the film. When I studied in Moscow, I finally had the opportunity to see Van perform live. After the concert, my friends told me I had an idiotic grin during the whole concert, because I loved his playing so much!

At the age of twenty-three, I made the crucial decision to come to the United States and enter the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. One of the competition rules stated that contestants could not have any contact with the jury members or administrators. Since Van Cliburn loved everything connected with Russia, he was present at the first round. When all the contestants were assembled onstage to find out who would advance, it was a very big surprise to me when Van came onstage, turned his back to the hall, pinched my pinky, and whispered, "What do you want to play in the second round?"

Van secretly gave me a masterclass on my second-round program, and it was obvious that my weakest piece was the Chopin Sonata No. 3. I had enough repertoire ready to play the second round without the Chopin. Van went to the jury meeting and asked if I could omit the Chopin sonata. Because Van asked many times and it started to look impolite, the Russian juror Evgeny Malinin insisted, "Viardo MUST play the Chopin Sonata!"

Mrs. Martha Hyder, my lifetime sponsor, chose to have me live with her during the competition (Martha told me later that this was because I looked the poorest in the photos). Through this relationship, I became closer with Van after the competition. Van and Martha traveled many times with me after the competition to listen to my concerts, and they sponsored me financially for a long time when the Soviet government took most of the honorariums from concerts.

It is very hard for me to believe that Van is not with us anymore, though I do believe he is in heaven, watching over us." 

- Vladimir Viardo 

Gold Medalist, Fourth Van Cliburn, International Piano Competition 

Professor of Music, University of North Texas

"Living in Fort Worth during the past thirty- five years has given me many wonderful memories of this legendary artist. Van touched all of us in so many ways through his music-making, which was always regal, elegant, and utterly sincere. The character of an artist is always reflected in his performances, and, for Van, his love of music and commitment to fulfilling its meaning were the hallmarks of his playing.

In particular, his recordings of the Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff concerti are etched in my memory, and many of my friends and colleagues feel the same. We wore out those vinyl recordings and are still surprised at how they retain their freshness. Van brought to life those endless melodies, luscious harmonies, and pulsating rhythms, which can only be described as reason for living. Similarly, on the numerous occasions I heard him live, his performances were always full of spirit, captivating, and totally engaging us in his musical world.

There are two personal moments I had with Van that I would like to share as part of my remembrance of him. In 1981 at the awards ceremony of the Tenth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, there was a performance of the Johann Strauss's "Blue Danube" Waltz arranged for eight pianos. Anthony Phillips—the then Executive Director of the Competition—requested that students of the TCU/Cliburn Piano Institute participate in this performance. Shortly after that, I met Van in a social setting, and he asked in detail about the Institute, which I had initiated that year during the Competition. The mission of the Institute— to narrow the gap between the profession and academia—was very appealing to him. However, he felt that the competition together with our program should be an all-encompassing "festival of music," and this made an indelible impression on me. Whenever Van spoke, every word was weighed and clear in its intention and purpose. So, on this and subsequent occasions when he and I spoke about the Institute, he always returned to the notion of a "festival and not just a competition or an educational program."

With this in mind, eventually the Institute was renamed "PianoTexas International Academy and Festival." In dedicating the thirty-second PianoTexas this year to the memory of Van Cliburn, I can say how much Van's vision encouraged me personally to nurture the program, both in collaboration with the Competition every four years and as a stand-alone Festival each year in between. It is our tribute to a great musician.

In 1991, Van and I appeared with the Youth Orchestra of Greater Fort Worth. He narrated Aaron Copland's "Lincoln Portrait" and I performed Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue." Although he was the center of attention at the reception after the concert, Van unfailingly attended to his mother, and also to mine. I will never forget how he ensured that both mothers felt involved in the event and that they received the respect for which he was renowned throughout his life. He also paid personal attention to my children. Peter was part of the first violin section and Michael, too young to play, was overawed by Van's huge but delicate hands. My mother was completely taken by his demeanor. As we all remember, when Van spoke to you, you were the only one in his mind. I will always treasure that evening with Van Cliburn. As the picture shows, it was a time of musical fufillment and personal happiness."

​-​Tamás Ungár

Professor of Music, Texas Christian University 

Executive Director, PianoTexas International Academy & Festival


"Strolling through a resplendent, formal renaissance garden  on a recent Easter morning under a brilliant Texas sky, Van Cliburn stood tall, lean, and elegant in his customary dark suit. His gentle expression betrayed profound concentration as he absorbed every nuance of the beauty the garden was created to offer. He relished the effulgent colors, inhaled deeply the perfumes of roses and boxwoods, and savored the harmony of the artfully designed layout. As he spoke quietly in his dark mellifluous warm baritone, he imparted his genuine sense of awe and admiration for the achievement of the visionary planners and artisans who made this exquisite corner of paradise possible.

With a broad gesture, sweeping his long, thin fingers across the landscape, he proceeded to express his appreciation for those who have the love of that which is beautiful as well as the will and means to foster its creation. He dwelled upon the enlightened civic leaders of ancient Greece, whose vision led to the building of immortal temples and the creation of statues which have served as models and inspiration for generations. He spoke of the great patrons of the renaissance, such prosperous families as the Medicis and the Strozzis, whose passion for beauty gave us the glorious works of Michelangelo, da Vinci, Raphael, Donatello, and on and on.

And then Van spoke of music—of his beloved Chopin, of Tchaikovsky, of Rachmaninoff, and of all timeless musical literature—solo, orchestral, operatic—that came into being thanks to the devotion of refined benefactors who recognized and were able to appreciate the genius of those exalted masters.


As a concert pianist, Van was always reaching out to what he termed "the invisible architecture of music," and bringing it to life through his God-given gift and his piano. Van often said that during a concert a part of him must be in the audience, for it is for them that he limns every note, every phrase, with a loving care that reveals his total commitment to crafting a gift which is at once beautiful and communicative. Nevertheless, memorable and enthralling as these performances may be, they are evanescent, ephemeral. Not that Van didn't appreciate the transitory—be it an evening with friends or a night at the opera. However, Van balanced his life with an exceptional attachment and affection for that which was timeless. And for Van that which was truly beautiful was forever. Van was the very personification of an aesthete. On entering his home, one was immediately made aware of being in the residence of a sophisticated collector possessing a highly informed connoisseurship and the most refined of tastes. He was clearly a man who relished surrounding himself with beautiful masterpieces crafted by artists as inspired as he was while music flowed from his fingers during a magnificent recital.

Not long ago, Van returned to Moscow for a very much anticipated concert. Upon arrival, he was at once immersed in three days of whirlwind activities—rehearsals, friends to visit, his hotel suite filled day and night with well-wishers bringing flowers, caviar, and champagne. The triumphant performance of the Tchaikovsky and Liszt concerti over, Van, exhausted yet exhilarated, returned to his suite once again filled with friends. At about four o'clock in the morning, he quietly slipped into his bedroom where a small upright practice piano had been nestled into a corner. A few of his friends followed him as he began to play one piece by Chopin after another. Perhaps he may have been playing in part for himself, but his unbridled generosity of spirit much more importantly made him want to share the beauty of the music with those of us standing next to him. It was a very beautiful gift indeed."

- Richard Rodzinski

General Director, Fourteenth International Tchaikovsky Competition

President Emeritus, Van Cliburn Foundation


"My first experience with Van Cliburn was hearing him play the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2 with Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. I was a junior in college, and with your college I.D. you could get a ticket for sixty- five cents! I wondered why more people didn't want to hear him play that piece— in my opinion it was even better than his Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky. As Howard Reich noted in his book [The Van Cliburn Story], Van Cliburn knew more concertos than most people thought he did, but conductors only ever wanted Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky.

Without Van Cliburn and the Cliburn International Piano Competition, I don't know where I would be today—I wouldn't have had the career that I've had. I studied with Rosina Lhévinne (also Cliburn's teacher) at Juilliard, and she suggested that I enter the Cliburn competition. I had entered many competitions, but this was different. In the Cliburn you performed for an audience, not just a panel of judges, which was more satisfying. The hospitality of the host families—one of my hosts had actually studied with Josef Lhévinne—also added to the overall experience. I remember that MacDowell was the favorite composer of Van's mother (Rildia Bee O'Bryan Van Cliburn with President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary Clinton. Cliburn), and every contestant had to prepare a MacDowell sonata for the competition. As it turned out, the judges never asked any of the contestants to play their McDowell!

After winning the competition, the big prize was a management contract with Sol Hurok, who was also Van Cliburn's manager. Hurok was so well respected that it was a great honor to be represented by him. In the end, this contract turned out to be much more valuable than the money or the concerts that were also awarded. 

Van always kept a low profile, and I admired that quality. Van felt honored and humbled that so many people would get together and honor him with such an event. Van's polite southern manner ingratiated himself to so many people, and, no matter how many years he spent in New York, he always adored Ft. Worth. 

I was able to see Van at his home last fall, and I greatly admire the way he faced the end of his life. He was always positive, and he had great faith.

- Ralph Votapek

Gold Medalist, First Van Cliburn International Piano Competition

Professor Emeritus, Michigan State University 

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