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Breaking Barriers Across Cultures and Countries: Van Cliburn


Van Cliburn: American hero, the Russians’ darling, world-renowned platinum musician, and classical pianist Certainly not a common combination of characteristics and accomplishments attached to a singular person

And to think that when he sat on that bench in Moscow in 1958, he had no idea what he would become How many people he would inspire Even the barriers he would break when it came to Russian culture and the American perception of classical music The year was 1958, during the height of the cold war The rivalry between the Soviet Union and the United States was greater than ever, including not only military and political strength, but also cultural superiority

The Soviets were especially proud of their reputation as being the greatest at classical arts such as dance and music, and they would not miss a chance to show the world as much And thus, in 1958, the first international Tchaikovsky competition was held: built to prove Soviet prowess in classical Piano There was no way anyone would be able to beat their masterful competitors named Van Cliburn, over six foot tall, with a suit that was very skinny (bigger than he could bear), and he goes to Russia, and he competed in the Tchaikovsky competition After his spectacular performance of Tchaikovsky’s Piano concerto number one, the audience fell in love and gave him an eight-minute standing ovation

Though the competition had not yet ended, everyone knew it was far from over, even the judges However, they did not know whether it would be appropriate to award such an honor to an American, and consequently, they went to Nikita Khrushchev, Soviet leader, for permission As the famed story goes, when the judges asked Khrushchev to award Van Cliburn with the first prize, he simply asked, “Is he the best?” to which the judges replied affirmatively, only to have him then say, “Then give him the prize!” He was not just a hometown hero at Fort Worth, he was a national hero He is the only classical pianist to ever be on the cover of TIME magazine, and back in the day, there were parades thrown for heroes, and he got a ticker-tape parade thrown in New York when he came back from Russia So it was a pretty historical event that landed him the notoriety that he has today in this country and across the world

Needless to say, Americans loved him, and because of that, they were introduced to the power of classical music and grew to love it more than at any other point in their history In short, Van Cliburn made classical music cool Not only was he the only classical musician to ever receive a ticker-tape parade, but his recording of Tchaikovsky’s Piano concerto number one was the first- ever classical recording to hit platinum He broke the barriers into the minds of Americans and shifted their perception of his craft in a way that had never been done before, and will likely never be done again But perhaps even more fascinating is how he won over the Russian people in a fashion that few Americans ever did

He was so humble, and he had such humility; he just never met a stranger But I think he as a person had this open heartedness that was not quite ever seen before in that arena that was disarming Even if you see videos of him his facial expressions are just so humbling, and I think that’s what spoke through in his music From the time Van Cliburn was just a young boy, he had a fascination for Russia So when he visited Moscow for the competition, it was as if all of his dreams came true, being in one of his favorite places on earth

The Russian people and elites no doubt were aware of this, and they felt appreciated Even to this day, years after he stepped foot in Russia, their people still remember and honor him with a fondness unparalleled by any other American This was no doubt what won him the competition, but also what gained him the international respect he has Van’s life after his initial success may not have been as grandiose as his showing at the Tchaikovsky competition, but it was no less filled with achievements and highlights In 1962, the first “The Cliburn” piano competition was held in Fort Worth, Texas, hosting the best and brightest up-and-coming pianists from around the world

Founded under Van Cliburn’s name and as a tribute to him, it has since become one of the most internationally respected competitions In fact, the competition has such a great influence on the area around it and has become so influential in its field that many consider not New York, not Los Angeles, but Fort Worth to be the epicenter of classical music in the United States It is one of the very few musical events in the world in which the participants stay with host families in the area, making for an aura of kindness and hospitality, reflective of Van’s greatest qualities He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from George W Bush in 2003, and the Russian Order of Friendship one year after

He was also awarded the Grammy lifetime achievement award, and a National Medal of the Arts by Barack Obama in 2011 As if this weren’t enough, he also played for every US President from Harry Truman to Barack Obama Van Cliburn spent his final years with the people he loved, and, although he passed away in 2013, the mark he left will not be erased or diminished anytime soon

Van Cliburn loved all people, and people loved him back, even if they were existential enemies of where he came from He broke through the preconceived notions that people had of him by just being himself: a person who could appreciate all aspects of life, the world, and humanity as a whole A strong barrier stood between the Americans and Russians during that time, dividing them from truly knowing and loving each other But, if only for a moment, one man shattered that barrier, and let two peoples be united under the gratitude for and recognition of that which is so ingrained into the human consciousness, so essential to the human experience: music In a world where it seems as if success is measured by how much money you have and how powerful you are, it can be easy to lose sight of what is really important: kind words, deeds, and actions for others

One Texan lived this way some years ago, and it’s safe to say that he left the world better than he found it If just one person can make so much positive change in such a short time, imagine what we could all do together, if only we lived like him

Source: Youtube

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