The American Sputnik: Van Cliburn Heats Up the Cold War

By Tim RileyMay 10, 2017

The American Sputnik: Van Cliburn Heats Up the Cold War

When the World Stopped to Listen by Stuart Isacoff
Moscow Nights by Nigel Cliff

WHEN VAN CLIBURN, a tall, lanky Texan with a boyish grin, paraded through the confetti from thousands of screaming Manhattan classical converts on a gray spring day in May 1958, he earned the nickname “the American Sputnik.” The floppy-haired 23-year-old had won the first Tchaikovsky Gold Medal by serenading Russian audiences with such guileless Southern charm that he returned home to a Time magazine cover and an assured career as a celebrity musician. It was the last such parade for any classical music figure, and its complex meanings are explored in two new books.

The swoon greeting Cliburn rivaled that afforded to the 25-year-old Leonard Bernstein when he took over for an ailing Bruno Walter to lead the New York Philharmonic during a live radio broadcast in 1943. Cliburn’s fame was such that Elvis Presley, who had just shipped off to Germany on an 18-month army stint, watched his fan club rename itself in honor of the dashing young pianist. An American had triumphed on Russian soil, playing not American rock ’n’ roll but Russian music.

Listening to the recordings of the live broadcasts from Moscow, you hear an inimitable talent cresting at a moment of rarefied discovery. Cliburn hadn’t yet grown into some of the more serious works, but his takes on Chopin and Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky and Liszt were inspired. His long, delicate fingers discovered thrilling passages that had previously gone unnoticed, and the surges of blooming possibility in his sound sent shivers through listeners. His Moscow audiences wept at his innocent reverence and innate feel for the Russian musical ideal. In a decade when the unconventional Canadian Glenn Gould turned Bach’s Goldberg Variations into a best-selling LP, Cliburn assumed the difficult mantle of “young musician with a future.” From today’s vantage point, we can perceive Cliburn’s debut in its larger story arc and count his career a cautionary tale. From different perspectives, Stuart Isacoff and Nigel Cliff detail a combination of forces that prevented Cliburn from capitalizing on his initial breakthrough.

Perhaps Cliburn’s promise, as great as it seemed, proved inadequate to make him the healing figure Cold War audiences yearned for. The pianist plays a crucial role as both recitalist and soloist, publicly displaying deeply private, even intimate, poetic feelings. Moscow audiences thrilled to Cliburn’s performance of Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto, which erupted from him like a sprawling epic novel, full of passion and remorse. And given Max Frankel’s dispatches on the front page of The New York Times, the ticker-tape parade, and Cliburn’s successful early concerts with orchestras around the world, the promise he offered seemed more than enough.

But even before he won his medal, Van Cliburn’s circle worried about his prospects for long-term success. After he received the elite Leventritt prize in 1954, his behavior began puzzling even his most ardent supporters. He kept audiences waiting, sometimes for over an hour. He canceled as many recitals as he played. Later on, he took a full two decades off from performing. In retrospect, his career arc resembles Elvis Presley’s, complete with Dr. Feelgood booster shots (from New York’s Max Jacobson) and astrology mystics luring him down a self-destructive path. Instead of sustained growth and new conquests, his concert schedule was strewn with lengthy respites and creaky comebacks. By the time he reached his 30s, Van Cliburn was touring as a showboater who played a narrow repertoire to audiences expecting a wunderkind to dazzle them with Tchaikovsky (whose concerto is surely the most tiresome of warhorses). That ticker-tape parade turned out to be a gigantic trap.

Isacoff, author of A Natural History of the Piano and founder of the journal Piano Today, brings a vivid touch to his treatment of the Cliburn legacy, while Cliff, a British historian, presents a wider angle, portraying the piano world as a frenzy of liaisons and threading his story with larger cultural and geopolitical details. For example, Cliff meticulously traces the Eastern-European connections that influenced Cliburn’s boyhood in Louisiana and Texas. Cliburn’s mother, the steely Rildia Bee, studied piano at the Cincinnati Conservatory, where she attended a recital by Arthur Friedheim, who had studied with Franz Liszt, the first classical rock star. Bee followed Friedheim to New York, and later welcomed Sergei Rachmaninoff, perhaps the greatest Russian pianist of all, to Shreveport, Louisiana, soon after she settled there to teach. Both Isacoff and Cliff portray the overbearing Bee as the type of stage mother who seemed destined to raise a great concert pianist.

When it came time for the young Van (né Harvey Lavan, after his father) to attend Juilliard, after sweeping most of the Texas regional piano competitions, Bee pointed him toward Rosina Lhévinne, who, at 71, reigned imperiously over the school’s piano department. Lhévinne, who had studied at the Moscow Conservatory, seems to have heard mythic overtones in Cliburn’s playing. (Other Julliard faculty, as Isacoff shows, feared that Cliburn’s tardy habits and provincial rough edges might sink him on the international stage.) And that’s how this curly-haired Texan came by his Russian passion: it had been serenading him his entire life.

The competition jury for the Tchaikovsky Gold Medal included two of the era’s most celebrated pianists: Sviatoslav Richter and Emil Gilels, its chair. So when Cliburn enraptured Moscow’s audiences, and Gilels himself broke protocol by openly hugging the young player on stage, the judges faced a political dilemma. Gilels, wary of larger political forces swirling around the jury’s decision, knew the Soviet hierarchy might veto an American winner. Isacoff compellingly details the various backstage intrigues, revealing for the first time how Richter, the stern keyboard titan, filled out his score cards to throw his weight behind Cliburn, which helped persuade the remaining doubters.

Gilels ran the verdict up the flagpole, first with the Minister of Culture, Nikolai Mikhailov, and then with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev himself. Khrushchev, still reveling in his Sputnik coup (and reform-minded enough to have renounced Stalin’s atrocities), sensed an opportunity. Cliff reports that Khruschev, when informed of the jury’s verdict, nonchalantly inquired:

“What do the others say about him? Is he the best?”
“Yes, he is the best.”
“In that case,” the premier grunted, “give him the first prize.”

Cliff offers such a sweeping perspective, while Isacoff dishes so much dirt (including illuminating emails from Vladimir Ashkenazy), that you wish you could mash these two books together. As it is, those who prefer an insider narrative will favor Isacoff, while those less concerned with musical details will choose Cliff’s book. That being said, each of these authors presents a diligent account, with Cliff getting the nod for compression and elegance. Any self-respecting pianist should of course read both.

The bookend to Cliburn’s ticker-tape parade comes when, at 53, he appeared at Mikhail Gorbachev’s visit to the White House for a “Washington Summit,” in 1987. When Raisa Gorbachev requested the Tchaikovsky again, having fallen for the pianist years before, Cliburn responded with a reprise of the syrupy Russian song “Moscow Nights.” By this point, Cliburn had exhausted the passion of his youth, and seemed to be grasping for a lost greatness that had once flowed naturally from his spindly fingers. The East Room audience’s affection tilted toward regret — save, that is, for the ever-loyal Rildia Bee, who, according to Isacoff, gestured every tempo from her wheelchair. (Cliburn lived with his mother until her death, in 1994, at age 97.)

Cliburn certainly had chops. The question always was: Where would he take them? He never had much trouble coaxing what he wanted from the keyboard: he had huge hands that spread comfortably over an octave, permitting difficult passagework, and a kinetic feel for the hyper-romantic style. Combined with his mother’s formal lineage, and inspired by Lhévinne’s bold urgings, he was perfectly positioned to guide classical music through the political vortex of the Cold War era. Isacoff rightly points out that Leon Fleisher’s Queen Elisabeth Prize, in 1952, never won its recipient anywhere near the same attention, and though several of Cliburn’s rivals (such as the elegant John Browning) made better recordings, none had the same international fame or cultural impact.

When you listen to a giant like Rachmaninoff play Chopin, you hear a conversation between two masters, a dialogue between equals. In 1958, when Van Cliburn brought home his gold medal, he was nowhere near such a musical pinnacle. His highly eccentric romantic sensibility had allowed him to sail the most challenging emotional waves with ease and grace, yet few turn to Cliburn today for Bach, Beethoven, or much of Brahms, all of whom require as much intellectual as digital muscle. Tellingly, Cliburn recorded little of Mozart and even less of Schubert, two of the instrument’s most translucent poets. Isacoff chases down a priceless quote from Georgian pianist Eliso Virsaladze, a Moscow Conservatory pianist weaned on Cliburn’s 1958 playing, who found his decline devastating: “I believe the main reason is insufficient love for music,” she declared.


Tim Riley is an associate professor at Emerson College, in Boston, where he teaches digital journalism.

LARB Contributor

Tim Riley’s latest book is What Goes On: The Beatles, Their Music, and Their Time (2019), co-written with Walter Everett, from Oxford University Press. He recently launched the riley rock report audio newsletter. See his personal website, timrileyauthor, for details.


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