Famed pianist Cliburn dies after battle with cancer
Jeanne Johnson, chair of music and dance at Kilgore College, said she can clearly remember the first time she saw Van Cliburn, the world renowned classical pianist.
At 78, Cliburn died Wednesday at his Fort Worth home from bone cancer.
Cliburn became a household name in 1958 when he won the first International Tchaikovsky piano competition in Moscow during the height of the Cold War. The chairman of the judge's panel reportedly kissed Cliburn on both cheeks when he won, according to a 1958 Associated Press article.
Van Cliburn performs in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory in Moscow, Russia, in front of a picture of Russian composer Pytor Ilyich Tchaikovsky in April 1958 during the first International Tchaikovsky Competition, which he won.
"He went to Moscow and took the city by storm," a 1958 International News Service article states. "Soon there was standing room only at his performances. Even the judges were applauding."
The 23-year-old musician was welcomed home with a ticker-tape parade -- the first one given to a classical musician -- and had played for every president since Eisenhower.
"I was a kid in elementary when he came on the scene," Ms. Johnson said. "I watched him on TV."
When Ms. Johnson came to Kilgore College, she said Cliburn's name was mentioned often. He is often referred to as Kilgore's favorite son by locals.
Van Cliburn blows kisses to fans while riding in a car in a ticker-tape parade in New York City, shortly after winning the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow on April 14, 1958. It was the first ticker-tape parade held for a classical musician.
One day she was singing at a wedding when the town's famous son walked into the chapel. Ms. Johnson said she had to convince herself she didn't recognize him to get through the song she was performing.
"After it was over, he wanted to meet me, and he was so complimentary and made me feel special," she said. "He had that ability to do that with everybody. He had a zest for living."
Annette Morgan, longtime friend of Cliburn and financial aid director at Kilgore College, said he was humble about his great talent and appreciated all forms of art, as well as history, and studying other cultures.
"He loved hearing young musicians, and someone who was very promising just thrilled him to death," she said. "It was not about him. ... He could play anything, he wanted that young musician to continue (playing)."
Texas Gov. Price Daniel presents Van Cliburn the original copy of the proclamation designating Dec. 2, 1958 as Van Cliburn Day in Kilgore, at a luncheon honoring the international piano artist. The governor also commissioned Van an Admiral in the Texas Navy.
Mrs. Morgan said she met Cliburn when she took classes from his mother as a child. She said he already was at the Juilliard School in New York. When he was home, he would meet the students and listen to their concerts -- making them all nervous.
Cliburn's mother was his only teacher until he attended Julliard, Mrs. Morgan said. He started lessons when he was three and by the time he was 12, he debuted with the Houston Symphony, according to the 1958 news article. He won his first contest the same year, playing Tchaikovsky's Concerto No. 1, the AP article states.
Van Cliburn is shown as he stands in front of a 35-foot likeness of himself designed by local residents, as part of the Van Cliburn Day celebration on Dec. 2, 1958 in Kilgore. Pictured left to right are Mayor L.N. Crim, Gov. Price Daniel and Van Cliburn. One of the thousands of Kilgore downtown oil derricks can be seen in the background.
Old newspaper articles say the little boy got his start by tugging on his mother's skirt and saying "teach me, too" but Mrs. Morgan said she remembers another variation of the story.
One day, Mrs. Cliburn heard music coming from a piano after a student was supposed to be on his way home, Mrs. Morgan said. When Cliburn's mother returned to the room to scold the boy for worrying his own mother by being late, she found her own 3-year-old son playing the same song the student had just finished.
Van Cliburn is greeted by his mother and father, Mr. and Mrs. Harvey L. Cliburn, on arrival at Idlewild Airport in New York on May 16, 1958
"He had an ear, memory and the talent," Mrs. Morgan said. "She said if you want to learn the piano, you are going to learn correctly."
He played for millions of people, reportedly bringing some crowds to tears, but Cliburn left behind a deeper legacy than only sharing his musical talents.
When Kilgore College built a new auditorium in 1966, it was only natural to name it after Cliburn. He donated a grand piano to the college that is still in use today, Ms. Johnson said.
Endowments for three music scholarships also are available to Kilgore College students in his name.
Van Cliburn has an honorary Rotary membership pin affixed on his coat lapel by his father, H.L. Cliburn (left) at a luncheon held in honor of the young artist on Dec. 3, 1958 in Kilgore
"It was a legacy of excellence," Ms. Johnson said "He had great talent, but he was never satisfied with what was easy. He wanted to do the best he could, even if it was hard."
He also donated a grand piano to the East Texas Symphony Association in 1971, according to a
Tyler Moring Telegraph article. Cliburn reportedly tested the instrument in the factory before it was shipped and was the first to play it publically in Caldwell Auditorium.
Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev gives Van Cliburn an affectionate greeting on Sept. 24, 1959 at the Russian Embassy. Van Cliburn and Khrushchev met in Moscow where the pianist was acclaimed by the premier for his musical ability.
The Van Cliburn Foundation was set up in 1962 in Fort Worth. Carla Thompson, chairman of the board of directors, said the foundation, which hosts a piano competition and offers professional career guidance to the winner, was set up in his honor. She said while he did not set it up, he has served as an inspiration to the students who compete.
"Just this namesake in the world of music is something every pianist knows and aspires to be," Ms. Thompson said. "He's been a real inspiration and very encouraging of young musicians."
Mrs. Morgan said through all Cliburn's success, his heart remained in East Texas.
"Van never forgot his East Texas roots," Mrs. Morgan said. "He was a great patriot. He loved this county He always opened concerts with the Star Spangled Banner, which is not really done by a classical pianist, but he did it, and he was doing it before he won the Russian prize."