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Cliburn, Van (1934-2013)  
 
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The young American pianist Van Cliburn gained sudden worldwide fame in 1958, when, at the height of the Cold War, he won the inaugural International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. Critics praised his technique and virtuosity, and Americans hailed him as a hero.

Following his triumph in Moscow, Cliburn embarked on an ambitious performing and recording career that garnered numerous awards and brought him international acclaim. In 1962 he founded a quadrennial International Piano Competition that bears his name. He retired from the stage in 1978, but resumed limited concert appearances in 1989.

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Harvey Lavan Cliburn, Jr. was born on July 12, 1934, in Shreveport, Louisiana, where his father, Harvey Lavan Cliburn, was working as a purchase and sales representative for an oil company. His mother, Rildia Bee O'Bryan Cliburn, was a piano teacher. She was to exert a major influence on the life and career of her only child.

Rildia Bee Cliburn was a serious and talented pianist. She attended the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music and then the New York School of Musical Art, where she studied with Arthur Friedheim, who had been a pupil of Franz Liszt. The playing style that she learned and in turn taught to her son reflected the musical trends of the late nineteenth century.

Mrs. Cliburn hoped to be a concert pianist, but her parents considered such a career inappropriate for a woman, so she went home to Texas and began giving piano lessons.

Van Cliburn started studying piano with her when he was three years old. By the age of four he was performing with a children's church group.

In 1941 the Cliburn family moved to Kilgore, Texas. Cliburn performed at various venues around the area, earning a reputation as a prodigy. At twelve he played Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto in B-flat Minor with the Houston Symphony Orchestra.

Cliburn was taught principally by his mother at their home in Kilgore, Texas, though she periodically took him to New York to attend master classes at Juilliard. He was offered a scholarship to the school's preparatory division, but he rejected the offer. He refused to study with anyone but his mother.

However, Cliburn's adolescence in Kilgore was not happy. By 16 he had shot up to a height of 6 feet 4 inches. Excruciatingly self-conscious, in high school he was excused from athletics out of fear that he might injure his hands. He later recalled his adolescence outside the family as "a living hell," a description that suggests that he was subject to bullying.

Following his high school graduation, Cliburn moved to New York to study piano performance at Julliard. Anthony Thomassini writes that "As a young man, Mr. Cliburn was briefly linked romantically with a soprano classmate from Juilliard. But even then he was living a discreet homosexual life. His discretion was relaxed considerably in 1966 when, at 32, he met Thomas E. Zaremba, who was 19."

At the Juilliard School Cliburn studied with Rosina Lhévinne. She brought a Russian romanticism to his style, which was admirably suited to the repertoire of pieces that he favored.

Cliburn's talent garnered him numerous awards. He won the Dealey Award and the Kosciuszko Foundation's Chopin prize in 1952 and the Juilliard concerto competition the next year. In 1954 he won the Roeder Award and the Edgar M. Leventritt Foundation Award, the latter bringing him the opportunity to play with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. After graduating with honors later that year, Cliburn began touring as a solo performer.

The turning point in Cliburn's life came in 1958, when he won the International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition. His performance awed critics. Composer Aram Khachaturian declared Cliburn's rendition of Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto better than Rachmaninoff's.

The response of the American public to Cliburn's triumph was based at least as much on politics as on aesthetics. Having been beaten into space when the Soviets launched Sputnik in 1957, Americans were eager for a victory of their own. Cliburn's success in Moscow gave them not only that but a classic American hero to boot. Tall, boyishly handsome, accomplished and charming yet modest, Cliburn was lionized by the press and embraced by the public.

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Van Cliburn in 2004.
  
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