Van Cliburn died today of bone cancer. He was 78.
My piano teacher was a teenager when Van Cliburn won the first ever Tchaikovsky competition in Moscow and became an international superstar. I think she had crush on him, one that started in her youth and carried well into adulthood. By the time she took me on as a student, she had amassed a huge collection of Van Cliburn recordings and these were presented to me and her other students as the gold standard of classical piano playing.
Consequently, today, whenever I hear any pianist play Rachmaninoff, Beethoven, or Brahms, I compare their performance to the Van Cliburn recording that rolls in my head. To me, Van Cliburn is the greatest pianist who ever lived. His voicing on the keys, his expression, his control–they define what I think classical piano should sound like.
News of Van Cliburn’s death has me listening to my favorite recordings today. As I listen, I find myself thinking of my father.
Today when we think of people who helped end the Cold War, the first names to come up are usually Reagan, Gorbachev, Thatcher, and John Paul II. From my vantage, it was a much bigger operation than that. My father helped end the Cold War too. He was a scientist who designed instrumentation to measure the explosive power of test blasts the Department of Defense performed in a ceaseless effort to keep the American military ahead of the Soviets. My uncle was also in on this. He designed giant Electromagnetic Pulse simulators for the Air Force, (simulators that still stand south of Albuquerque). There were thousands of people across America engaged in a battle of ideas back then, all of us aware that the Soviet Union was an empire hellbent on world domination, whose tanks rolled into every country that wasn’t strong enough to repel them. When my dad and my uncle talked about the importance of their work, they always spoke of how it wasn’t important so much that they were doing the work, but that the Soviets knew they were doing the work. That was really what it was all about. None of the weapons America made in those days were meant to be fired. None of the defenses were meant to be used. Their purpose was to just be, to stand out in the open, to be visible to spies and satellites. They were a giant Beware of Dog sign on the American fence.
People like my dad, like my uncle, like Reagan and Thatcher and Gorbachev–they are important to history because they made sure the button never got pressed. And while the decades passed with the missiles still in their silos, the Soviet Empire crumbled from within. It crumbled because of an economic system that wasn’t in keeping with the needs of humanity, and a culture that ever-so-slowly came to realize they were on the wrong side of history.
That’s where Van Cliburn comes in. He played so beautifully at the first Tchaikovsky competition that the Soviets had no choice but to fall in love with him. “Van looked and played like some kind of angel,” the Russian pianist Andrei Gavrilov told Cliburn biographer Howard Reich. “He didn’t fit the evil image of capitalists that had been painted for us by the Soviet government.”
Can you imagine? Someone whose music is so beautiful it changed an entire society’s perception? In the 1950′s, no American would have been allowed to speak to the Soviets about peace, love, and understanding, but that’s exactly what Van Cliburn did when he arrived in Moscow. His music spoke for all of America. He showed us at our best, and the people of the Soviet Union liked what they saw.
Today there are other artists who get even more credit for tearing down the Berlin Wall, and rightly so. But Van Cliburn was first. His courageous performance in 1958 changed the world for the better. In the end, it wasn’t a 50-megaton bomb that ended the Cold War. Nor was it a couple of powerful politicians sitting down in Geneva. It was many people, and one of the most important was a soft-spoken man from Texas with a huge heart and a remarkable talent.