For a great many years, the only books written about the pianist were The Van Cliburn Legend by Abram Chasins - a book that took many liberties with facts about Cliburn, and Howard Reigh’s Van Cliburn, which is better researched, but still rather one-sided. Within a year, however, there have two books written about the pianist. Last year, Nigel Cliff’s Moscow Nights gave a more in depth and comprehensive picture of Cliburn’s win in Moscow, as well as the impact he had on the musical world. This past weekend, I finished reading Stuart Isacoff’s When the World Stopped to Listen – Van Cliburn’s Cold War Triumph and Its Aftermath (Alfred A. Knoff, New York, 2017).
In this latest volume, Isacoff begins by revealing some interesting information about Cliburn’s mother, an accomplished pianist in her own right, as well as the young pianist’s upbringing. Starting at four years old, Cliburn had to wait on his parents at the dinner table, “as if they were guests, and then to do the same for neighbors.” Cliburn’s parents believed that this would instill a sense of humility in the young man, as well as prevent him from feeling too special. According to the author, “serving graciously became a life refrain”, and would affect Cliburn’s attitude towards his many fans and audience members. Isacoff writes: “This was especially true in the concert hall, where he came to view the audience as guests to be served, a notion that brought such attendant pressures it could turn routine musical occasions into ordeals.” Even to his dying days, Cliburn was known for his courteousness towards even strangers. Perhaps it was this attitude to please that prevented him from having an aloofness of spirit, something that all great artists need.
It was also a great surprise for me to learn that Cliburn’s legendary teacher, Rosina Lhévinne, was not the original choice of Mrs. Cliburn to be Van’s teacher. Cliburn’s friend and fellow pianist Jimmy Mathis was studying with the (at the time) even more famous Olga Samaroff. It was only Samaroff’s sudden death that led his parents to consider Lhévinne as Van’s teacher. As in the Cliff book, Iscaoff reveals how much Lhévinne was hurt by Cliburn’s failing to acknowledge her teaching – not to mention the many hours of free lessons he received from her before the competition – as his famed rose after the competition.
For me, the most interesting chapters were the ones addressing the socio-political landscape of the Soviet Union and the evolution of the Tchaikovsky Competition, as well as the chapter giving a picture of Russian society at the time. It was the year of Sputnik, when the Soviets were “basking in its scientific glory in the space race,” and they wanted to show their superiority in the sphere of music. The organizers of the competition were certain that the winners would be Soviet pianists and violinists. It was a common belief among Russians that in spite of great wealth, American society was “brutish and empty.” In that way, Cliburn’s love affair with Russians, from Khrushchev to ordinary men and women, went a long way into altering that perception. Both Cliff and Isacoff point out in their respective books that Cliburn’s win at the Tchaikovsky sowed the seeds of democracy that led eventually to Gorbachev’s Perestroika and the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
Isacoff also reveals some startling facts about Cliburn’s personal struggles with fame. According to the author, Cliburn came to rely heavily upon the treatments of Dr. Max Jacobson, whose patients included, among many celebrities, Marilyn Monroe and John F. Kennedy who was well known for his health problems. You can read more about Dr. Jacobson in many of the presidents’ biographies.
We now know that Jacobson’s infamous injections were a cocktail of amphetamines, vitamins, painkillers, steroids, and human placenta – a frightening pharmacological combination. Jacobson’s license to practice medicine was eventually revoked. It was also revealed in the current book that Cliburn had come to depend on astrology in making his personal and professional decisions, to the extent that “he did not make a move without consulting an astrologer.”
Cliburn’s eventual win at the Tchaikovsky, according to Isacoff, was far from a forgone conclusion. In the Appendix of the volume, the author includes the breakdown of scores for the pianists in the second-round which show that the race was very close between Cliburn and Lev Vlassenko, the leading Soviet contender, and Liu Shikun, the leading pianist from Communist China (who was to suffer grievously during the Cultural Revolution). It was only Van’s performance of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 as well as Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 that propelled him to the very top. If you listen to his magisterial performances of these two concerti in the final round, you would understand why. I believe that in that great hall, and in front of that audience, Van Cliburn was truly inspired to give his all. And perhaps nothing that came afterwards would match the intensity and inspiration of that moment.
For me, Cliburn’s greatest impact had to be his elevation of the status (and financial well being) of concert artists, as well as, perhaps unfortunately, focusing our attention towards music competitions, and for its proliferation. There had been other American pianists who had captured top prizes at international competitions. None of them really captured the imagination of the world like Van Cliburn did.
If you were to ask pianists or musicians to name their favourite pianists, probably very few would list Van Cliburn to be among them. No, Van Cliburn’s place in music history is, for me, a result of his really creating for our generation this image of the artist as hero, and for perhaps bringing many people towards an awareness, if not an appreciation, for classical music. I believe that Van Cliburn would be for my generation what Ignacy Jan Paderewski was to the early decades of the century – an inspiring, even larger than life personality, more than a musician or a pianist.
Anyone who has an interest in music, in cold war politics, and in Soviet history and society, would find Isacoff’s well-researched and eloquently written volume a very rewarding read.
June 26, 2017