The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Pianist Van Cliburn, an icon of American classical music, died today at 78. | February 27, 2013

By Jacob Stockinger

These days, “icon” is an overused word.

But it certainly applies in the case of American pianist Van Cliburn (below). For five decade, he was ever-present in the mind of classical music fans ever since he won, against all odds, the first Tchaikovsky International Competition in 1958, held in Moscow during the height of The Cold War.

Cliburn's hands

I have written before about Cliburn, who died today at 78 after a long battle with bone cancer.

Here is one posting about the controversy that surrounded his playing:

Here is the most important blog posting, and be sure to reader the many intelligent and deeply felt comments by readers:

There are many reasons to like him and his playing. Not for nothing was he the first classical musician to ask and get a concert fee of $10,000 for one night;s performance.

But if you asked me to sum it up, I would say: Van Cliburn made every note come from some place and go to another place, and he always developed a logic – melodic, harmonic or rhythmic — to a particular phrase or passage.

van cliburn playing

His Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No.1 (below, the first classical recording to sell 1 million copies) and his Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3 remain for me the best, the absolute best, versions ever recorded.

Cliburn Tchaikovsky LP

I didn’t like his Brahms or Schumann so much, but I liked much of his Chopin — hear the Nocturne he plays at the bottom in a YouTube video — and I adored his playing of Edward MacDowell‘s Piano Concerto No. 2, which also remains definitive for me.

His personal and professional story proved fascinating and courageous as well as inspiring to many young musicians, including myself. (Below is the 23-year-old Van Cliburn in the ticker tape parade he received in New York City after his win in Moscow.) 

Van Cliburn ticker tape parade in 1958

Here are links to some important obituaries and stories. You’ll find many memorable quotes and many unforgettable facts as well as some wonderful photos from all stages of his life and career:

From The New York Times:

van cliburn ill

From the Associated Press:

From The Dallas Morning News:

From the Houston Star-Telegram, the first a story and the second, a life in photos:

From National Public Radio:

From The Los Angeles Times:,0,6919189.story

From The Washington Post:

From CNN:


What would you like to say on Van Cliburn’s passing? Leave a COMMENT.

What is your favorite recording of Cliburn’s?


  1. I am very saddened to lose such a person. “Icon” came to mind without thinking of Jake’s use of it. Horatio’s farewell to Hamlet comes to mind: ” . . . Good night . . . and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”

    I fell in love with the Tchaikovsky No.1 when I first heard it –I was one of the million who made his recording such a great success–and I have never fallen out of love with it. Definitely my favorite recording of his, and one of my all time favorites.

    I got the following story from a friend — one of the two participants in it — and wish I could tell it better. Early in Van Cliburn’s career my friend and a friend of his went to one of his concerts. The friend was very knowledgeable and enthusiastic about music and they waited at the stage door to speak to him. A lively conversation followed, and they departed. They were walking a block or two away when a limousine passed, stopped, and backed up. Van Cliburn rolled down the window and invited them to dinner. Attendance at other concerts followed with vigorous discussions and a month or so later Van Cliburn invited the friend (not mine) to work with him as a sort of secretary, assistant, and what have you, which part he filled until Van Cliburn largely gave up concert performing. Daryl Sherman

    Comment by Daryl Sherman — February 28, 2013 @ 11:46 am

    • Hi Daryl,
      I too was one of those who helped make Van Cliburn’s Tchaikovsky recording the first classical million-seller.
      I still think it is the best recording ever of that work.
      Great lyricism in certain passages coupled to electrifying virtuosity (especially the double octaves and big chords).
      Thank you for reading and replying.

      Comment by welltemperedear — March 1, 2013 @ 11:01 am

  2. I heard him play in the 1960s at Interlochen, the National Music Camp, and he seemed happy to be onstage with all the young performers, wearing the camp uniform of blue work shirt, blue corduroy knickers, and knee socks.

    Comment by Ron McCrea — February 28, 2013 @ 10:36 am

    • Hi Ron,
      I heard Van Cliburn the exact same way in the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1, probably 10 or 15 years later, and he seemed exactly as you described him — absolutely at ease and having fun.
      Of course, I believe he also attended Interlochen as a boy, a student.
      He also attended the Marlboro Festival where there isa famous picture of him playing a piano duet with a young James Levine.
      Thanks for the memory

      Comment by welltemperedear — February 28, 2013 @ 11:34 am

  3. How sad. The world has lost an incredible talent. I’m so glad I got to hear him play.

    Comment by Genie Ogden — February 28, 2013 @ 1:44 am

    • Genie,
      How sad indeed.
      I heard him perform live several times both in solo recitals and concertos.
      And of course I also listened to many of his recordings.
      He was the genuine article.
      And also apparently a very kind and modest man.
      Besides his dying too young, my one regret is that he didn’t really come out of the closet as a gay man, though he also never really took pains to hide his sexual orientation.
      I just think of how many others he might have helped had he been more candid or upfront.
      But that is a small point in a personal life and professional career that did so much for so many other people.
      Thanks for reading and replying.

      Comment by welltemperedear — February 28, 2013 @ 9:08 am

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