Barb Caffrey's Blog

Writing the Elfyverse . . . and beyond

Pianist Van Cliburn Dies at 78

leave a comment »

Very few classical musicians ever become known worldwide.  Van Cliburn was one of those few.

Cliburn, who died at age 78 of bone cancer earlier today, was the first American ever to win the Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition in Moscow (then part of the Soviet Union) in 1958 at the age of 23.  He was a Cold War hero ever after, as well as being a symbol of how powerfully music can communicate when, seemingly, nothing else can.

Here’s a link to the Associated Press article about Cliburn, written by Angela K. Brown (courtesy of   It gives further information about Cliburn’s life, career, touring and popularity, and is an excellent overview of what Cliburn was all about.

But to musicians, Cliburn was about much more than mere symbolism.  He played in an extravagant, romantic way that nevertheless effectively communicated any style of music he cared to play.   He believed that people should be able to tell if music made sense whether or not they were trained classical musicians, because music was and is intended to move others — and it’s been that way ever since we lived in caves and played prehistoric instruments.

Cliburn played so well that nearly all of his “signature pieces” were recorded. has a list of his recordings, including a compilation of all of his known albums.  Mostly, he played well-known pieces from the Romantic period — composers like Brahms, Beethoven, Schumann, and Lizst — but he also enjoyed Debussy, Ravel, and some 20th century composers.

The Washington Post obituary for Cliburn reveals more information about why Cliburn rarely played in public after 1974.  Apparently fame was quite difficult for him to bear, as was the constant touring of his chosen profession.  Cliburn needed time to rest and recharge his batteries.

After that, Cliburn’s talent was still apparent, but his playing wasn’t as sharp or clean.  He sometimes forgot passages, which proves how human he could be (all pianists must memorize their pieces, and when you’re memorizing three or four pieces of at least twenty minutes in duration for a concert, even the most brilliant person with the best memory can make mistakes).  He was still a great pianist, but no longer in his prime — yet he continued to play, and give the audience excellent musical experiences, which was a testimony to his professionalism.

See, even a musician past his or her prime can still thrill an audience.  We tend to forget that, as a society, because we celebrate youth, sometimes to the exclusion of all else.  But Cliburn was able to prove that a musician of great gifts can still give something back in his performances, even into what most would consider to be an advanced age.

Cliburn’s recordings should help everyone remember just how much talent a young man from Texas had, once upon a time.  And how he did his best to convert upon that talent, even if not all music critics believed that he’d fully lived up to his potential.

Cliburn leaves behind many friends and a long-time male companion, as well as many people who adored his music and couldn’t get enough of it, to honor his memory.  Thanks to the magic of sound recording, we’ll be able to remember Cliburn and his major musical talent for decades to come.

Really, all any artist can ask for, upon his or her death, is that people remember him and what he did.  That’s the standard of success, when it comes right down to it . . . and Cliburn met that.

May his eternity be ever-bright.

Written by Barb Caffrey

February 27, 2013 at 4:56 pm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: