Van Cliburn and Romanticism
The music of the Romantics has always been my favorite type of classical music. Over the years, I have fallen in love with the music from this period. The music Chopin, Schumann, Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff all were among my personal favorites. The music of the 19th century always has always made more of an emotional impact on me. While the music of Mozart and Haydn is beautiful – I never felt the intensity of emotion or passion I feel when I listen to music from the Romantic period.
As a pianist, one of my favorite performers is Van Cliburn. Although we have talked a lot about the composers in class I thought we should pay a little attention to the performers who brought this music to life. What Van Cliburn was able to do with his piano playing is truly incredible. And I believe his accomplishments are not only a testament to his talent but also to the power of the music of the Romantic time period.
Van Cliburn was born in Louisiana in 1934. He began taking piano lessons from his mother, who had studied under a pupil of Franz Liszt, at the age of three. He moved to Texas at age 6 and then entered the entered the Juilliard School at the age of 17. In 1958 when Cliburn was 23, he traveled to Moscow to take part in the first International Tchaikovsky Competition. His performance of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 was celebrated by a standing ovation that went on for more than 8 minutes. When a winner needed to be chosen, the judges had to ask Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev where he famously asked, “Is he the best? Then give him the prize!” He returned to New York City greeted by a ticker tape parade – the only one ever given to a classical musician.
What is remarkable about this feat is Van Cliburn was able to go to Moscow in the middle of the Cold War and earn the respect of the Russian audience. He bridged the cultural gap between two countries. He gave Americans a boost in morale right after the Soviets had launched Sputnik. Through the power of music, people were able to forget about political and cultural differences and respect each other for who they were and the talents they possessed. His perfect combination of musicianship and virtuosity brought the music to life and raised the prestige of American classical musicians with music lovers around the world.
Here is a video of Cliburn performing one of Tchaikovsky’s famous piano concertos in Moscow.