Van Cliburn, the people’s pianist remembered

When Van Cliburn won Moscow’s Tchaikovsky Competition in 1958, at the height of the Cold War, the U.S. celebrated the event as a political rather than a musical event. Those with little interest in classical music and without considered criteria to judge his playing rejoiced that an American had “beat out the commies.” His recording of the Tchaikovsky First Concerto was the one classical recording (in the new LP format!) in every living room. But although the general public initially embraced Cliburn because of the Tchaikovsky Competition, it continued to love him for years.

VanCliburnAnd with good reason. Here was a happy instance of an artist’s own aesthetic coinciding with that of the people. The man on the street, if magically granted the power to play the piano with complete instrumental mastery and ease, would want to play Cliburn’s favored repertoire—the big romantic concertos. He would want to play with rich, conventionally “beautiful” sound. And, most of all, he would want to lose himself in the rapture of the music, not think about it. Because of this shared aesthetic, Cliburn could gratify the mass public without pandering or condescension. Lady Di famously declared herself “the people’s princess.” Cliburn was “the people’s concert pianist.”

But more informed listeners, such as musicians, critics, students, and teachers, did not share the public’s unqualified enthusiasm. They were disappointed by Cliburn’s refusal or inability to expand his repertoire. Cliburn was certainly right to avoid highly intellectual music that was uncongenial to him. But why did he not, for instance, apply his elegant, natural, warm pianism to the complete Chopin etudes?

His authorized biography maintained that the musical intellegentsia were prejudiced against him because he favored Russian music over German music. But even within the Russian repertoire, he tended to stick with the familiar favorites. And the fluency and gloss of his playing could sometimes obscure the individuality of a work. Most musicians feel it is not just a source of satisfaction, but also a duty to pass their knowledge on to the next generation. Cliburn, however, never taught. When I started to ask a pianist who knew Cliburn personally about the causes of his early “retirement,” the answer was brutally simple: “Van is lazy.”

Who was right—the public, or the musical intelligentsia? I think both were. If you love him, you already know what you think. But if you believe him to have been overrated, watch his performance of Rachmaninoff Third at the famous competition (posted on youtube). Perhaps like me, you will be surprised by an urge to shout “Van! Van! Van!” with the Russians.