Hearing Van Cliburn was the greatest disappointment of my life. It was, I think, in 1977, that he came to play a recital in Vancouver. He appeared at 8:30 for a recital advertised to begin at 8:00. An announcement was made that his plane was late. I remember only two items from the concert – Mozart’s Sonata in C major, K. 330, a work he played at the 1958 Tchaikovsky competition, and Beethoven’s Sonata in C minor, Op. 13. The playing was clean but colourless and without excitement. After the inevitable standing ovation that greeted him at the end of the performance, Cliburn obligingly gave several encores before the end of the evening.
I left the hall thinking, “This was Van Cliburn?”
It is only much later that I found out that Cliburn was having one of the most difficult times of his life. His father had died, and so did Sol Hurok, his long time manager, as well as Rosina Lhévinne, his beloved teacher in Julliard. And he was tired, tired of the endless tour, and tired, perhaps of having to constantly live up to everyone’s near impossible expectations of him. He retired from concert life in 1978, about a year after his appearance in Vancouver.
There haven’t been many books written about Van Cliburn. The biography about the pianist by Howard Reich is a good starting point. Certainly the very private Cliburn would not have encouraged potential biographers. Nigel Cliff’s latest book - Moscow Nights – the Van Cliburn Story – How One Man and His Piano Transformed the Cold War (Harper Collins, 2016) – is a welcomed addition to the literature.
I could not put down Cliff’s book once I delved into it, a fascinating re-visiting of the pianist’s life and career, set against the backdrop of the height of the Soviet-United States rivalry as superpowers. Part biography, and part Cold War history, it certainly made for a great read.
I loved the pacing of the author’s storytelling, and how he alternates important chapters in Cliburn’s life with important events in the Cold War – Stalin’s death and Khrushchev’s “thaw”, his secret speech denouncing Stalin’s cult of personality, Sputnik, Gary Powers and the shooting down of the U2 over Soviet air space, the Cuban Missile Crisis, as well as the relationship between various U.S. presidents and the Soviets. Regardless of periods of even severe hostility between the two nations, Van Cliburn was always greeted in the Soviet Union as a native son, to the extent of arousing the suspicions of the FBI and J. Edgar Hoover – we mustn’t forget that this was the time of the “Red scare.” Not surprisingly, Cliff reveals that both the FBI and the KGB had files on Cliburn.
Although relying heavily on Howard Reich’s Cliburn biography, Cliff also revealed many new details that I had not known. Cliff gives us many more details about the intrigues of the competition, about Cliburn’s relationship with the other contestants, as well as how members of the jury viewed him. I had also not realized Rosina Lhévinne’s resentment at not having heard from Cliburn personally after he won the Tchaikovsky, and how Cliburn hadn’t even offered to pay her back for all the (free) extra lessons she had given him before the competition. To me, what was especially revealing was the pianist’s friendship with Khrushchev, and how his standing with the Soviet politburo fell after Khrushchev’s fall from grace, even though the Soviet and the Russian public continued to love him until his death.
I, and I’m sure, many others, have probably wondered – what kind of a musician would Van Cliburn be had he not won the Tchaikovsky Competition? With his talent and pianistic abilities, he would have had a career as a pianist. Perhaps he could have developed as a conductor, as he had already exhibited talent in that direction. But he simply didn’t have time to do anything else but play one concert after another, and play for one president after another. I suppose his win in Moscow had also been at least partly responsible for today’s proliferation of music competition, of young musicians’ mindset that winning a major competition would “make” their career like Van Cliburn.
As Cliff writes, “Fame had set him up to be the greatest pianist of all, and he could not quite manage that.” What person could? Cliburn’s mother had brought him up to be a Southern gentleman, a church-going, courteous, and somewhat idealistic man who believed in the power of music in bridging people. Again, to quote Cliff, “As the gears of international relations turned and, for a moment, clicked into place, he was delighted to play his part.” At the end, he remained an American icon, a symbol of greatest in the arts that the country is capable of.
At its best, Van Cliburn’s performances should be remembered for their transcendental pianism as well as beauty of sound, a throwback to the days of Rachmaninoff and Hoffman. Perhaps he saved his best and most inspired playing for his beloved Russian audience, an audience that accepted him for the artist he was. Certainly he deserved to be remembered for his performances of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff concerti more than having played Moscow Nights for Gorbachev.