Van Cliburn, celebrated classical pianist, dies at 78

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Van Cliburn, celebrated classical pianist, dies at 78

Van Cliburn, the tall, gangly, curly-haired Texan who became the most famous classical pianist in American history, died Wednesday at his home in Fort Worth, Texas. He was 78.

His death, from bone cancer, was announced by his publicist and longtime friend, Mary Lou Falcone.

In April 1958, Cliburn went to Moscow at the height of the Cold War and brought home the gold medal in the new Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition for his rendition of the composer’s Concerto No. 1. The contest had been established to showcase the Russian superiority in culture, a mere six months after the scientific triumph of launching Sputnik, the first space satellite.

RCA Victor soon signed him to an exclusive contract, and his first recording — the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1, — quickly became the best-selling classical record in history, a position it would retain for most of a decade.

Such sudden celebrity was heady stuff for a shy, soft-spoken young man who not long before had spent most of his time playing scales in the obscurity of a practice room at New York’s Juilliard School. Not surprisingly, Cliburn seems to have found the expectations impossible to live up to.

Within five years, his playing had begun a marked deterioration.

By 1978, Cliburn had withdrawn from the concert stage. He moved to Fort Worth, where he bought a mansion and became increasingly prominent in the city’s social life. In 1989, he came out of retirement to play his signature piece at the Mann Center in Philadelphia, to respectful reviews.

After that, he made sporadic public appearances, almost always playing the Tchaikovsky.

In later life, whenever Cliburn deigned to play, he sounded very much like what he was — a supremely gifted pianist who had not taken the pursuit especially seriously in decades.

In the denouement of his life, Cliburn was showered with awards. He received the Kennedy Center Honors in 2001, and in 2010 President Barack Obama presented him with the National Medal of Arts at the White House.

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