From the Archives: An American in Moscow

  • Van Cliburn rehearses with an Interlochen ensemble in 1972.

  • Van Cliburn (right) meet Joe Maddy (center) and George Wilson (left) during the summer of 1961.

  • Van Cliburn rehearses with the World Youth Symphony Orchestra in 1961.

  • Van Cliburn meets with students in 1961.

  • Van Cliburn (right) responds to the applause after his final performance with the World Youth Symphony Orchestra in 2006.

On April 13, 1958, Texan pianist Van Cliburn won the inaugural International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, Russia. Cliburn’s monumental victory, which celebrates its 60th anniversary today, would have tremendous implications for classical music, Interlochen and the world.

In the late 1950s, Russia and several Western nations, including the United States, were in the midst of the Cold War. For several years, Russia and the Western nations had been engaged in a non-military struggle to prove their military power and cultural superiority. In October of 1957, Russia shocked the world by launching the first successful satellite, Sputnik I. The inaugural International Tchaikovsky Competition, scheduled just months after the launch of Sputnik I, was intended to further showcase Russian superiority to the watching Western world.

It was in this uncertain climate that Van Cliburn travelled to Moscow, Russia to compete in the International Tchaikovsky Competition. During the preliminary rounds, Cliburn quickly became a favorite of the Russian audiences. In the final round of competition, his performance of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 was greeted by an eight-minute standing ovation and chants of “first prize, first prize!” from the audience. The judges agreed with the audience’s choice, but feared the ramifications of granting an American the victory, and asked Russian Federation president Nikita Khrushchev for permission to give Cliburn the prize. "Is he the best?” Khrushchev reportedly said. “Then give him the prize!”

Cliburn returned home to a ticker-tape parade and a Time headline pronouncing him “The Texan Who Conquered Russia.” Surprisingly, the people of Russia were equally pleased by Cliburn’s victory: As New York Times correspondent Max Frankel would later write, “The Soviet public celebrated Cliburn not only for his artistry but for his nationality; affection for him was a safe expression of affection for America.”

Russian citizens showered him in flowers and fan mail, and some would even embrace him in the streets. The feeling was mutual. “I was just so involved with the sweet and friendly people who were so passionate about music,” Cliburn said of the Russians in an interview. “They reminded me of Texans.”

The cultural significance of his triumph launched Cliburn to overnight fame and made him one of the most sought-after musicians on the classical music circuit. In 1961, Joe Maddy, eager to raise the profile of the National Music Camp, sought to bring Cliburn to campus to perform a benefit concert on campus. Maddy found an ally in his endeavor in Cliburn’s mother, Rildia Bee O’Bryan, a noted piano teacher who had met Maddy when she sent several of her students to the National Music Camp years earlier. O’Bryan called Cliburn to extend Maddy’s invitation to play at Interlochen and prevailed against her son’s objections that he was too busy with prior engagements. Cliburn finally agreed, with great reluctance, out of affection for his mother.

A few months later, just before the start of Camp, Maddy called Cliburn to work out the details of the performance. For Cliburn, it was his first direct contact with the institution. He would later recall his first experiences with Interlochen in the forward of Norma Lee Browning’s book “Joe Maddy of Interlochen”:

That summer, just before the music camp opened, Dr. Maddy telephoned me to discuss the program. He said the students wanted me to play the Tchaikovsky B-Flat Minor Concerto, and he told me I would be accompanied by a hundred-and-eighty-piece high school orchestra.

After recovering from the shock, I managed to inquire, “Did you say one hundred and eighty?”

“That’s right,” he said matter-of-factly.

“What are you going to use for amplification—for sound?” I asked thinking of one piano amidst the din of nearly two hundred amateur musicians.

“Oh, don’t worry about a thing,” Dr. Maddy replied.” Everything will be all right.”

Between then and the time I arrived at Interlochen, I was frantic. I had never had occasion to play with a high school orchestra. Never had I been accompanied by a throng of young student musicians. So it was with the greatest trepidation and bewilderment that I sat down for our first rehearsal, taking my place at the piano in front of those earnest and silent hundred and eighty youngsters in their blue corduroy uniforms.

When it was finished, I knew that here was something quite extraordinary. These young musicians, still in their teens, would do credit to some of our professional symphony orchestras. I felt like sitting down and immediately writing recommendations for some of them.

A few days later, Cliburn performed alongside those hundred-and-eighty youngsters, establishing a tradition that would continue for 18 years. Cliburn would actually perform two concerts on each visit: the public benefit concert and a private concert for the students and faculty of Interlochen. Cliburn would routinely stay onstage for hours after these concerts to meet with and sign autographs for each member of the orchestra.

In 1978, following the death of his father, Cliburn partially retired from public life and performance. He remained an active presence at Interlochen, joining the Board of Trustees in 1962 and serving until 2004. Cliburn also frequently sent the winners of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition to perform with the World Youth Symphony Orchestra in his stead. He made his final appearance with the World Youth Symphony Orchestra in 2006.

In 2013, after a six-month battle with prostate cancer, Van Cliburn passed away on Feb. 27. His death was mourned by classical music lovers around the world, but especially those in Russia and Interlochen.

Five years after his death, Cliburn’s life continues to be a testimony to the unifying power of the arts. “I am no politician.” Cliburn wrote in “Joe Maddy of Interlochen.” “I am a pianist, an American from Kilgore, Texas, who has had the privilege and the responsibility of playing for many peoples of the world. And of this I am sure: If there is a universal language, it is music.”

We invite you to celebrate Cliburn’s legacy with these historic recordings of his performances at Interlochen Arts Camp.

Van Cliburn recordings

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