Thursday, March 7, 2013

Van Cliburn is Dead.

I wanted to publish something the day that I heard the news, but I decided to wait. I am sure you've heard lots of people talking about Van Cliburn the american hero from a forgotten time (the events that gave cause for his lionization occurred nearly sixty years ago), or Van Cliburn the frustrated tragedy–a good-natured young man who fell prey to his own popularity–but I want to speak about one thing. I just want to take a moment to say what Van Cliburn meant to me.

Foremost, I love the way he played. There are a few performers who really impressed me and whose playing I admire: Rachmaninoff, Richter, Lupu, Shai Wosner (a young Israeli fellow who made a terrific impression on me when I was in school) but Cliburn stands out to me because–now let me say this in the best way I can–for lack of a better term, he turned everything he played into a love song. That's the way I first described his playing when I heard it at the age of sixteen, and that's the best way I can describe it now. If you've heard him in, say, Liszt's third Liebestr√§ume, or in Rachmaninoff's third concerto, any Brahms and any Chopin Nocturne, you know what I mean. It struck me that the music of these disparate composers could all sound so beautiful when played by this one man. To me, every note he would play sounded like it was a warm, golden droplet fallen from the air around us and blossoming after gracing the earth like a gentle footfall.

Beyond just being in love with his sound, no aspiring concert pianist could remain unmoved after hearing about his controversial competition win in 1958 and coming back to the states to the greeting of a ticker tape parade. Granted, I don't think any of us pianists are delusional enough to think that they are likely to win such acclaim from a music competition again, but for better or for worse, the idea of competition winner-as-hero started with Van Cliburn, and has stayed with us ever since.

And you know, I think that's it. He was one of the few musicians that I always wanted to meet. Beyond his playing, he always gave the impression that he'd be a good person to get to know. And that's what makes me saddest. I'll never get to meet him.

(Well, maybe never.)

If you're curious about Van Cliburn here are a few places to begin:


  1. Van Cliburn's skill and execution were never at question. He was an effective and sensitive interpreter of (mostly) the Romantic repertoire. However, similarly to Byron Janis, being catapulted to fame proved to be too difficult to manage and cope with. His career become overshadowed by his 1958 and no pianist, even Van Cliburn himself, could top such an career apex. Van Cliburn's career never recovered from his limelight victory. Fortunately, his establishment of the Van Cliburn Piano Competition (which is coming up in May) has paved the way for artists to gain the recognition they need in a more palatable dose.

  2. Great tribute, Pierre. When younger, I was similarly captivated by the story of Van Cliburn's triumph in Moscow, and all of the attendent historical and political implications of that victory. So much so, that after endless playings of the famous Tchaik No. 1 recording, I was actually *surprised* by what I thought was even more sensitive and impressive playing in other recordings. Indeed, a lesson in the power and pitfalls of extra-musical concerns. Fame is an art in itself, but one given to far more vicissitudes and incalcuables than the devotion of rigorous practice and personal striving.

    His "Un sospiro" is truly a lesson in the brilliant intersection of bravura and genuine artistry.

    1. Thank you for your comment! In his recordings, he really blew me away, one piece at a time. I can count on one hand the people I've seen who hit 'em out of the park like that.