From childhood, the musician born in Shreveport and raised in the East Texas town of Kilgore seemed to channel the Russian soul, an affinity that was quickly obvious in that first trip to Russia. Max Frankel, then a Moscow correspondent for The New York Times, began to hear of Russian audiences at the competition that were completely enthralled by the one known as "Cleeburn."
"Especially the young girls were going absolutely crazy about Van's performances, heaping flowers on him," Frankel, who eventually became the Times' executive editor, said in 2008. "And there were long lines to get in [when he played], even longer than usual."
Frankel sought out another American in Moscow, Mark Schubart, dean of the Juilliard School.
"Is this kid really so phenomenal, or is this just another case of Frank Sinatra bobby-soxers?" Frankel asked him.
"No, he's a hell of a musician," Schubart said. "He's well in line to win this thing if the Russians ever let him."
After a series of historic performances before rapturous throngs -- playing works by the Russians' best-loved composers, Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky -- jurors voted to award first prize to Mr. Cliburn, first finding it necessary to obtain the blessing of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. Later, Mr. Cliburn and Khrushchev, himself a classical music aficionado, became good friends.
The triumph was front-page news around the globe and earned Mr. Cliburn a ticker-tape parade in New York City on his return to the United States, the only classical musician ever afforded that honor.
He eventually performed for every American president from Harry S. Truman on. He began every performance by playing The Star-Spangled Banner. In 2003, Mr. Cliburn was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush. In 2004, Russian President Vladimir Putin presented Mr. Cliburn with the Order of Friendship. In another White House ceremony in 2011, President Barack Obama presented Mr. Cliburn the National Medal of the Arts.
"He understood the role music could play in the lives of diverse people," said Robert Blocker, dean of the Yale School of Music. "He just saw music as a vehicle of hope. He lived that out, whether it was with [President] Carter or Khrushchev. I see him as being one of the world's great cultural leaders. The message he carried to presidents and to children was that music is important."
"Old when I was born"
Mr. Cliburn's path seemed fated, a destiny that he recognized early.
"I was old when I was born," he said in May. "I told my parents when I was 5, 'I am going to be a concert pianist. They thought I was crazy. I played in public when I was 4, then made my debut with the Houston Symphony when I was 12, and my debut with the New York Philharmonic, I had just turned 20. I had so much ambition, but first of all I loved the music."
He was born in Shreveport on July 12, 1934, to Harvey Lavan Cliburn, an oil company executive, and Rildia Bee O'Bryan Cliburn, herself a classical pianist with an impeccable pedigree. The daughter of a lawyer and former mayor of the small Texas town of McGregor, Mr. Cliburn's mother had gone away to study piano at the Cincinnati Conservatory, and then to New York. Her teacher there was Arthur Friedheim, who had been a pupil of piano legend Franz Liszt.
Rildia Bee Cliburn's piano career would consist mostly of teaching, and her most prominent pupil was her talented and precocious son. In the recent interview, Mr. Cliburn remembered his mother as a very demanding instructor.
"I was about 9 or 10 and she was taking me through the Transcendental Etudes of Liszt," Mr. Cliburn said. "She said, 'Oh, no, dear.' I said, 'I can't play this because I don't have perfect hands like you.'"
His voice became stern as he remembered his mother's reply.
"No one has perfect hands!" she said. "Everyone has problems. Your responsibility is to solve your problems."
Mr. Cliburn graduated from Kilgore High School at age 16, and from Juilliard three years later. Jerome Lowenthal, another American pianist and a classmate at Juilliard, remembered that Mr. Cliburn was famously innocent, even then.
"We had a class together in Renaissance music, and one of the things we would do is sing," Lowenthal recalled in 2008. "Van was special because he would always put a lot of emotion into it. I can see it to this day with his eyebrows going up. We were all too self-conscious to do that.
"I remember once meeting him on the street in New York. He was coming back from a Billy Graham evening, and he was very excited, and he talked with great enthusiasm and emotion," Lowenthal said. "He was just different than other people I knew. And he was a wonderful artist. He was the Van you know today, only much less sophisticated."
Well before his victory in Moscow, Mr. Cliburn seemed headed toward classical music stardom. In 1954, he won the prestigious Leventritt Competition in New York City, which led to performances with major orchestras across the United States and a debut with the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall on Nov. 14, 1954.
His playing also attracted the attention of Sol Hurok, a leading music impresario of the time, who became Mr. Cliburn's longtime manager.
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