The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: American pianist Van Cliburn has been diagnosed with advanced cancer. The Ear dedicates Cliburn’s playing of the beautiful and touching Liszt-Schubert song “Dedication” to honor the pleasure, joy and inspiration he has given to so many. | August 29, 2012


By Jacob Stockinger

Judging from news reports, an icon of American classical music is living out his final days.

American pianist Van Cliburn (below, in a photo taken by Ross Hailey for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram), now 78, has been diagnosed with advanced bone cancer . The very consistent stories, clearly taken form the same press release, do not say whether it is Stage III or Stage IV (there is no Stage V) but the word “advanced” suggests it is one of them and is probably beyond any hope of a cure or even a long survival.

As a young pianist, Cliburn was a superstar sensation with the public, the first classical musician to sell one million LPs (of his live recording of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1) and the first classical musician to get $10,000 a night. Sviatoslav Richter, one of the giants of 20th century Russian pianism also thought Cliburn so gifted that he handed Cliburn all his votes to seal Cliburn’s win in the first International Tchaikovsky Competition (below).

But Cliburn has also had his detractors, critics who found his performances uneven and lazy, especially as he aged and seemed to grow bored with his art. And some people including The Ear, also wish that he had come out publicly, despite his conservative politics and apparently deep religious beliefs.

For myself, in his prime I found most of his performances very good and several of his performances stupendous, including his Tchaikovsky First and Rachmaninoff Third concertos, but also his MacDowell Second Concerto.

Anyway, in an earlier post I asked: How good was Van Cliburn?

Here is a link:

And here are links to the latest story from The Associated Press about Cliburn and his diagnosis of cancer:

I don’t know if Cliburn reads The Well-Tempered Ear, but if he doesn’t now maybe he will if there are enough hits or somebody forwards it to him.

So leave a message in the COMMENTS column.

And tell us about your favorite Van Cliburn moments or performance.

One of mine is his playing of Franz Liszt’s transcription of Robert Schumann‘s song  “Widmung” (Dedication) — which was a favorite encore of Cliburn in his heyday and which is meant to honor the joy, the beauty and the inspiration he provided to so many young listeners and players, including me.. (Many more such moments, including Chopin, Brahms  and Debussy can be found for free on YouTube. Tear yourself and listen to a few).



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  2. I have been a Van Cliburn fan since I was a little girl. My parents played his recordings constantly in our home. On my 21st birthday in 1972, they bought front row tickets for us to hear Van play the Liszt Concerto #1 and the Grieg. I met him backstage and he was so handsome it took your breath away –and he could not have been kinder. There was an aura of genius about him that was palpable, he glowed; yet he was so down-to-earth when he came over to talk to you and put you immediately at ease. In fact, he loved to tease and make you laugh. He smiled at me, kind of winked and said, “I saw you in the front row – you had your eyes closed!” He said this with a lot of emphasis like I had committed a crime! I told him, “I can hear you better that way.” He just gave me the sweetest smile – thought I would faint! He took both my hands in his very large ones and we talked for a couple of minutes. I Then his manager steered him to someone else and he smiled and thanked me for coming. Many years later, in 1997, he played “Widmung”, Chopin’s “Revolutionary Etude” and Cliburn’s own composition “Nostalgia” as his 3 encores after a performance in Nashville. I had asked him the day prior when my friend and I gave him roses at the hotel (I had held this huge vase of roses on my lap in the car ride from Atlanta to Nashville) if he “would consider” playing just one of those – well, he played ALL THREE and played my very favorite, “Widmung” last. Prior to playing these encores, he gathered every red rose I had thrown on stage from my front row seat (a gesture to remind him of his performances in Moscow) and placed them on top of the piano as he played his 3 encores. After he played “Widmung” and began to walk toward me to exit the stage, he slowly lifted his upturned left hand toward me, gave a sweet nod toward me with his head, “That was for you.” I was so touched by his thoughtfulness, I immediately got choked up and began to cry. He motioned for me to come to the foot of the stage, which I hesitatingly did – then he knelt down, bent over the stage, held my face in one hand and gave me a sweet kiss on the lips. A few years later, he played “Widmung” as an encore in Huntsville, AL when he spotted me in the 1st row (he had remembered) after playing the gorgeous MacDowell concerto. He was magnificent in the MacDowell’s powerful passages, the whole stage rumbled and thundered! I cherish the note he wrote on my program at the cocktail reception that rainy evening in Huntsville. His sweet note is preserved in a very elegant frame and I will hand it down to my daughters one day. Well, after all those many years and concert performances, I (finally!) got to hear Van play the Tchaikovsky at Bass Hall In Ft. Worth in 2001 at FWSO’s Conductor John Giordano’s retirement. The concert and gala afterward were Russian-themed. I studied Vaganova method ballet with the Royal Ballet of London and later in private study with a magnificent ballerina and teacher, Irina Vasiliev, so I could not have been happier with the all Russian program. Back in May 1998, I sat on stage with a friend (there were 100 stage seats) in Bass Hall and heard Van play a gorgeous recital dedicated to his mother. We sat directly in front of the curtain stage left, behind which Van was standing waiting to make his entrance. It was very exciting! As he out came from behind the curtain, he spotted me as I turned around and smiled at him. He said hello to many of the people seated around me, then came over and threw those big hands out in a “ta dah!” gesture at my gown (I had told his EA that I had to find something really special to wear that evening – and she must have shared that with him) . Anyway, he gave me big bear hug and whispered “Thank you so much for the beautiful Christmas ornament. That was so swe-e-et.” Love his Fort Worth drawl. Then he walked to the podium center stage and addressed the audience flawlessly without any notes in that beautiful, mellifluous baritone of his. What a thoughtful, generous and kind man Mr. Cliburn is and one of the greatest concert pianists of the 20th & 21st centuries. I will never forget his brilliant performances – he is the gold standard – nor his many, many kindnesses. Van will forever be my favorite concert pianist and I will love him forever. I give him my love and prayers to Van and also to his devoted partner, Tommy, who was also so sweet to me whenever I talked to him and Van backstage. God bless them both during this very sad and difficult time.

    Comment by Denise Latimer — February 10, 2013 @ 5:28 pm

  3. I grew up in south Texas and have vivid memories of one of his solo recital performances in Jones Hall in the mid 1960s when I was still in junior high school. We lived in Lake Jackson which was abt. a 1-1/2 hr. drive into Houston, then there was the hassle with parking around the hall. My piano teacher at the time, Ms. June Sperry Trent, got my parents to drive us … so glad she did, because I was so thrilled to hear this great artist perform live. I already had his Tchaikovsky No. 1 Concerto record and some other solo records by then (probably “My Favorite Chopin”). I remember that he did the “Star Spangled Banner” as an intro (who else does that nowadays?) and the Brahms Händel Variations in Bb, Op. 24. There was also a big Chopin group, and I believe he ended with the famous “Heroic” Polonaise (Ab-Major Op. 53). Could be that he also performed the Samuel Barber sonata on that occasion … unfortunately, although I usually collected autographs at the time, I don’t have any printed program to jog my memory.

    Being from Texas, he was probably my most important musical role model since I later decided to make music my career. God Bless You, Van Cliburn … you have touched my heart … my prayers are with you!

    Comment by Robert Hairgrove — October 23, 2012 @ 6:34 pm

  4. I saw Cliburn play at Interlochen as a high school student around 1960. I loved seeing him onstage in the camp uniform of blue work shirt, navy corduroy knickers, and dark knee socks. I have his autograph. I have kicked myself over the years for not going when I was offered a summer scholarship as a singer.

    When I first went to work at the Capital Times, there was a young reporter named Kevin whose hobby was traveling the country to attend Cliburn concerts. He was a groupie! He eventually went into classical music production and was a success. Cliburn inspired many.

    Comment by Ron McCrea — August 30, 2012 @ 3:43 pm

  5. I’m curious how you obtained that top photo, of Van in front of a red house, that is a copyrighted image by Ross Hailey of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

    Comment by David Kent, Director of Photography — August 30, 2012 @ 11:45 am

    • Dear Mr. Kent, I found it on the web, via Google I think, without credit. But thank you for letting me know. I will put in the credit right away, and apologize for the lack of it. If that is not sufficient to address your concern, I will of course substitute another one. Best, Jake

      Jacob Stockinger 1710 Capital Ave. Madison, WI 53705 608 233-1163

      My ‘Well-Tempered Ear’ classical music blog can be found at:

      Comment by welltemperedear — August 30, 2012 @ 11:55 am

    • ________________________________

      Comment by buppanasu — August 30, 2012 @ 6:40 pm

  6. Van Cliburn frequently performed benefit concerts @ the National Music Camp/Interlochen Arts Academy for years, decades even. One summer RCA recorded Ralph Vaughn-Williams Serenade to Music with Cliburn conducting the World Youth Symphony and a pick-up chorus in which I sang tenor. Although not a commercial success, that 12″ LP got some good reviews. What I remember most about him is that his mother seemed to always be less than 3 steps behind him. While he was a less than a competent conductor, his pianistic abilities were truly superlative, beyond criticism. And the amount of money his benefit concerts provided for the IAA, I think pretty much kept it going for years. I was unaware that Richter was a judge when Cliburn won the Tchaikovsky competition, but such accolades from a master like Richter says a lot. Sad to hear of Cliburn’s pending demise but he’s surely done a great deal for classical music during his lifetime.

    Comment by Larry Retzack — August 29, 2012 @ 10:52 am

  7. He DID get bored with his Art, but he also got fed up with stardom and travel, two of the biggest hassles to being successful on the road. Hoffman played himself out early as well. Can you imagine all that media scrutiny, and being closeted at the same time? What a strain!
    I’ll bet he’s just been holed up at home, letting this illness creep up on him. Bone cancer Hurts, and I cannot imagine he was not feeling poorly long before he went to the doctor.
    I think he was what I call a Composer’s pianist. He played the music that was on the page, and let the notes do the talking most of the time. His Rach Prelude in C# min is a classic example of this. No fast here, slow there, no extraneous over-interpretation. I like listening to his studio recordings, which usually exhibit this quality. They have been decried as tepid or inartistic, but I think they are just a clear presentation of the music as written. Michelangeli could do this as well.
    He was THE classical music celebrity of his time, surpassed only by Horowitz. Paderewski was one in his time, too, but Cliburn could PLAY!

    Comment by Michael BB — August 29, 2012 @ 10:50 am

  8. I was a competitor in the 2007 Van Cliburn Amateur Piano Competition. Two items that stand out:

    1 Van Cliburn is an exceptionally good speaker. His entire comportment — the rich and mellifluous baritone, the measured cadences and rhythms of his utterances, his gravitas — bespoke a noble and great presence. I remember most specifically his conscripting all of us contestants as “soldiers for beauty” — a charge that I have to admit I would accept quite readily.

    2 All the contestants were invited to shake his hand at one of the events (I think it was the announcement of the SemiFinalists), and say whatever you wanted to say to him, preferably in “25 words or less”. When it came my turn, I said something to the effect that ” My thanks for just everything you’ve done for Classical music over the years”. After I had said that, he suddenly darted back from he, as if he was genuinely shocked by my statement. Now, I’m pretty sure that was a choreographed response that he’s developed over the years to handle expressions of adulation; but I personally found it rather amusing — as if I were the LAST person he would have expected to offer a compliment of that sort!

    Well, I was sincere in that statement. For me, the most important aspect of Cliburn’s legacy is not his historically spectacular debut or his prodigious pianism, but the fact that he used his considerable good fortune in his early years to create an entire institution, now justly venerated, that was devoted to — well, the beauty of Classical music, and piano in particular — and in an era that was becoming increasingly and openly less and less friendly to that category of music.

    Sadly, the tone of the announcement certainly suggests to me that death is imminent. I, for one, will pray for a reasonably quick and painless end; and I can only hope that he receives his just recognition as a truly GREAT presence in the Classical music world.

    Comment by Tim Adrianson — August 29, 2012 @ 9:00 am

  9. Cliburn played the Brahms 2nd at the Stock Pavilion with the Madison SO. It was a most moving performance. At the music’s conclusion, he rose from the bench, took but a brief bow, and went directly to the principal cellist (?Kreitz?) to bring him up for a bow along with our pianist. I like the recordings mentioned above, and his nice treatment of the Schumann concerto. He has been the best thing out of Texas that I remember.

    Comment by Fred Wileman — August 29, 2012 @ 8:35 am

  10. I saw Van Cliburn play at the Stock Pavilian around 1970. He was amazing. My parents had the record of his performance that won the Tchaikovsky Competition, which I listened to a lot. But hearing him in person was inspiring. After the performance I got to shake his huge hand. I don’t think I washed mine for several days.
    I’m very sorry to hear about his cancer. My best to him and many thanks for his music.

    Comment by Genie Ogden — August 29, 2012 @ 1:29 am

  11. My favorite Van Cliburn recording is his recording of the first Tchaikovsky piano concerto. He plays it so exquisitely. his recording is filled with so much passion and has so much historical significance that it is my absolute favorite recording of the piece. I also enjoy his rendition of Liszt’s Un Sospiro! I am very sorry to hear about Mr. Cliburn’s diagnosis and I hope that he is able to savor and enjoy what is left of a life well lived!

    Comment by noteworthythoughts — August 29, 2012 @ 1:18 am

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