July 12, 1934– Van Cliburn:
“I’m not a success, I’m a sensation.”
When I was a kid, I would study the photos on the covers of my parental units’ Van Cliburn albums and I would get that familiar, perplexing tingle of recognition and arousal. I mistakenly thought he had one name: “Vancliburn”… like Liberace. I even had the two pianists mixed up for while, except that Van Cliburn’s photos really held my full attention, while Liberace’s scared me a bit. My mother explained to me that he was a brilliant classical pianist and also a cowboy. I swooned. I then diligently practiced my piano lessons, looking forward to the day that Van Cliburn and I would play four-handed piano and then ride the range together.
Harvey Lavan “Van” Cliburn Jr. was born and raised in Fort Worth, Texas. He studied at The Julliard School at 17 years old. His talent took him to Moscow when he was 23 and what happened there propelled him to international superstardom.
The first International Tchaikovsky Competition in 1958 was put together to prove to the world that Russia held cultural superiority over the rest of the world after the USSR’s technological victory with the Sputnik launch in October 1957. Cliburn’s amazing performance at that competition’s finale, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto Number One and Sergei Vasilievich Rachmaninoff‘s Piano Concerto Number Three, was enough to earn him a standing ovation that lasted for eight minutes. When it was time to announce the winner of the competition, the judges were obliged to ask the permission of the Soviet leader Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev to give their first prize to an American. A most unhappy Khrushchev stated: “Is he the best? Then give him the prize!” His electrifying technique, focus, brilliant octave reach, daring examples of rubato, plus a youthful Amercian charm made for an historic performance. Cliburn was handed his gold medal by famed Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovitch.
“Jury members actually approached Krushchev to say, I know this is highly unusual but we actual want to give this award to an American. . . What happened was Krushchev gathered his advisors and there were people on both sides of the issue. There were nationalists who felt the medal had to go to a Soviet. I mean, why would you create a Soviet competition and give it to an American? It seemed absurd. And then there were others who felt that the competition would never be taken seriously, if it was skewed politically. And Krushchev listened to both sides. And he came down to the side of giving it to me… So, without Krushchev it couldn’t have happened. Russian Emil Grigoryevich Gilels (regarded as the world’s greatest pianist) said to Krushchev, ‘If you give the award to Cliburn, it may end the Cold War’.”
Cliburn returned home to the USA to a ticker tape parade down Broadway in NYC, a first ever for a classical musician. Time magazine’s cover dubbed him: “The Texan Who Conquered Russia”. The article gushed: “He may be Vladimir Horowitz, Liberace and Elvis Presley rolled into one.”
He appeared on television shows: Person To Person, What’s My Line? and The Tonight Show. He demonstrated his patriotism by beginning each performance with a little number we call The Star Spangled Banner. He toured extensively, frequently giving concerts for heads of state, playing for every POTUS from Harry S. Truman to Barack H. Obama.
Tall, dashingly handsome, with huge hands, and oozing talent, he became the first classical artist to receive a $10,000 fee for a performance. He played at the 1964 New York World’s Fair to a standing-room-only house, while the following week, Igor Stravinsky conducted a concert to a half empty theatre.
His recording of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto Number One shared the top spot on the pop charts with Johnny Mathis’s Greatest Hits and the soundtrack of South Pacific. It became the first classical music album to ever sell a million copies.
He became the artistic director for the eponymous Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in 1962, providing an enduring legacy, but his performances lost their freshness as his rococo style of playing fell out of fashion. His performances were inconsistent, his tone took a strident edge, his repertoire remained unchanged, and his interpretations became trivialized by his affectations. He also was a real diva, showing up late for concerts or cancelling at the last minute. Worse, he developed a debilitating case of stage fright, intimidated by the audience’s high expectations. Two decades later, at just 43-years-old, when most pianists are at the apex of their careers, he withdrew from performing and recording. Music critics wrote that he never had realized his full potential.
After that, he mostly stayed at home in Fort Worth with his mother until her death at 97 years old, playing and composing on the 15 pianos scattered about his mansion. He struggled with composing a piano sonata that he never performed. He became obsessed with collecting antique silver. Then things became quite queer.
In 1996, Cliburn was sued by his boyfriend of 17 years, Thomas Zaremba. Zaremba claimed entitlement to a portion of Cliburn’s income and assets claiming that because of “an oral and/or implied partnership agreement”. Zaremba said that he had assisted in the management of Cliburn’s career and finances and performed domestic duties, including helping Cliburn care for his aged mother and was therefore entitled to half the money and half of the silver. He also charged that he had been exposed to HIV from Cliburn and suffered emotional distress. Each claim was dismissed, with the courts holding that palimony suits are not permitted in Texas unless the relationship is based on a written agreement.
Cliburn called the accusations “salacious” but said nothing else about the case. Gracious and polite, Cliburn was also known to be notoriously tough to interview. The music biz had long been aware that Cliburn was gay. He and Zaremba had appeared together at public functions around Fort Worth, but in Cliburn’s four decades as a celebrity, the press conveniently never linked him romantically with anyone.
To the music loving public he was still the all-American boy. He lived with his mother and he was a lifelong Baptist who regularly attended church services. He did not drink or smoke. He always played The Star Spangled Banner. He always was to me, a more masculine, more talented Liberace… minus the glitz. I never slept with him, in fact, I never met Van Cliburn.
In December 2001, Cliburn received The Kennedy Center Honor, along with Julie Andrews, Quincy Jones, Jack Nicholson, and Luciano Pavarotti. I would have liked to have been a fly on the wall in that greenroom. The charming neo-con war-monger, Condoleezza Rice, a talented pianist herself, gave tribute:
“Van Cliburn possesses grace and power, the power of his music to build bridges across the cultural and political divide.”
When the news reports came out that Cliburn had taken that final big curtain call, few articles mentioned that he was gay, or had a partner, making him one of the most honored but non-recognized Gay Icons of all time. Cliburn was 78 years old when he left us in May 2013, taken by HIV.