By Judd Hambrick
Special to the Daily Journal
New York, N.Y., May 21, 1958: Ticker tape parades along Broadway are generally reserved for military heroes, sports greats or even popular politicians. But, for the first time in history, 200,000 New Yorkers enthusiastically threw tons of confetti yesterday to honor a totally different type celebrity – a classical musician named Van Cliburn.
The tall, lanky 23-year-old piano prodigy from Kilgore, Texas, has returned home to the United States triumphantly after winning the first-ever International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow last month. The magnitude of this piano victory for Cliburn must be placed in historical perspective to understand the significance of yesterday’s parade.
This international music competition in Moscow that Cliburn won, drawing classical musicians from 19 countries, is obviously named after Russia’s most influential composer, Pyotr Tchaikovsky. There is little question Russia created this competition to display for the entire world the Soviet’s cultural superiority in music, just as they have been proving their superiority in science and technology over the past year.
In recent months, Americans have been stunned into believing the Soviets dominate us in all technology, including nuclear advancements. And, it’s not like we have not been trying.
Last October, Russia launched Sputnik I into orbit. So, they beat the United States into space. One month later, they launched Sputnik II, carrying a dog into space. The U.S. is not even off the ground yet. The world is watching as America is being thoroughly trounced in the space race by a powerful perceived enemy. As a nation, we have been feeling depressed and vulnerable here of late. The Soviets, on the other hand, are puffed with pride.
Enter Van Cliburn, stage right. Armed with only his interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s 1st Concerto and Rachmaninoff’s 3rd Concerto, he made the Russians break down and cry in the Great Hall of the venerable Moscow Conservatory, including Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. Cliburn did not bring them to their knees exactly. On the contrary, he brought them to their feet with adoration, respect and an eight-minute tearful standing ovation.
But, when the applause died down, the Russian judges were in a quandary. Cliburn was clearly the winner, but what about Russian superiority? The judges went up to Khrushchev’s private box in the conservatory “to seek his counsel.”
Khrushchev asked, “Is he the best?” The judges said unequivocally, “Yes.” Khrushchev said, “Then, give him the prize.”
So, Van Cliburn, the quintessential American success story who was taught piano by his mother from age 3 and who practiced hours and hours everyday of his life, beat the Soviets in their own hometown with their own classical music tradition. Radio Moscow called him “the American Sputnik developed in secret.”
This lone classical pianist from rural East Texas seems to have unlocked the Iron Curtain and America’s pride in itself with 88 black and white keys. Quite an accomplishment. A ticker tape parade is the least we could do!
America eventually won the space race. And today the man recognized as the greatest classical pianist of the 20th Century and, perhaps, any century, lives in Ft. Worth, Texas, and celebrates his 75th birthday in July.
Even today, Cliburn continues to out perform the Russians. Every four years, he hosts what the world now feels is the premier classical music competition on earth – the Cliburn International Piano Competition in Ft. Worth.
Cliburn’s recording of Tchaikovsky’s 1st Concerto has sold more than three million copies in the intervening years, making it triple platinum, and making it the most successful classical recording ever. Normally, selling 5,000 copies is considered a success in classical music.
Cliburn is a gifted piano genius who could channel an incredible array of emotions from his mind, to his fingertips, to the key board. Genuinely, one of the greatest intuitive musicians of the past 100 years and an extraordinary part of Southern Memories for centuries to come.