Van Cliburn – arguably America’s greatest pianist

Van Cliburn in 1960

Van Cliburn in 1960

Update: Van Cliburn passed away on 27 February 2013 after his illness from bone cancer. Sadly, the world has lost one of its greatest pianists and a truly remarkably human being.


Van Cliburn is arguably the greatest pianist that America has produced. He was only 23 when he won the first International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow on 14 April 1958 during the height of the Cold War.

He received a hero’s welcome upon his return to the United States where he was given a ticker-tape parade in New York City. This was the first and only time the city has given such an honour to a classical musician. On that historic day, he became a cultural hero and unofficial diplomat. He went on the perform for every US president from 1958 until today. One of the most famous concerts occurred in 1987 when he played for Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev at the White House where this occasion is now remembered as the day when the Cold War was lost.

Inspired by Van Cliburn’s achievement in music, a group of Fort Worth music teachers and private citizens in Texas  established the Van Cliburn Foundation and the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in 1962. The foundation is dedicated to promote classical music to the world and nurture musical excellence among young musicians and its piano competition is one of the pre-eminent musical events in the world.

The piano competition has since established itself as a joyous festival for the discovery of some of the most talented young pianists in the world.

Van Cliburn and President Obama

Van Cliburn receiving the 2010 National Medal of Arts and National Humanities Medal

Van Cliburn, the Fort Worth-based pianist who first wowed the world more than 50 years ago, was one of 20 leading figures in the arts and humanities to receive the nation’s highest cultural award from President Barack Obama.

“One of the great joys of being president is getting a chance to pay tribute to the artists and authors, the poets and performers, who have touched our hearts and opened our minds or, in the case of Quincy Jones and James Taylor, set the mood,” said Obama to laughter.

He later went on to say “And I speak personally here because there are people here whose books or poetry or works of history shaped me. . . The fact is that works of art, literature, works of history, they speak to our condition and they affirm our desire for something more and something better.”

As the ram-rod straight Cliburn, 76, approached the podium, a smiling Obama greeted the taller Texan and exchanged a few words with him. The president placed the medal with a purple ribbon around Cliburn’s neck and a military aide read the citation: “The 2010 National Medal of Arts to Van Cliburn for his contributions as one of the greatest pianists in the history of music, and as a persuasive ambassador for American culture. Since his historic 1958 victory at the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, Mr. Cliburn has reached across political frontiers with the universal message of beautiful music.”

Van Cliburn was also honoured with the Presidential Medal for Freedom byPresident George W Bush in recognition for his contribution to music which have inspired so many young musicians.

Van Cliburn receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom

Van Cliburn receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W Bush

The article above are excerpts from

Listen to ChopinandMysaucepan‘s favourite music here.

Related posts of interest:

This entry was posted in Pianists and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Van Cliburn – arguably America’s greatest pianist

  1. john kuckowicz says:

    To steal a line I once read about him: his sound is reminiscent of sweet magnolias. I had the privilege of meeting him once in San Francisco at – unfortunately – the now closed Tower Records. There were hundreds of us waiting in line for hours and, though he was there for such a long time, maintained such a pleasant demeanor, shaking hands and talking briefly with those calm enough to actually say something! He autographed a copy of his Tchaikovsky 1st Piano Concerto CD, shook my hand and thanked me for coming to see him. A wonderful person and a fantastic pianist.

    • Chopinand says:

      Hi John,

      Thank you for your comments.

      Van Cliburn is an American music legend. His work has inspired and motivated millions of young musicians and he played an important role being a conduit between the US and Russia to end the Cold War. I wished I had the privilege to at least hear him live.

Comments are closed.