Classical pianist Van Cliburn dies at 78

Classical pianist Van Cliburn dies at 78
Concert pianist Van Cliburn returns to his seat after receiving the 2010 National Medal of Arts from United States President Barack Obama in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC on March 2, 2011. The annual awards are managed by the National Endowment for the Arts. UPI/Pat Benic | License Photo

Van Cliburn, the young Texas pianist who took Moscow by storm in 1958, has died at the age of 78.

Born Harvey Lavan Cliburn, Jr., Cliburn passed away February 27 at his home in Fort Worth, Texas, according to his publicist and longtime friend, Mary Lou Falcone.


Cliburn was just 23 when, at the height of the Cold War, he marched into the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow that was intended to showcase Russian superiority and came away an international superstar.

As the story goes, his performance of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 and Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3 earned Cliburn an eight-minute standing ovation, and the judges were forced to ask Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev for permission to award him the top prize.

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"Is the best?" Khrushchev reportedly asked. "Then give him the prize!"

Washington DC: Mrs. Lady Bird Johnson chats with a fellow Texan, pianist Van Cliburn (R), at the Inaugural Concert here 1/19/1965. Vice president-elect Hubert Humphrey looks on during festivities at Constitution Hall. (UPI photo)
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Women mobbed him in Moscow. He was given a New York City ticker-tape parade. TIME put him on the cover as "The Texan Who Conquered Russia."


Other than a decade-long hiatus from public life after the deaths of his father and manager in 1978, Cliburn performed and recorded continuously. He played for every U.S. president from Dwight D. Eisenhower through Barack Obama, who awarded him the National Medal of the Arts in 2010.

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Listen to his performances of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 (here, from 1962 in Moscow) and Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3, which won him the first prize in Moscow and turned him into a worldwide icon.

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