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When the World Stopped to Lis­ten: Van Cliburn’s Cold War

Tri­umph and Its Af­ter­math by Stuart Isacoff.

Knopf, 290 pp., $27.95

Moscow Nights:

The Van Cliburn Story— How One Man and His Piano Trans­formed the Cold War by Nigel Cliff.

Harper, 452 pp., $28.99

When Van Cliburn died in 2013, he was by far the most fa­mous con­cert pian­ist in Amer­i­can his­tory, al­though he had ef­fec­tively re­tired from per­for­mance decades be­fore. His had been a strange and com­pli­cated life. He was a bril­liant stu­dent at Juil­liard, from which he grad­u­ated in 1954, won a cou­ple of pres­ti­gious prizes, and made his de­but with the New York Phil­har­monic at Carnegie Hall. But his ca­reer stalled, and he went home to Kil­gore, Texas, to live with his par­ents.

Then, in April 1958, Cliburn, at the age of twenty-three, trav­eled to Moscow and won the gold medal in the first Tchaikovsky In­ter­na­tional Com­pe­ti­tion. The com­pe­ti­tion had been set up specif­i­cally to laud the su­pe­ri­or­ity of Soviet cul­ture, and was meant as a fol­low-up to the sci­en­tific tri­umph of the first Sput­nik launch. It was the height of the cold war, a time when the United States and USSR, both armed to the hilt, mostly de­nounced and threat­ened one another. Wil­liam Faulkner had summed up the mood in his No­bel Prize ac­cep­tance speech in 1950:

Our tragedy to­day is a gen­eral and univer­sal phys­i­cal fear so long sus­tained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer prob­lems of the spirit. There is only the ques­tion: When will I be blown up?

Yet this young Amer­i­can’s vic­tory was hailed as a bit of gen­uine good news by both East and West. His play­ing won over Soviet au­di­ences, the jury—which in­cluded such renowned pi­anists as Emil Gilels and Svi­atoslav Richter—and even the first sec­re­tary of the Com­mu­nist Party of the USSR, Nikita Khrushchev. The com­pe­ti­tion cul­mi­nated in Cliburn’s daz­zling per­for­mances of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Con­certo No. 1 and Rach­mani­noff’s Piano Con­certo No. 3, which Hein­rich Neuhaus, one of the jury mem­bers, later de­scribed as “the most phe­nom­e­nal events since the Oc­to­ber Rev­o­lu­tion.” Stuart Isacoff, in When the World Stopped to Lis­ten: Van Cliburn’s Cold War Tri­umph and Its Af­ter­math, calls them “per­haps the best con­cert of his life . . . an in­stant of artis­tic grace.”

The spon­ta­neous beauty of Cliburn’s play­ing, the mix­ture of im­mac­u­late tech­nique and urgent lyri­cism he brought to the mu­sic, earned him an eight-minute stand­ing ova­tion. “Van looked and played like some kind of an­gel,” the Rus­sian pian­ist An­drei Gavrilov said. “He didn’t fit the evil im­age of cap­i­tal­ists that had been painted for us by the Soviet govern­ment.”

Joseph Horowitz wrote in The Ivory Trade (1990): His lanky six feet four inches, his blue eyes and mop of frizzy blond hair, were rec­og­nized ev­ery­where. Peo­ple hugged and kissed him on the street, calling him “Vanya” and “Vanyushka.” He was show­ered with flow­ers and per­sonal me­men­tos. Women wept when he played, and stu­dents shouted “First prize!” Out­side the con­ser­va­tory, mili­ti­a­men were used to main­tain order. His pan­de­mo­ni­ous vic­tory, an­nounced April 14, con­firmed the pop­u­lar ver­dict of days be­fore. The Cliburn furor was of un­prece­dented, un­re­peat­able, in­com­pre­hen­si­ble pro­por­tions.

Cliburn, too, was thrilled with his visit to Rus­sia and would re­turn many times through­out his life. “I was just so in­volved with the sweet and friendly peo­ple who were so pas­sion­ate about mu­sic,” he later re­called. “They re­minded me of Tex­ans.”

He re­turned home a hero. New York City gave him a ticker-tape pa­rade, the first (and prob­a­bly the last) such cel­e­bra­tion for a clas­si­cal mu­si­cian. He was on the cover of Time, with the head­line “The Texan Who Con­quered Rus­sia.” In a pre­fig­u­ra­tion of Beatle­ma­nia, fans tore off the door of his limou­sine in Philadel­phia. RCA Vic­tor, then the most pow­er­ful record com­pany in the United States, signed him to an ex­clu­sive con­tract, and he recorded the Tchaikovsky con­certo (in fact, only the first of three that the com­poser wrote), which be­came the best-sell­ing clas­si­cal al­bum in his­tory up to that time.

In some ways, Cliburn’s life was sim­i­lar to that of Charles A. Lind­bergh. Both men were gan­gly young lon­ers from small mid­dle-Amer­i­can towns who fol­lowed their own stars and be­came spec­tac­u­larly and en­dur­ingly fa­mous be­fore they knew what had hap­pened. They both car­ried heavy geopo­lit­i­cal bag­gage: Lind­bergh’s flight across the At­lantic was hailed as unit­ing the Old World with the New, while Cliburn was cred­ited with help­ing calm near­a­poc­a­lyp­tic global ten­sions. Both men earned their even­tual front-page obituaries with a few ex­tra­or­di­nary days in their mid-twen­ties: for all of Lind­bergh’s ac­tiv­i­ties af­ter the Spirit of St. Louis bobbed and shook its way from New York to Paris in 1927, ev­ery­thing pales when set be­side the thirty-three hours of that solo flight. Cliburn at his death was eu­lo­gized as though he were still a beau­ti­ful young pian­ist who had some­how come out of time to die at the age of sev­enty-eight.

The con­tra­dic­tions within Cliburn’s per­son­al­ity, com­bined with his enor­mous fame, must have been dif­fi­cult to rec­on­cile.1 His pub­lic im­age was not an act: he re­ally did live with his mother un­til her death in 1994 at the age of ninety-seven; he was a de­voted Bap­tist who at­tended ser­vices at least once a week; he voted Repub­li­can, played for all the pres­i­dents from Eisen­hower to Obama, and usu­ally be­gan his con­certs with “The StarS­pan­gled Ban­ner.”

But he was also a gay man at a time when pub­lic knowl­edge of his ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity might have ru­ined not only his im­age, but also his ca­reer. Un­der such pres­sures, his play­ing suf­fered: “From the mid-1960s it seemed that he could not cope with the loss of fresh­ness,” Michael Stein­berg wrote in The New Grove Dic­tionary of Mu­sic and Mu­si­cians. “His reper­tory was re­stricted; his play­ing, al­ways guided pri­mar­ily by in­tu­ition, took on af­fec­ta­tions; and the sound it­self be­came harsher.”

As he ap­proached mid­dle age, Cliburn be­came in­creas­ingly reclu­sive and played fewer and fewer con­certs, can­cel­ing some en­gage­ments at the last minute and show­ing up hours late for oth­ers. In 1978, he stopped giv­ing con­certs al­to­gether and moved from New York to Fort Worth, where he lived in an opulent man­sion filled with pianos and an­tiques. There he spent much of his en­ergy guid­ing and pro­mot­ing the Van Cliburn In­ter­na­tional Piano Com­pe­ti­tion, which had first been held in 1962, while sur­round­ing him­self with de­voted women who guarded him fiercely. (At least two men lived with him over the years, but it wasn’t un­til his mother was dead that he openly ac­knowl­edged his long and happy re­la­tion­ship with Tommy Smith.)

He made a limited re­turn to per­for­mance in 1989, play­ing the Tchaikovsky con­certo in Philadel­phia to com­mem­o­rate the re­cent deaths of con­duc­tor Eugene Or­mandy and Fred­eric Mann, one of Cliburn’s long­time pa­trons. At that time, he gave a num­ber of in­ter­views, speak­ing with a courtly mix­ture of warmth and vague­ness that made him easy to like but im­pos­si­ble to pin down. (“You don’t in­ter­view Van, you ex­pe­ri­ence him,” a mu­tual friend told me at the time.)

He said next to noth­ing but said it very pret­tily. He couldn’t think of any com­posers or reper­tory that he wanted to ex­plore. Fu­ture record­ings? “Well, yes, I plan to make some records, but I haven’t re­ally got­ten into the plan­ning stage yet.” A solo recital? “I have some lovely of­fers, and I may well just take one of them up.” And so on. Even an in­no­cent so­cial ques­tion about whether he missed New York was hand­ily de­per­son­al­ized—“Well, New York is one of the great cities of the world!” Well, of course it is—but did he miss that great city?

It be­came clear that Cliburn, a for­mer prodigy who was driven hard from

the be­gin­ning of his child­hood by his mother, her­self an ac­com­plished pian­ist, now found it lib­er­at­ing not to play. For the rest of his life, he ap­peared in pub­lic only rarely, and al­most in­vari­ably on oc­ca­sions when the prin­ci­pal in­ter­est was ex­tra­mu­si­cal, such as ben­e­fit con­certs and vis­its to the White House. No­body could book him for the last three decades of his life. It was ob­vi­ous that he re­mained a deeply mu­si­cal pian­ist, but one who hadn’t done much prac­tic­ing in many years. Dur­ing his last ap­pear­ance in Wash­ing­ton, in 2004, he lost his place re­peat­edly in a Brahms rhap­sody and sounded stiff and clan­gor­ous most of the evening.

In the be­gin­ning, though, all was dif­fer­ent. Isacoff sums up the young pian­ist pre­cisely: His tone, like his char­ac­ter, was warm and en­tranc­ing, a “mag­no­lia blos­som” sound, as one Texas pa­tron de­scribed it. His hands could swal­low large por­tions of the key­board in a sin­gle swoop, and through them the mu­sic flowed as nat­u­rally as a spring breeze, its surges and ta­per­ings art­fully mea­sured, gen­tly gust­ing with a pulse that was both sure-footed and elas­tic.

And some­how, it all sounded con­fes­sional. Whether he was per­form­ing Bach or Rach­mani­noff, the piano seemed to be shar­ing in­ti­mate se­crets.

Not only is Isacoff’s prose evoca­tive, he is both a pian­ist and a his­to­rian of the piano. His de­scrip­tions are of­ten mu­sic les­sons in them­selves, as when he writes of Cliburn’s early stud­ies with his mother:

Her les­sons al­ways went be­yond phys­i­cal drills. Play­ing an in­stru­ment is more art than science, de­mand­ing not merely ac­cu­racy but the abil­ity to cre­ate a sense of en­chant­ment. [The pian­ist] Arthur Fried­heim re­port­edly could play some pas­sages with a sound that was not merely soft, but “eerie and fan­tas­tic: like a thing dis­em­bod­ied, afloat in the air be­tween day­light and dark­ness.” There are phys­i­cal tricks to such an ef­fect, which is ac­com­plished partly through sub­tle con­trol of the piano’s ped­als, the de­vices that can sus­tain the in­stru­ment’s tones in midair once they are struck, or soften their vol­ume to a muted whis­per.

Yet tech­ni­cal mas­tery is merely a start­ing point. Fried­heim told the story of how he was pre­par­ing to play Liszt’s Har­monies du soir for the com­poser when Liszt called him to a win­dow. “The slant­ing rays of the de­clin­ing sun...were mel­low­ing the land­scape with the del­i­cate glamour of ap­proach­ing twi­light,” he re­mem­bered. “‘Play that,’ [Liszt] said. ‘There are your evening har­monies.’” No amount of unin­spired, repet­i­tive prac­tice could make it hap­pen. Van un­der­stood much of this in­stinc­tu­ally. He had a nat­u­ral abil­ity to grasp and con­vey the mean­ing of the mu­sic, to an­i­mate the vir­tual world that arises through the art’s sub­tle sym­bolic ges­tures. It set him apart. Nigel Cliff’s Moscow Nights: The Van Cliburn Story—How One Man and His Piano Trans­formed the Cold War is an en­thu­si­as­tic pop­u­lar his­tory shot through with er­rors and sim­pli­fi­ca­tions. The fol­low­ing pur­ports to be a word-for-word quo­ta­tion from a so­lil­o­quy Cliburn de­liv­ered in River­side Park sixty years ago, im­me­di­ately af­ter pulling off his shirt:

I seem to want ev­ery­thing. I want to travel, I want to help my par­ents, I want to be a re­ally great artist, I want to go ev­ery­where, see ev­ery­thing, know ev­ery­body! And here I am—look at me. Go­ing nowhere, fast!

Does any­body re­ally speak like this, out­side of first-se­mes­ter classes in writ­ing for the stage?

There are many more such howlers. Cliff refers to the “crash­ing open­ing octets” of the Tchaikovsky con­certo (he surely meant “oc­taves”). Later, we are told that “as the melodies weaved to­gether, the mood was bit­ter­sweet, like Anna Karen­ina.” (But not like War and Peace or Res­ur­rec­tion, or any­thing by Chekhov or Tur­genev, of course.) Writ­ing about Cliburn’s prepa­ra­tion for the three-move­ment Rach­mani­noff Piano Con­certo No. 3, Cliff in­dulges in some cu­ri­ous telepa­thy: “To his mind, the liq­uid work was a one-act opera in which the soloist took all the roles.” At other times, the author slips into lame Mr. Doo­ley-isms, as when he quotes an ex­as­per­ated New York cab­bie: “What’s goin’ on here?... A pa­rade? Fer the piano player?”

Both books ex­am­ine the in­tri­cate power pol­i­tics be­hind Cliburn’s 1958 tri­umph, from dis­cus­sions in New York conservatories and book­ing of­fices through the rank­ings of the Moscow judges, who found it nec­es­sary to ob­tain Khrushchev’s ap­proval of Cliburn’s vic­tory be­fore it could be made of­fi­cial. It has been said that mu­sic is both a glo­ri­ous art and a dif­fi­cult busi­ness. Juil­liard’s pres­i­dent, the com­poser Wil­liam Schu­man (re­ferred to with weird in­for­mal­ity as “Bill Schu­man” through­out Cliff’s bi­og­ra­phy), had dis­tinctly mixed feel­ings about Cliburn’s tri­umph in Moscow: “Like many mu­sic pro­fes­sion­als, he found all the sen­sa­tion­al­ism— the fran­tic scram­bling for the lime­light, as well as the po­lit­i­cal pos­tur­ing— odi­ous,” Isacoff ob­serves. Cliburn’s sud­den “movie star” fame also ir­ri­tated many older mu­si­cians. Arthur Ru­bin­stein was one of the grum­blers: when Cliburn’s fees for a per­for­mance reached $5,000, the older pian­ist raised his own to $6,000.2

Schuyler Chapin, whose ca­reer in arts ad­min­is­tra­tion led all the way to the di­rec­tor­ship of the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera, knew and worked with Cliburn early on. He called the pian­ist’s life “a tragedy in the grand sense”:

This is a man of ba­si­cally ter­rific in­stincts, car­ing about peo­ple, a be­lief in spir­i­tual val­ues, a God­given tal­ent to com­mu­ni­cate, not a bone in his body of nas­ti­ness. He was an in­no­cent—a kind of artis­tic Billy Budd. What hap­pened?

It seems that what hap­pened was that Cliburn sim­ply stopped grow­ing, as though he was trapped in a cre­ative sta­sis like a bug in am­ber. One thinks of James O’Neill, a dis­tin­guished ac­tor who was the fa­ther of Eugene O’Neill. In later life, he only took on one role— Du­mas’s Ed­mond Dan­tès in The Count of Monte Cristo—and even­tu­ally played it more than six thousand times around the world. He made a great deal of money, but re­proached him­self for what he con­sid­ered the squan­der­ing of his gifts. Like­wise, Cliburn re­turned again and again to the Tchaikovsky con­certo, long af­ter he had ceased to have fresh in­sights into it.

In 1987, Cliburn gave a lengthy in­ter­view to John David­son, a writer for Texas Monthly, in which he dis­cussed his in­abil­ity to part with any me­men­tos of the past, no mat­ter how triv­ial. (At that point, he had de­voted two rooms in his Fort Worth house solely to lug­gage from his early tours.) The sub­ject turned to flow­ers, and Cliburn spoke of the days when he would buy him­self flow­ers with the money he had been given for lunch, con­fess­ing that he had kept most of them.

“The odd thing about me is that I en­joy flow­ers as much when they get old and dried out as when they were fresh,” he con­tin­ued. “I don’t know—I just look at those flow­ers, and in my mind, I still see the beauty they once had. I never threw any of them away.”

Van Cliburn per­form­ing in the Great Hall of the Moscow Con­ser­va­tory dur­ing the first Tchaikovsky In­ter­na­tional Com­pe­ti­tion, which he won, April 1958

Van Cliburn be­ing con­grat­u­lated by Nikita Khrushchev at the Krem­lin, April 1958. Be­tween them is the in­ter­preter Vik­tor Sukho­drev; at right is Jane Thomp­son, wife of the Amer­i­can am­bas­sador.

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