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Acclaimed pianist Van Cliburn died on February 27, 2013 at his home in Fort Worth, Texas of complications from bone cancer. Cliburn gained international fame suddenly 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. The triumph in Moscow launched him on an ambitious performing and recording career that garnered numerous awards and brought him international renown. He retired from the concert stage in 1978 and resumed limited concert appearances only in 1989. He is survived by his partner Thomas L. Smith.
The informative obituary by Anthony Thomassini in the New York Times details the triumphs and difficulties of Cliburn's career. It describes him as "a naturally gifted pianist whose enormous hands had an uncommonly wide span. He developed a commanding technique, cultivated an exceptionally warm tone and manifested deep musical sensitivity. At its best his playing had a surging Romantic fervor, but one leavened by an unsentimental restraint that seemed peculiarly American."
Thomassini contends that although the Tchaikovsky competition enabled Cliburn's breakthrough as an artist, "it also turned out to be his undoing" because "his growth was stalled by his early success." Thomassini repeatedly contends that Cliburn failed to fulfill his potential. In contrast, the comments from readers that the obituary elicits tell a story of a man whose talent deeply touched many.
Cliburn is remembered as a beloved artist who was kind and generous to others. He also leaves an impressive discography, including especially live recordings of his concert performances of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff from the late 1950s and early 1960s, as well studio recordings of Beethoven, Chopin, and Brahms, among many other composers. His legacy also includes the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, which he founded in 1962 and which is held quadrennially in Fort Worth.
Cliburn was early recognized as a prodigy. He 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. 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."
The romantic relationship between Zaremba and Cliburn became public knowledge in 1995, when Zaremba filed a palimony suit claiming that because of "an oral and/or implied partnership agreement," he was entitled to a share of Cliburn's income and property. Zaremba said that he had assisted in the management of Cliburn's career and finances as well as performing domestic services such as helping Cliburn care for his aged mother. Zaremba further alleged that Cliburn may have exposed him to AIDS during their seventeen-year relationship, which lasted until around the end of 1994.
The suit was eventually dismissed because Zaremba could not provide written validation of his domestic arrangement with Cliburn, as required by Texas law.
As Linda Rapp reports in her glbtq.com entry on Cliburn, the pianist called Zaremba's accusations "salacious" but otherwise had little to say about the case.
Pointing to the cloak of secrecy that enabled celebrities to hide their homosexuality, Rapp points out that "Music insiders had long been aware of his homosexuality, and he and Zaremba had appeared together at public functions in Fort Worth, but in Cliburn's thirty-plus years as a celebrity, the press had never linked him romantically with anyone."
Cliburn was a long-time member of Fort Worth's Broadway Baptist Church to which he donated one of the largest organs in the United States, the Rildia Bee O'Bryan Cliburn Organ, named in honor of the pianist's beloved mother.
In 2008, the Broadway Baptist Church was roiled by controversy when it decided to include photos of gay and lesbian couples in its church directory. During the controversy, which was finally settled when the church was expelled from the Southern Baptist Convention for welcoming gay and lesbian couples into full membership, Cliburn was routinely mentioned as a gay member of the congregation.
Mourners from around the world are expected at the church for Cliburn's funeral service, which is scheduled for 3:00 p.m. on March 3, 2013.
The video below was produced to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Cliburn's triumph at Moscow's inaugural Tchaikovsky competition.