SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Van Cliburn thawed out the Cold War. He went to Moscow in 1958 for the first International Tchaikovsky Competition. When he sat down to play, Russians saw a tall, 23-year-old Texan, rail-thin and tousled hair with great gangly fingers that grew evocative and eloquent when he played the music of the true Russian masters - Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky and Borodin. Van looked and played like some kind of angel. The Russian pianist Andrei Gavrilov told a Cliburn biographer he didn't fit the evil image of capitalists that had been painted for us by the soviet government. Russians called him Vanya.
Van Cliburn won the International Tchaikovsky Competition against all odds and expectations and came home to a ticker tape parade like a triumphant general. But he told interviewers he didn't feel he'd conquered anything. He had simply played Russian music in a way that touched Russian souls. To know that these people knew all of this music and were interested in how I played it, that was such a thrill, he told us in 2008, on the 50th anniversary of his appearance in Moscow. They were sweet and friendly, so passionate about music.
Van Cliburn's mother was his first piano teacher and she made him hum and sing a piece of music before he played it. You'll know how to breathe into a line, he told us, because onstage we are the human voice. It may be a piano, but it's still a human voice. Van Cliburn's fame rivaled Elvis Presley's for a time. His recording of Tchaikovsky's first concerto went platinum. He played Madison Square Garden and the Hollywood Bowl. Over the years, Van Cliburn was sometimes chided by music critics for playing the same popular pieces over and over all over the world. But his friend, Michael Hawley, the MIT digital media educator and entrepreneur, and a winner of the 2002 Cliburn International Piano Competition, told us some will say he should have had a bigger career, while others will wonder how it could possibly have been any bigger than it was. He found what he loved and poured his life into it with disarming sincerity. He singlehandedly melted a hole in the Iron Curtain.
Van Cliburn died this week at the age of 78. He told us once that he loved to play music late into the night at his wooded home in Ft. Worth. You play alone, he said, while the world's asleep. Like Rachmaninoff said: music is enough for a lifetime, but a lifetime is not enough for music.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SIMON: Van Cliburn. You're listening to NPR News.