Harvey Lavan "Van" Cliburn, Jr. (born July 12, 1934), is an American pianist who achieved worldwide recognition in 1958 at the age of twenty-three, when he won the first quadrennial International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow, at the height of the Cold War.
Van Cliburn was born in Shreveport, Louisiana, and began taking piano lessons at the age of three from his mother, the former Rildia Bee O'Bryan, who herself had been instructed by Arthur Friedheim, a pupil of Franz Liszt. At six years old, Cliburn moved with his family to Kilgore, Texas, and at twelve he won a statewide piano competition which enabled him to debut with the Houston Symphony Orchestra. He entered the Juilliard School at the age of seventeen, and studied under Rosina Lhévinne, who trained him in the tradition of the great Russian romantics. At twenty, Cliburn won the Leventritt Award, and made his Carnegie Hall debut.
It was his recognition in Moscow that propelled Cliburn to international fame. The first International Tchaikovsky Competition in 1958 was an event designed to demonstrate Soviet cultural superiority during the Cold War, on the heels of their technological victory with the Sputnik launch in October 1957. Cliburn's performance at the competition finale of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 and Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3 earned him a standing ovation lasting eight minutes. When it was time to announce a winner, the judges were obliged to ask permission of the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to give first prize to an American. "Is he the best?" Khrushchev asked. "Then give him the prize!" Cliburn returned home to a ticker-tape parade in New York City, the only time the honor has been accorded a classical musician. His cover story in Time proclaimed him "The Texan Who Conquered Russia."
Upon returning to the United States, Cliburn appeared in a Carnegie Hall concert with the Symphony of the Air, conducted by Kirill Kondrashin, who had led the Moscow Philharmonic in the prize-winning performances in Moscow. The performance of the Rachmaninoff 3rd Piano Concerto at this concert was subsequently released by RCA Victor on both LP and CD. Cliburn was also invited by Steve Allen to play a solo during Allen's prime time NBC television program on April 14, 1958.
RCA Victor signed him to an exclusive contract, and his subsequent recording of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 became the first classical album to go platinum. It was the best-selling classical album in the world for more than a decade, eventually going triple-platinum. Cliburn won the 1958 Grammy Award for Best Classical Performance for this recording. In 2004, this recording was re-mastered from the original studio analogue tapes, and released in the highest quality ever on high-resolution Super Audio CD.
Other famous concerti Cliburn has recorded include the Schumann Piano Concerto in A minor, Grieg Piano Concerto in A minor, Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2, Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 4 and No. 5 "Emperor", and the Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 3.
In 1958, during a dinner hosted by the National Guild of Piano Teachers, President and Founder Dr. Irl Allison announced a cash prize of $10,000 to be used for a piano competition named in Van Cliburn’s honor. Under the leadership of Grace Ward Lankford and with the dedicated efforts of local music teachers and volunteers, the First Van Cliburn International Piano Competition was held September 24-October 7, 1962 at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. The quadrennial competition is hosted by the Van Cliburn Foundation and its prestige now rivals that of the Tchaikovsky Competition. Van Cliburn continues to serve as Director Emeritus for the Van Cliburn Foundation, host of the competition and other programs honoring Cliburn’s legacy.
Cliburn returned to the Soviet Union on several occasions. His performances were usually recorded and even televised. A videotape of his 1962 performance of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 with Kirill Kondrashin and the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra documents that Premier Khrushchev was in the audience, joining in the enthusiastic applause. A 1972 concert performance of the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2 with Kondrashin and the Moscow orchestra, as well as a studio recording of Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, were later issued on CD by RCA Victor.
On May 26, 1972, Cliburn gave a concert at Spaso House, the residence of the United States Ambassador to Russia, for an audience which included President Richard M. Nixon, Secretary of State William P. Rogers, and Soviet government officials.
Cliburn performed and recorded through the 1970s, but in 1978, after the deaths of his father and manager, began a hiatus from public life. In 1987, he was invited to perform at the White House for President Ronald Reagan and Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev, and afterward was invited to open the 100th anniversary season of Carnegie Hall. In 1994, Cliburn made a guest appearance in the cartoon Iron Man, playing himself in the episode "Silence My Companion, Death My Destination". Now in his late seventies, he still gives a limited number of performances each year to critical and popular acclaim. Cliburn appeared as a Pennington Great Performers series artist with the Baton Rouge Symphony Orchestra in 2006. He has played for royalty and heads of state from dozens of countries, and for every U.S. President from Dwight D. Eisenhower to Barack Obama.
He begins every concert with The Star-Spangled Banner.
Cliburn received the Kennedy Center Honors in 2001. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2003 by President George W. Bush, and, in October 2004, the Russian Order of Friendship, the highest civilian awards of the two countries. He was also awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award the same year and played at a surprise 50th birthday party for United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. He was a member of the Alpha Chi Chapter of Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia, and was awarded the fraternity's Charles E. Lutton Man of Music Award in 1962. He was presented a 2010 National Medal of Arts by President Barack Obama.
In 1998, Cliburn was named in a lawsuit by his alleged domestic partner of seventeen years, mortician Thomas Zaremba. In the suit, Zaremba claimed entitlement to a portion of Cliburn's income and assets and went on to charge that he might have been exposed to HIV, claiming emotional distress. Each claim was subsequently dismissed by an appellate court, holding that palimony suits are not permitted in the state of Texas unless the relationship is based on a written agreement.
Cliburn is known as a night owl. He often practices until 4:30 or 5 a.m., waking around 1:30 p.m. "You feel like you're alone and the world's asleep, and it's very inspiring."
Cliburn, a Baptist, attends church every week.
On Aug 27, 2012 Van Cliburn's publicist announced that he has advanced bone cancer. He is undergoing treatment and “resting comfortably at home” in Fort Worth, Texas, where he is receiving around-the-clock care.