Van Cliburn passed away after a bout with bone marrow cancer. His active career as a concert pianist was all too short. Much like President Kennedy, whose term in office was cut short, the quality of his active tenure overrode its brevity. Cliburn spent the last 35 years of his life as an elder statesman of Classical Music.
I remember in the 1980s mentioning to my mother that Cliburn was turning 50; she responded “He’s already 50?” I then pointed out to my mother that she was already 51. My mother was not amused.
Cliburn was truly “America’s pianist” (even more than William Kapell) to the extent that Cliburn invariably started his domestic concerts with The Star Spangled Banner. It was as such that he returned home to a ticker-tape parade after winning the 1958 Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow – the only such accolade ever accorded a Classical musician.
Despite Cliburn’s All-American,apple pie loving boy from Texas image, his musical training was solidly in the Russian School. It’s not for nothing that his teacher was Rosina Lhévinne, doyenne of Russian piano teachers. His playing appealed to the jurors at the Tchaikovsky Competition – particularly Sviatoslav Richter, who awarded Cliburn TENs and scored everyone else ZEROs. Eventually the situation came to the attention of Nikita Khrushchev, who asked if Cliburn was really “the best” of the lot. When Khrushchev was answered in the affirmative, he responded succinctly “Then give him the prize.” When Cliburn played Moscow Nights as an encore at his victory recital, he won the hearts of the Russian public.
In retrospect, it’s easy to forget what a coup it was for an American to win Russia’s premier musical competition during the Cold War’s height. But listening to the evidence, it’s also easy to see why he won. Cliburn had technique to burn, but never felt the need to get into a speed race – even when he played such warhorses as Rachmaninoff’s Third Concerto. Yet it’s Cliburn’s recording of that concerto which brings a lump to my throat at the final statement of the third movement’s “big tune.” Cliburn was among the most sincere of interpreters, and his example shines through in an era of growing cynicism – both in and out of music. His temperament ran warm, but not hot like Rubinstein’s and certainly not molten like Horowitz’s. In many ways, Cliburn resembled Benno Moiseiwitsch, the master of relaxed virtuosity. Also, Cliburn’s ringing sonority reminded many of Rosina Lhévinne’s husband, Josef. (Vladimir Horowitz once remarked that he and Arthur Rubinstein together couldn’t match Cliburn’s tone.) His stage demeanor was soulfully dignified and welcoming. Although he was too classy to make negative comments about other musicians, Cliburn was no doubt horrified by the face-pulling freak shows put on by the likes of Lang Lang. Cliburn’s sense of decorum wasn’t always returned – particularly when he was slapped with an unsuccessful palimony suit in the 1990s
Let’s get one thing out of the way, Cliburn was a good musician. There is a misconception, mostly centered in the Germanic circles, that one has to be a great Mozart and Beethoven interpreter to be a great musician. Nothing could be further from the truth. Much of this stems from Artur Schnabel’s statement that he limited his repertoire to music that was “better than it could be played.” As others have pointed out, Chopin’s Polonaise-Fantasie and Schumann’s Fantasy are also “better than they can be played”. Fact is, there have been plenty of pianists who turn in fine performances of various Beethoven and Mozart works – including Cliburn. (There are also plenty of pianists who have been lauded for their Beethoven, Mozart, and Schubert interpretations for no good reason.) But there are not many pianists who can hold together Chopin’s B-flat minor Sonata, let alone the Liszt sonata.
Cliburn was wise enough to know his limitations and be selective in the music he chose to present to the public. Chronologically and stylistically, Cliburn’s repertoire started with Mozart and ended with Barber’s Piano Sonata. He didn’t embrace serialism or twelve-tone because music without a “line” didn’t speak to him. Nor did he play much chamber music. Instead, he concentrated on the core Romantic solo and concerto repertoire – and he played it very well.
Cliburn was also wise enough to know when to stop. Much has been written about the decline in Cliburn’s career in the 1970s. It was a classic case of burnout: too many performances of the same prize-winning concertos with not enough time for contemplation. Cliburn’s management – and don’t underestimate the extent to which managers run the careers of Classical musicians – was too eager to cash in on the prize winner as opposed to developing his career and allowing him to grow over decades. While many know-it-alls crowed over Cliburn’s retirement, at least he knew when enough was enough. That can’t be said for many of the intellectual crowd’s pantheon of musical heroes – including Claudio Arrau and Rudolf Serkin, great artists who should have left the stage years before they did. Then there are those who shouldn’t have begun in the first place.
Cliburn attempted several comebacks, but it was never really the same. When he admonished contestants at his competitions to only engage in a performing career if it was something “you feel you HAVE to do, FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE” one could sense his warning was directed backwards in time to the man in the mirror.
Cliburn, or Vanya as he was called by the Russians who adored him, was more than just a pianist. He harkened back to an era when a musician was thought of as almost a higher form of life than we ordinary humans. Cliburn’s performance of Moscow Nights at the 1987 Reagan-Gorbachev Summit may have done more to thaw the cold war than the START Treaty.
As with Van Cliburn’s heroes and friends Horowitz and Rubinstein, his recordings will live on after him. Fortunately, his recorded legacy has been treated with respect and his complete recordings were recently reissued. But recordings can present, at best, an incomplete picture. Those who were lucky enough to hear him in person (I wasn’t) will carry the treasurable memories of an American icon.